Sunday, June 19, 2016

You Go On

Sometimes, people come into your life – and they change you. Such is the case with Mary.

It’s true – there is “something about Mary”. And I’m sure it started with her mother.

Norma and me, on her porch.
Now THERE'S a story. 
Norma was a force to be reckoned with, and though I was so very lucky to know her at all, I wish I would have known her earlier. She left this life on her own terms, but selfishly, I wished she would have stayed around a little longer.

It takes quite a bit to impress me, if you’re a person. Norma blew me away. I liked her SO much. Her authenticity. Her bluntness. Her wisdom. Her humor. Her insight. Her tough nurturing. Her strength. She took me in like an old stray cat and made me feel like one of her own. Selfishly, I felt I took from her WAY more than I gave.

I didn’t know Norma well – as in, I didn’t know her for a long time, and I didn’t see her often. I couldn’t regale you with stories of our trips together, inside jokes or “remember whens”. So when I make comparisons between Norma and Mary, it is only in what I have witnessed as an outsider with one foot on the edge of the inner circle.

"We won't get to grow old together,"
Mary said as we watched an old couple
walk down the street holding hands.
When I think of Mary, the same characteristics as Norma come to mind. First and foremost, her strength.

Mary lost her husband tragically this past September. Mary and Gregg were a good team. They complemented each other well, and it was clear to me that despite their mutual sarcasm they adored one another. Gregg’s death was literally one of those “and then he was gone” situations. I didn’t know him well, either. I met him in Peoria during Norma’s chemo treatments and visited their house multiple times over the past few years. My tears I cried when I heard the news of his death were for Mary. God, why do You hurt Your good ones so?

Mary’s in Idaho, and I’m in Illinois. We keep in touch primarily through Facebook. I hope she knows I thought of her way more than I contacted her between September and now. When things like this happen, your first instinct is to back away. “I don’t want to bother them.” “I don’t want to upset them.” “I don’t know what to say.” However, I didn’t want to back away. I wanted to call her and ask her every detail of what happened and what she was feeling. I wanted to hop the first plane out there and hug her and cry with her and be there for her. I wanted to check in on her every day and just ask, “How are you today?”

But I knew she had support. I knew she had friends right there, and her sisters who would come at the drop of a hat without being asked. And I knew she was strong and would not have much patience for what she might call pity. So what I told her was, “When all of this calms down – you know, everyone goes back to normal, but YOU’RE not normal – THAT’S when I’ll come out.”

Scheduling conflicts aside, I made it out there this past week. And I have to say, whatever admiration and love I had for her before then has doubled in size now.

Why? Because she goes on. The Mary who greeted me at the airport with that boisterous voice, big hug and three tubes of lipstick (inside joke) was the same Mary I had seen last time I was here – yet not the same Mary. There was nothing “wrong” per se, just a little “different” – imperceptible, but something that would occur to me time and time again during my visit.

Since her husband’s death, Mary sold the house in which they lived. It had been the plan all along – she had talked about getting it ready to put on the market the last time I had been there. But instead of building their dream home as they had planned, Mary instead bought something that “Gregg would have never done,” she said. An old, Victorian house, circa 1900, nestled on the corner of a tree-lined street and within walking distance to the quaint downtown, where residents and visitors peruse the little shops and enjoy dinner or coffee al fresco with a view of the mountains.

A labor of love.
The house “has good bones”, Mary says, and it does. While I’m sure it was livable upon purchase, Mary had other ideas, and by the time I got there, a garage and mud room had been added, the kitchen completely demolished, her master bedroom in complete disarray with the construction of a full bath and closet. Not to mention that the day I got there, the entire house was yellow. Two days later, it was blue. Workers were everywhere, led by Adam, who Mary was sure was brought to her as a blessing from God – or perhaps Gregg. He ran the show, was knowledgeable, efficient, detailed, communicative and pleasant. But what got him hired, she said, was that he told Mary “no”.

Mary will be the first to tell you that more times than not, she gets her way. She’s not a diva. Well, OK, maybe a little. But not in a bad sense. She knows what she wants and she’s smart about it. She had specific ideas for this house and it was obvious that she is an integral part of this construction team. While most of the time Adam’s response to Mary’s “This is what I want to do…” was, “Sure, we can do that,” every once in a while he’d say, “No, Mary, I don’t think so.” And Mary would say, “OK.”

Though she knew Gregg would not have chosen the house, she is adamant that he live there in spirit. Touches of him will be everywhere, and the workers are aware of the importance of this aspect. From the rolling island he built years back that will serve as a focal point of the kitchen to the old barn door he made that was salvaged from the old house, his legacy will live on here. At one point she told me, “I know he’s complaining about the house; the money I’ve spent and what I’m doing here.” In my mind, he’s looking down on her and saying, “It’s not what we would have done together, but you, Mary, you go on.”

It didn’t take me long, living in the disarray and dust and construction workers on the roof at 7 am, to realize that this house is a gift. It’s a gift to Mary that says, “You experienced one of life’s greatest losses – unexpectedly and tragically. You didn’t deserve to have this happen to you, but you are living with it. Not just existing; living. So live here, and go on.”

This house gives Mary hope. This house will be an ongoing labor of love that she can throw herself into because it’s something she does well and it’s something she enjoys. She has decisions to make, options to weigh, and a team of people around her every day to help her make it all happen. She says this is it – this is the last house she will have. She is home.

And that almost imperceptible difference in her? I understand it now. I remember last winter, talking to her on the phone, and she sounded so upbeat. I was discouraged with some things going on in my own life, and was just bewildered at how she could be so optimistic about life when something so tragic had happened to her. How could she go on without the love of her life? She said to me, “I think of all the people who only got to see him every once in a while, or who only knew him for a short time. I got to spend more than thirty years with him. I’m the lucky one.”

But the grief? How to grieve? “It’s there,” she said, “and I allow myself to feel it, but not for long.”

You go on.

At breakfast one morning, we talked. Though I was hesitant to ask some of the questions I asked, I had this compulsion to know. For some reason, I had to know the whole story – and not necessarily the details surrounding his death, but how Mary reacted to them. How she dealt with them. How she was able to go on.

It was emotional, our conversation, but cathartic I think for both of us. I now understood this subtle difference in my strong friend – this amazing woman raised by an equally amazing matriarch. It was wisdom, a touch of acceptance, and hope. Norma had taught her well – and Mary had listened. Life is life, and it comes with the good and the bad. That’s a given. How you choose to deal with the bad dictates how good it will be for you. And as long as you choose wisely, and have – and accept – the support around you, you can go on.

Mary's husband took this picture.
There is certainly something about Mary. She makes me laugh and she makes me think. She gives me a new perspective on things, like when I was lamenting that I didn’t have “a person” and she said, “You don’t need one; you have people.” Or when she insisted that I shouldn’t ever leave the house without lipstick because “you just never know.”

I left her as I had left Norma, feeling inspired, yet once again feeling guilty that I had gained so much on my trip and seemingly given so little. I left the house in the care of the workers – she had taken off earlier on a spontaneous trip her niece had invited her on – part of the “say yes to everything” we had discussed earlier. I left wishing I could stay, but knowing she was in good hands, if and when she needed them. I left knowing that imperceptible change in her would probably always be there, but that was OK. She’s going to be OK.

You go on, my friend. You go on*.

*"The Show Goes On", Bruce Hornsby, 1990