For my 40th birthday, my friends threw me the most epic surprise party ever. I usually pride myself on having this sixth sense that those around me are keeping things from me, but not this time. I was honestly 100% taken by surprise. It was the best party anyone could ever throw for me.
But what's perfect for me doesn't mean it's perfect for anyone else. Discussing it, my friend Ginger explained she would absolutely hate being the center of attention like that. She preferred something small and low key, more intimate with less fanfare. And that's exactly how her 40th went. It was absolutely perfect for her. Perfect location, perfect size, perfect fun.
My friend Kim turns 40 next. You'll remember Kim as being referred to as My Rock. When the police officer looked down at me, hand on my shoulder, and asked, "who is your rock?" I answered, "Kim. My friend Kim." And we called her. She was at work but she answered. "Avery's dead," I sobbed into the phone. "I'll be right there." And she was. How she got to my house in the 27 seconds that seemed to pass I'll never understand. But she was there.
And she drove me to the hospital.
And called the others.
And she grabbed my shoulders and looked straight into my eyes and said, "you are going to put one foot in front of the other in a way you've never done before" when I weeped what am I going to do? I don't know what to do. And I trusted her.
And she helped find funeral clothes for my son because I didn't know what I was doing and she made sure there were black pants for me to wear because I didn't have any.
And she did whatever she did to make sure the 600 people who attended Avery's funeral were fed, asking her employer for donations and working with the church ladies she had never met before.
And she told me, "I don't care if you cry the whole way, but you need to get out of this house so I'm taking you to Galena." And she did.
And she's answered my hard questions, the ones no one really wants to go back to: "did I say anything in the car on the way to the hospital? Did we talk on the way home? How did that person know Avery died? I remember coffee, but I don't know how it got there..."
And she's not afraid to say Avery's name. She talks about her and remembers things that happened with her and she has her picture on their family fridge.
And, yes, she's turning 40.
When she talked about her 40th she explained that she wanted to spend it alone. Climbing a mountain. (This is where I tell you that she's climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Like for real. In real life. And I pant walking up the stairs from my basement.) She didn't know how it would happen: she's got two kids, and a husband and would it be fair to leave them and where would the money come from and she would need to train for it - because you don't just get out of bed and announce today I think I'll climb a mountain and off you go. There were supplies needed and airplane tickets and details to be hammered out, but, yes, spending her 40th climbing a mountain is exactly what she wanted!
I just don't think she expected what her particular mountain would look like.
Six months ago, Kim's mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Kim's mountain doesn't look like the one she had pictured in her mind. Instead, its ragged edges consist of chemo treatments and daily injections. Blisters formed not on heels from walking miles, but on bended knees praying for miracles. Exhaustion from trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the sake of her young children while organizing doctor appointments and prescription drugs.
The higher the climb the harder it is to breathe; the air too thin around the mama who gave birth to her as she lay ever weakening in her bed. Waiting, I suppose, for God to come take her home. How does one breathe deep enough while waiting for death?
My Rock is climbing the most unrelenting mountain of her life. We have talked, Kim and I, about death and dying. About losing people we love. We have asked the question is it better to know death is slowly but steadily approaching? Or is it better to be completely taken surprise by it?
We haven't come up with an answer. Both options suck.
Any minute now my sweet friend will say goodbye to her mother in a way that no one should ever have to. And I will continue to pray her way through. It's funny; you'd think since I have experience with this sort of thing I'd know what to say, but I don't. I just know that grief is the highest form of love a person can feel for another. We don't grieve people we don't know or we don't like. So grieving means loving and loving is good. But grieving is hard. And it doesn't go away. Even after you come down the other side of the mountain. I suppose there's some mountain climbing analogy I could insert here - I remember Kim telling me all sorts of stories about how bodies have to reacclimate on the descent... that people are often surprised by how easy the climb up was compared to how difficult the coming back down is. They underestimate the return to normalcy.
I hate that two years ago Kim was standing beside my daughter's grave and soon it will be her mom's. I hate that my sweet friend has to know anything about cancer and what it does to a treasured love. I hate that her precious daughter, the one who drew me beautiful pictures of Avery as an angel and who currently wears Avery's shoes to school has to feel a loss even closer to her sensitive heart. I hate that sorrow and pain has come knocking on their door when they deserve joy and sunshine and laughter and fun and long, lazy days with family and friends. I hate that after all she did for me during these past two years of my personal hell, she was ushered into her own.
You know that surprise party my friends threw me for my 40th? It was at Kim's house. If only I could find a way to give her a better mountain.