Feb 27, 2021

What do you do when you are waiting for a friend to die and you can’t be with her? 

Is it disrespectful to find joy in the hilariously naughty magnets in the gift shop?  Do you go to work or walk around the neighborhood in quiet contemplation?

Really, what is one to do when waiting for a friend to die?

I got the call ten days ago from her husband, Mike.  “Shea, it isn’t good. I had to call you. You’re one of her dearest friends, and I didn’t want you calling her and her not respond.”

“Oh my God, Mike, I’m sorry. How can I help? I can fly out there in two days.”

Have you ever met somebody whom you felt connected to right from the beginning? Like you had to have been entwined in a past life? That’s how I felt about her from the day I met her. I was her Lucy, and she my Ethel.

She went by Mimma, a family nickname passed down by her Italian immigrant parents.  We met in 2009 while working at a doctor’s office. It was New York, so naturally, our boss worked us to the bones with no training, long hours, unpaid overtime, and no lunch breaks. It was a shitshow, but we had each other, and boy did we make each other laugh.

She amused me with her adoration for Jon Bon Jovi and thick New York-Italian accent. She surprised me when she poured my store-bought spaghetti sauce down the drain and effortlessly made fresh marinara from ingredients in my own kitchen. She giggled at my mispronunciation of the word “marinara” as it rolled off her tongue with charm and affection for the Italian language.

Having just lost my mom only months earlier, I delighted in their many likenesses. Their genuine addiction to all things chocolate was the most obvious. They were both artists in their own right. They could turn a simple dinner party into a soiree with their thoughtfully inspired tablescapes. They were creators of their environments. Weaving beauty and significance into everything they touched.

They cherished their homes and chose their worldly possession with care, loving every teacup and flower vase they placed on their shelves. They painted their walls with splashes of color that made them smile when they woke up.  They sought solitude and self-reflection in the bitter winters while curled up with a book in their favorite cozy spot, Mimma in her oversized chunky wool slipper socks, and Mom in her hand-knitted slippers given by Grandma Rosemary each Christmas Eve.

Mimma had spent her twenties in the fashion industry, loving everything about creative personal expression but very little about the hustle and bustle of New York City. She was a name-brand lady and was intrigued when I told her my wardrobe consisted of Goodwill finds. I was raised on thrift stores and yard sales and was loyal to them as they stayed within my financial means and were earth conscious. She had never been to a thrift store, but I knew she was a hippie at heart. I had an intuition that this born, and raised New Yorker needed the experience of quite literally walking in another woman’s moccasins.

I took well intentioned baby steps, luring her to Brooklyn with the promise of Sunday brunch and strawberry kissed mimosa. There we strolled through the charming brownstone stoop sales, a hipsters version of the all American yard sale. The next month I introduced her to the artist-inspired flea markets, then finally taking her to her first thrift store. A whole new world had opened up to her.

Like a child on a hunt for that one special toy in the toy shop, she was in the zone and magically found entire name-brand wardrobes for under $20. It was then that this NY fashionista began her romantic affair with vintage clothing and unique treasures like the leather purse with the hand painted daisies.

Mimma was evolving, unfurling her true inner-self, a transformation of sorts, I doubt it was her first nor her last. I  watched as she abandoned her people-pleasing personality of her 30’s, blossoming into her bolder 40’s.

While in a thrift store, she came across a pair of tattered, genuine leather cowgirl boots. Right then and there, she traded in her uncomfortable black ankle-high boots for ones that spoke straight to her soul.  The shoulder-length black hair she straightened each morning now seemed confining.  She grew long, wild tassels with glistening auburn tips, a sign of her desire to live by the beach closer to the sun.

With no children between the two of us, we spent many a Saturday perusing the artist markets. Before our feet would tire, she would stroll into the neighborhood cafes and sneak a peek at their pastry counter in search of the darkest, gooiest chocolate cake she could find. We would share a slice and talk about God, the Universe, and what we wanted to be when we “grew up.” I was 33, and she was 37.

We came up with hair-brained business ideas that were likely to bring in a profit to afford us a single happy hour cocktail, like the organic nut, seed, and chocolate snacks we marketed to nutritionists. We ate a lot of chocolate that summer in the name of product development. One phenomenal venture did stick, it was her baby, Sweet Freedom Jewelry. I deeply cherish every unique piece I still have and heartbroken over those I have lost along my travels.

When we moved from New York to California for Kaveh’s medical training, I was eight months pregnant. I returned two years later as soon as I had weened Grey and could steal four days all to myself. I left a second time, swearing I would be back again each year for us to laugh, drink and cry together. But the timing never seemed just perfect. I never returned.

“Shea, it’s too late for you to come out. She’s in hospice. She collapsed in the yard last week. She couldn’t walk, and two days later, she couldn’t talk. They said it’s the swelling of the brain, but we had to expect that,” he explained while fighting back the tears.

With utter confusion and as much tact as I could muster, I said, “Mike, I’m sorry, but I have no clue what you’re talking about. Why would it be expected that she have brain swelling?”

“From the surgeries,” he answered.

My mind raced with confusion as I thought to myself, “What is he talking about? She has breast cancer. Breast cancer, not brain cancer!”

“What surgeries are you talking about?” I tried to ask calmly.

“Shea, it spread all over her body. She’s had three brain surgeries. Just last November, they said we beat it. We walked out of the doctor’s office on cloud nine; we celebrated, we couldn’t believe she had finally beat it. But now it’s not the cancer; it’s the swelling from all the surgeries. They can’t do anything about it. I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe she’s really dying.”

“What the hell?!!! I know nothing about brain surgeries, “I said in shock.

I knew my response was crass and uncompassionate to a husband who lacked the energy to catch me up on the medical details of the past four years. The point was that she was in hospice and would be transitioning soon. I thought about not asking another question, just giving my condolences and quickly getting off the phone so that he could return to her bedside, but I had to know.

“Mike, I love me some Mimma but she is stubborn and has been pushing me away for two years. It was hard enough to get her to return my calls. When she did, she made it clear, she didn’t want to spend the time talking about her prognosis or treatments. She always said she felt good and she was on her own journey of healing. If I pushed her to tell me more I knew she would stop calling me altogether. So we talked about other things in life.  I asked if I could come out, but she always said it wasn’t a good time. She promised me I could soon”.

I was struck with guilty and felt a need to explain my ignorance to him. How could I have not known she had brain surgeries? What kind of friend am I?

Unable to have children, Mimma remained a constant seeker of life and experiences. She was a dreamer, an artist, a visionary. She started businesses, led artist workshops, designed jewelry, and fashion shoots.  By social media standards her life looked full, really, really full. The cancer had to have been at bay…right?

I thought about all the times I left messages, often taking her two weeks to call back. I didn’t want to bother her, so I stopped calling and decided to stick to the more socially “acceptable” texting. Friends, please don’t make this mistake.

Like my mom, she had a debilitating fear of flying, inherited by her mother. It was unlikely she would come out to visit me on the west coast even when I knew a part of her soul lived in the red rock mountains that back my new Sedona cottage.

My ego was bruised (might I remind you that ego stands for Edging God Out), but who was I to insist she remain my friend? Who was I to insist she make time for me? For me, she was a forever friend, but I thought to myself, “to her, I was just a friend for a season of life. I delight in her more than she delights in me.” These were my thought for the past two years.

Mike tried to clear his throat with no success. “She wanted to do it on her own. She didn’t want people to worry about her. I just had to call you. She loves you. You are one of her best friends, and I wanted you to know before she passes.” he paused for a moment, “Shea, it’s been four years. It can’t come soon enough.”

I knew those words. I had said them myself years ago. It was hard to hear them, but I knew precisely what Mike meant.

I was by my mom’s side through five years of colon cancer, two life-altering surgeries, three nauseating rounds of chemotherapy, and countless nights curled up next to her, holding her frail, bony hands in mine.

For five years, Mom and I had walked a hundred miles through her historic downtown neighborhood and old town Albuquerque. She carried scissors with her so she could snip the sweet smelling lilacs whose branches hung heavy. She was sure the neighbors would want her to have them in her kitchen window.  If wouldn’t matter if they didn’t because she was certain the flowers wanted to be with her, and she was simply obeying their wishes.

We talked about loving and living but never dying (It was the unspeakable elephant walking with us hand in hand). She introduced me to the teachings of Depok Chopra, Pema Chodron, and “A Course in Miracles.”  We walked into Al-Anon meetings together, and I first learned “The Serenity Prayer.”

We nibbled on leftover chocolate cake while basking in the spring sunshine on her back porch. We pulled weeds and planted purple iris bulbs in the front yard, resting with refreshing ice teas on the stoop, watching the fascinating people bustle by in the busy downtown neighborhood.

On hard days she napped wherever the sun shone through the window panes. Luckily, sunshine was abundant in her 1927 Victorian home, a rare gem in New Mexico. I covered her with blankets, tallied out her daily meds, and changed her colostomy bag when she would forget how it worked. I made her homemade meals that she either loved emphatically or hated passionately. We both avoided the laundry.

We laughed until we cried, we cried until we laughed, and like any mother and daughter, we did our fair share of yelling and door slamming. Life was real…we were real, and we experienced every bit of it together. It was sublimely beautiful and relentlessly brutal.

In the last month of my mom’s life, I watched in horror as cancer unexpectedly traveled to her brain. It happened overnight. One day she just looked at me and screamed with panic, begging me not to touch her, running to the front door crying out for neighbors, “Help me. Please, somebody, help me before she hurts me!” It was the beginning of the end, and none of the books on death and dying had prepared me for this moment.

Hospice had been visiting our home for months, but it was time for her to have 24-hour care from somebody that wasn’t her daughter.  My sanity was on the line, and I could no longer catch my breath.

I quickly found the best hospice facility money could buy. With a sunny wrap-around porch overlooking the Sandia Mountains and the city skyline, I had done my best.

There was no question about it. That was no longer my mom in that shell of a body. That wasn’t the real Terri Wenk. That wasn’t my mom.

Once again, I remembered her words, “If you find yourself in a bad situation, get up and get yourself out of it.”

My mom meant those words from the depths of her soul. And I knew she wasn’t just talking about sketchy dark alleys. She was talking about any situation; inappropriate coaches, abusive bosses, drunk boyfriends. Bad situations come in all shapes and sizes, and this was one of them. I was drowning in sadness and it was time for me to get out of the water.

It was early in the morning on a windy fall day just before Thanksgiving. I walked quietly into her room and prayed over her soul as she slept, begging God to take her as soon as he could. Then I kissed her forehead one last time and shut the door. I boarded a plane back to Kaveh and awaited the news. Three days later, while sitting at the edge of a bar, we got the call.

“She’s gone, Shea.”

I don’t remember who called to tell me, but I remember those words clearly. My mom was gone forever. I hung up the phone, raised my hands to my face, and cried harder than I had ever cried before.   I cried until I could no longer swallow from the lump in my throat, till crying simply ached too much.  When it was over, I closed my swollen eyes and slowly took in a deep breath. I could breathe again.  I hadn’t taken a deep breath in five years. I could finally breathe again.

My mom died with her oldest friend holding one hand and her own mother holding the other. In the end, she pushed me away just like Mimma. 

“It can’t come soon enough,”  I had thought those exact words, too fearful to say them out loud to a single soul.  It was time for her spirit to move on. Had she passed while she was full of life, I would have mourned her death for years, but she didn’t.  Instead she gave me the gift of her suffering so that I could move on in peace and acceptance. This was the single greatest gift my mom ever gave me.

I didn’t regret a single moment while I cared for her. As she always said, “Clean hands. Warm heart. Make no excuses.” I had clean hands. I had a warm heart, and I needed to make no excuses.  It was time for me to live my life. I knew in my heart that I owed it to her to go out into the word and live big and love even bigger.

My dear friend, Mimma, left this world on the morning of February 16th. I may never understand why she wanted to walk the journey without many of her friends, but she did, and she would likely make no excuses for it because she lived on her terms.

I love you dearly, Mimma, and I know you just got there, but my mama’s gonna be looking out for you. She’s a fun, bright-eyed redhead, likely wearing a straw sunhat and carrying purple flowers she stole for you. She has some thrift stores she wants to take you to and the quaintest patio cafe with the most decadent chocolate cake your lips have ever touched.

I love you both. See you when I see you.

Shea

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