The Wonderful, the Terrible

2009.  I came up with a rule a few years ago. It was one of my usual half-baked ideas to improve my life — like going gluten-free or overdosing on kale — that usually has the shelf life of a ripe banana.

But, no. This plan was a little better, I thought, a little more life-enhancing. At a point in my life when illness and death and grief weren’t the surprise visitors they once were, when the casualties were increasing among people I loved, the people I didn’t love, the total strangers in the obituary columns who were my age or younger, maybe I should do some things a little differently.

I wouldn’t stop going to funerals and hospitals, God knows. But I could make it a point to show up at happy occasions — the parties, the celebrations, the anniversary dinners, the weddings — with the same sense of commitment I brought to marking the end of someone’s life. Why not celebrate when I could, as often as I could?

One of the first happy occasions I insisted on going to was the 25th anniversary party for our old friends, Dan and Toni. It was in Boston during the summer of 2009. As usual, my husband and I could have come up with a lot of excuses not to go, since it was a long trek for a short party, and there’s never enough time and money. But I was brimming with the conviction of my new, life-enhancing idea, so we went.

We went, we had a great time, we drank too much, we toasted, we told stories. Dan and Toni were such a perfect couple that most of the married couples in the audience developed a massive inferiority complex in a matter of minutes. Dan and Toni basked in their mutual adoration; they glowed with happiness; they had two almost-grown daughters who were perfect, too. If we all hadn’t loved them so much, we would have had to kill them.

We went home. I congratulated myself again and again on my wisdom about showing up for celebrations. Hadn’t I been proved right? Our Boston trip had been lovely.

2013. As I mentioned, illness and death and grief are no longer the unexpected visitors they once were. But they still shock and unsettle when they appear, no matter how old you are.

My husband and I are back in Boston with Dan and Toni, this time at their house.

We have known them since they first came together, decades ago, as a young couple. We knew them as a couple in their prime, both with demanding careers and strong ambitions, bringing up a family. Now, we know them in their last months or weeks together. We are seeing how it will end.

My husband, who talks to Dan every couple of weeks, already told me that Dan and Toni were passing some evenings by reading aloud love letters they exchanged when they were first in love and separated for a summer. This, at least, is something Dan can still do. He’s almost completely helpless now, his body ravaged by ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which was diagnosed two-and-a-half years ago. He uses an oxygen mask connected to a machine to help him breathe as his lungs give out.

When Dan has to wear the mask, Toni or his caretaker position a microphone in it so that his voice booms out from a nearby speaker. His same voice, his same mind — sharp and witty and probing. Hearing him so minutely, listening to his regular breaths, feels as if we are all inside his head. We can temporarily forget he’s in a wheelchair, his head propped up, three of his four limbs useless.

Today, Dan wants all of us to tell him a single adjective or so we think defines us. Then, we will tell him the single adjective that best captures his essence. My husband comments that Dan never had any use for personality psychology before: What’s this all about? A single modifier that captures a person’s essence? Where did that come from? Dan tells my husband to shut up and think.

This conversation — our last, we know — is like that. By turns, it’s deeply serious, raggedly emotional, searing, brutal in its detail — then casually profane, acerbic, lighthearted, gossipy. After all, we’re old friends. In many ways, our conversation is relaxed and familiar, reminiscent of other times. We’ve been here before, right? No, we’ve never been here before. Not like this.

Dan thinks I’m worldly, which I think is a crock. I was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, I remind him. I can’t be worldly. Sophisticated, then, he says — another wrong answer. I want to be compassionate and perceptive. Nobody says that, though.

Dan says Toni is effective, which doesn’t entirely please her. She wants something more. He says my husband is curious; my husband is fine with that. Men are so easy.

And Dan himself? This is what the game is about, we all understand. Who is Dan to us? How will we remember him? How well have we understood him? Can we give him what he wants to hear? Will it be enough for him? We have to be honest, of course. None of us has ever had much use for artifice. Fuck artifice.

Witty, we say. Inventive. Intellectually curious. Playful. We go on and on, thinking, fumbling, failing.

How does he want to be seen? we ask. He wants to be clever, he says.

Clever! My husband and I shake our heads at this. Of course Dan is clever. Everybody knows that, which is why we didn’t mention it. It’s just that clever isn’t enough. He’s so much more than that. Clever’s a beginning, not an ending. We don’t want to leave it there.

The evening passes. It was, I tell my friend Marie the next day, an incredible time, both wonderful and terrible. The two were intermingled so tightly, you could never have separated them. Funny I had thought that you could only celebrate the unambiguously happy occasions. But this was its own kind of celebration, vibrant and gut-wrenching, joyous and bleak.

I would describe the four of us old friends as being agnostics — irreverent agnostics, at that. But that doesn’t mean we don’t find a certain holiness in our lives. Sometimes, we find ourselves surrounded by everything we consider holy — like a long and loving marriage, deep friendship, a shared past.

Clever, holy, however you describe it. Sorry, Dan, but a single word just isn’t enough.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Funny how even expected news can change your life

22 comments… add one
  • Marsha Canright Link

    I love reading your essays … but this was the most beautiful ever or the most meaningful or … no single word is enough. m

  • Oh, Ruth. This is so sad and so wonderful at the same time. Sad that you are losing a friend but lovely that you spent time with him and really, really talked.

  • Thanks for the reminder about celebrating life whenever there are opportunities to do so. So easy to forget~

  • Such a powerful piece. It gave me goose bumps.

  • agnostic or not, Ruth, I wonder if you know Carrie Newcomer’s song called Holy as a Day Is Spent? I think you might like it.

    one word is never enough, certainly, but then again, just saying a name is powerful. whatever your friend thinks about the next stage on his journey, I hope he knows he will be well remembered in this one.

  • Jenny Meadows Link

    Whew, what a ride! Holy, indeed. Thank you for bringing Dan and Toni to us.

  • Thank you. I was having one of those “stabbed by grief” moments, when you realise how much someone is missed and to read this was awesome. I just cried all the way through it, for you, your friends, me, my friends, and you know you are so right, there are so many holy moments that we can so easily miss.
    Thank you X

  • Steve Link

    Wow! (the single most important theological word).

    The single word that describes this experience of yours? Blessed. A word that describes the reader’s experience as well.

  • Ruth,
    Beautiful piece. So incredibly poignant.
    Thank you, Ruth.

  • Deborah Lee Link

    My mother died from ALS in 1979, and I took care of her for seven months. This is a terrible disease as the body wastes although the mind is still intact but unable to communicate. She and I had a difficult relationship when I was growing up, so this was a time of healing for both of us. As you say, it was beautiful and terrible at the same time.

  • What a beautiful piece, Ruth. Life is so heartwrenching and joyful, often at the same time.

  • merr Link

    All I can say is: Welcome back!

  • Chris Link

    Your latest blog piece was gripping and I felt I was almost in Boston with you. This was a highlight in your always well-written blog. Thanks.

  • Cindy Link

    Thanks for sharing this amazing moment. Reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie and the memorial service he held for himself before he passed. Why not be there when people gather to say nice things about you?

  • Wow, the poignancy of this took my breath away. You have a wonderful way with words, Ruth.

  • Craig Link

    I hope he reads this Ruth

  • Thank you for sharing this moving piece.

  • What a beautiful essay, Ruth. No, there is never one word that can sum up a person. I’m sorry about your friend.

  • Sheryl Link

    Ruth, as always, your writing has moved me. Tragic to see a friend suffer this way.

  • Christine Link

    Another here with a mother diagnosed in 1992 and then it was a hard-to-come-by diagnosis. I miss her every day of my life.

    My sympathy to you and your friend.

  • what a beautiful post. All the ingredients of Life: the terrible and the glorious. Many people are so afraid of death, they won’t have the opportunity to say good-bye like this. Your love and bravery are to be commended.

  • Your writing is so beautiful and touching. Thank you also for helping me (and I suspect others) learn how we can continue to love and connect as we grow through different phases of our lives.

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