Footnotes to Life

I sit outside on the terrace of Christopher House, an Austin hospice, late this morning. Trees and an overhang shade the bench. Chimes ring softly in the hot wind.

Along the walkway, families, friends and colleagues have inscribed bricks to remember loved ones who have died. They’re smaller and more useful than gravestones — and they’re also more casual, like hastily scribbled goodbye notes.

Some, you can almost hum: “Brandie, You’re a Fine Girl!” and “You Look So Good in Love.”

Sometimes, they’re cryptic and wistful (“Sonny, everyone misses you. Especially me.”) They express gratitude (“Thank you for everything you did, Dad”). And longing (“Our precious little girl”). “Forever my love,” reads one, as a woman chats loudly on a cellphone and two men smoke and talk and a fountain bubbles loudly.

Who was Sonny and why didn’t “especially me” sign his or her name? Does it still matter? Does it still hurt as much as it did?

Inside, Christopher House is peaceful and quietly efficient. I already visited my friend Paula there and I knew I’d never see her again. I think of how I used to see her on the Hike and Bike Trail on Lady Bird Lake — tiny and graceful and fast. She ran like a deer, her husband used to say.

We knew each other because our son played soccer with her eldest son. Cheering for a team for years through the onslaught of ice and pelting rain and torrid heat — especially when said team managed to lose on a regular basis — that’s the basis of a good friendship. My family used to characterize me as a loudmouth, out-of-control mother on the sidelines, but Paula made me look bashful.

You always wanted Paula on your side. On a blog written by her friends, I noted I’d rather have her backing me up than the mafia. I meant it.

But now the games are over and the boys are grown and Paula and her fierce spirit are already leaving us. I finally get up and trudge through the implacable heat back to my car. A plane floats past, a fire alarm shrills, everybody moves slowly.

I drive through the streets of a rapidly changing East Austin. Here and there are intersections reminiscent of “The Wire,” nestled against new condos and yoga studios and coffee houses.

Everything changes. I know that. So why should it still surprise me? Everybody dies, too, and it doesn’t matter that this friend is too young and well-loved to go. I could say I know that, too. But, but the truth is, every time I learn it, it’s as if it’s for the first time.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Be sure to read: Save Your Own Damned Tatas


11 comments… add one
  • The first word that comes to mind in reading this is Damn. Damn it all. All of it.
    I’m sorry.

  • Cindy D. Link

    Beautifully said.

  • sticethompson Link

    They say that what separates Man from Beast is awareness of mortality. But it seems to me that across the millenia, people go to extraordinary measures to DENY mortality (c.f. ancient Egypt, reincarnation, Christianity).

    We were Born This Way, I think. A lot more like Beast than we’d like to think!

    I’m very sorry for your loss.

  • Beautifully put and a sentiment so many of us share.

  • Ah Ruth. I’m sorry to hear about Paula. I know it doesn’t ease the hurt, but you did such a beautiful job of sharing her spirit here. I’m glad you had her on your team.

  • A beautiful piece, Ruth, it conveys a universal feeling of loss, I think. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  • Sheryl Link

    This is so so sad. I’ve been there with way too many friends – ONE is too many – and the unfairness of it all never ceases to catch me by surprise each time, too. I’m so sorry, Ruth.

  • Oh, this is sad. I’m sorry but it’s nice of you to write about her like this

  • So sorry for your loss. We have reached an age when friends are dying. How well you expressed this sorrow. My husband has three friends in Sweden right now who may have passed on by the end of the year. Lung cancer, colon cancer, and liver cancer. It makes you approach life in a different way, doesn’t it?

  • It truly is like the first time every time. So raw and challenging. I always try to remind myself that it’ll get better, but when you’re in the midst of that feeling, it sure doesn’t feel like it. So sorry to hear about your friend, Ruth. You have an army of people standing beside you.

  • Susan Link

    Ruth, I’m so sorry for your loss. You write beautifully about loss, but I know that offers little consolation. I especially liked the detail about the little inscribed bricks.

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