This week I learned a dear friend has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. She is in the hospital but will not go home again. This woman is a friend’s mother, but she is more than that. When I was 16, my parents had divorced and my mum returned to her hometown in England with my younger brothers and sister in tow. I could have gone with her, but I didn’t want to leave Canada, I had lived in England for a few years and hated it. Plus, England was in a recession and there were no jobs and I knew that we would not be able to afford post secondary education, my best chance for my future at that point was to stay here. I was estranged from my father, so once my mum and siblings stepped on that plane – I was alone.
But I wasn’t – not really. I had planned to live with my friend Karen’s family until I finished Grade 12. I was already close to all of them, Karen and I were like sisters and I adored her brothers. Her parents were a little quirky, very different from my own, but they treated me well and were very kind to me. I worked part time and paid a token amount of rent and did some chores and helped with caregiving for the youngest child, I contributed as much as I knew how.
Her mum, Elaine (the friend who is now dying), was so exotic and glamourous compared to my mum, even though Elaine was about 3 years older than my mum. She wore jeans and red stillettos, died her hair red, wore makeup and bright lipstick, smoked, drank and swore like a sailor, danced around the living room to Duran Duran and Van Halen and didn’t cook much very much. She adored her children and showered them with love and affection.
My own mum was the complete opposite. I know she loved us but she was not demonstrative or easy to talk to. I could tell Elaine anything and everything and she never judged, she would offer advice if asked – but mostly she would tell a story about her own experiences.
She would ask tough questions, not to get answers, but to make us think.
Elaine helped me out of my very introverted shell and helped me realise that I controlled my future and I controlled my life. She taught me that heels always make legs look better and a pair of jeans that fit perfectly were worth a million dollars. She made me realise that it was ok to like boys, but not ok to like them more than anything else and never to put a boy on a pedestal higher than me.
She taught me so much.
Once I left her home to go out on my own at the end of grade 12, I lost touch with Elaine and her family for many years. When we reconnected, she welcomed me, my husband and my children with open arms as if no time had passed at all.
As I sat with her tonight and we laughed about the ridiculous hospital gowns, the hospital window overlooking a brick wall, why hospital water tastes funny, her lack of a pedicure, her grandchildren and those who have already left us….I realised that I never realised before how much she shaped my young life, and in doing so, helped to make the person I am today. I don’t know if I ever thanked her properly for being there when I thought I had no one else.
She is comfortable right now, pain medications are helping her get through her remaining days and nights. She is lucid and funny and so full of grace.
She is concerned about the children and grandchildren she is leaving behind and wants to make everything as easy for them as possible. She is not shy about talking about her death. She is facing it, as I have always known her to face anything – openly, graciously and with humour and courage.
She does not have much time left here with us, hours, days…at the most weeks, but she is determined to make sure our last memories of her are of her smile and her love.