February 16, 2010

Again, this is how I remember it – what happened seven years ago today.

But first, one of my favorite pictures of the two of us…

0918_tree

My ring tone is the sound of a duck quacking. I don’t know why except that I’m lazy and cheap and don’t feel like changing it or buying something more interesting to replace it with. When the alarm went off at 1am I thought that maybe I should take the time to find something more appropriate for the situation. Do they offer funeral dirges as ring tones?

Well, yes, they do. Mary had the opening organ notes of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor as hers for years.

I hadn’t really slept in the hour since I had crawled into the bed in the guest room. Under normal circumstances, considering the fact that I had only gotten a couple of hours the night before, I would’ve been out immediately but my brain was going a million miles an hour, reviewing every moment of the day past and anticipating the one coming up. Maybe dreading the one coming up. Part of it could’ve been a defense mechanism, I guess. When you go to sleep, the moment when you wake up seems to come faster than when you lay there, staring at the ceiling, pondering what is happening in the next room.

The lights were out in Mary and Steve’s room but Steve wasn’t asleep either when I came in. He turned on the lights and we checked on her. It was only notable in its complete lack of noteworthiness. Nothing had changed in the last hour. I’m not really sure what I was expecting.

Steve gave her the proper medications and I dutifully recorded it on my spreadsheet and then I set my alarm and crawled back into the guest bed.

The same thing happened at 2am; a carbon copy. Quacking, not really sleeping, waking Steve even though he wasn’t really asleep, medications, set the alarm for the next time.

I think I did sleep a little bit in the 90 minutes or so before the phone started quacking again at 3:30 in the morning. Steve may have as well, although he told me that he had spent at least some of the time talking to Mary, holding her hand, and occasionally singing to her.

While Steve was giving her the medications, I wandered upstairs to get something to drink and walked by the sideboard in the dining room. Sitting on it was a frame. I picked it up.

The previous summer I had moved and in cleaning out the nearly 15 years of clutter I had accumulated since I had lived in that apartment I found the cartoon strip – THE cartoon strip. It was “Bloom County” about Gilda Radner, and I had it on the wall above my desk at a talent agency that I worked at. It was the thing that made Mary stop and talk to me that day some 20 years earlier. When I rediscovered it I put it in a frame and gave it to her. She told me that it was the best gift anyone had ever given her and she liked to carry it around with her, holding it tightly.

In it, Opus the Penguin is upset about the cartoon series coming to an end. He says, “Stop it! Everybody stop it! This is upsetting me!! Life’s getting to wish-washy! Comic strips aren’t supposed to end! Neither are good marriages! Or friendships. Or loyalties or happiness… happiness isn’t supposed to just end. Gilda Radner isn’t supposed to end.”

I put the frame back down carefully.

I went back downstairs and while Steve took I break I sat with her, quietly at first. It had been hours since she was responsive in any meaningful way, although occasionally she would seem to respond to direct questions by trying to move her body or with noises as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t. Whether this is true or not – whether she really was cognizant of her surroundings – is probably up for debate and yet not worth debating.

Although others were talking to her, I really hadn’t been all that much. For some reason just being in the room… being with her was enough. And on top of that I really couldn’t think of anything all that interesting to say.

But this time I managed to find my voice.

“This sucks,” I said as I sat next to her bed. “I mean really sucks. But you know it’s okay, right? It’s okay that you go. I mean it’s not okay. It’s about as far from okay as you can get, but it’s okay. And I’m going to be okay, too. I know you were worried that I wouldn’t be, but I will be. Okay might look different than it does now, but I’ll be okay. I’m saying okay a lot, aren’t I? I promise if I ever write this as a movie script or a book I’ll make this much more intelligent.”

I was quiet for a moment. So was she.

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “But I wanted to ask you… Can I have the ‘Bloom County’ cartoon strip back?”

She hadn’t moved or done anything in the entire time I was in there but as soon as I asked that question, she made a noise, like a low moan, and struggled a bit.

“Afterwards!” I said quickly. “After you’re gone. Not now!”

She calmed down.

Like I said, debatable. But not worth debating.

When the phone started quacking again at 5am it roused me from a dream. I don’t remember what it was but I remember being grateful that I was not dreaming it anymore. The lights were on this time when I went into the room, and Steve was sitting with Mary, the grief on his face like a mask. Sometime in the last hour he was awaked by her breathing, which had grown even more raspy and wet and labored. When he checked on her he found that she had opened her eyes. I’d heard of the term “thousand-yard stare” before but I hadn’t ever seen it until that moment. She wasn’t looking at anything. Or maybe she was. I hope it was something nice.

We knew that she had entered a new phase in the process and although neither one of us was exactly sure if it meant that the end was near or simply nearer, we decided it was time to start making phone calls again.

Steve called the hospice nurse and family. I called friends to have them come back, although fewer than had been there the day before. If this was the final phase I wanted to make sure that it remained as peaceful as humanly possible for her.

Within a couple of hours, the house was full of people again – about a dozen total. They all took a few minutes with her and I gave them their privacy. Each of us had our histories with Mary and I wasn’t going to intrude on theirs. But I still made sure that either Steve or myself was either in the room or close to it at all times.

The hospice nurse showed up around 8:30am and checked her out. She was a sturdy woman who spoke with a thick Ukrainian accent. I thought this would’ve pleased Mary for some reason. She liked the Baltics and people from them.

Steve was on the phone to Mary’s doctor and it was just me and the nurse in the room for a bit. After she examined Mary, she made her own phone call to the hospice to make a report. She talked about blood pressure and responsiveness and breathing.

“Patient is actively dying,” the nurse said.

After she finished, I asked her if that meant it would be soon and she said, “Could be hours. Could be days. You never know.”

Days, I thought. It can’t be days. There’s no way any of us can take this for days. I pulled Steve aside when he came back into the room and told him what the nurse had said. He nodded, looking a little pale. I think he thought the same thing. We can’t do this for days.

A second nurse arrived and they got to work on cleaning Mary up. While we all waited outside the room, they changed her bedding, her nightgown, and her diaper. They washed her and combed her thin, dark hair.

“You look beautiful,” Steve said when we walked back into the room. I agreed.

There was a bit of a lull after that and I sat in the room with Mary’s niece Bianca and we started chatting about Plucky Survivors. I brought it up on my phone and started reading aloud to Mary.

Annnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnddddddd…..we’re off!

Believe it or not, we actually left pretty much exactly at the scheduled departure time of 8:30am. Oh, yes; Rick has it all plotted out in the Big Book O’ Fun, complete with detailed maps, car games, CD lists, and more, more, more! Why so early? Well, we had to be there right at the doors of the Britney Spears Museum in Kentwood as it opened, don’t you know.

I made it through the Britney Spears Museum, laughing about that ridiculous moment when the woman turned on the lights of the recreated stage and I swear… I absolutely swear on everything that I believe in that Mary had the faintest hint of a smile on her face. Maybe I was imagining it or maybe it was something else entirely but whatever was going on, she hadn’t looked that at ease in days.

People started coming in an out again for brief visits but this time I didn’t leave. At some point we realized that it was Fat Tuesday and this became quite a big deal in the house. Having spent many a Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Mary and Steve had plenty of beads so we broke them out and everyone put on a strand or two. We draped some on her hospital bed and talked of the big party happening in the Big Easy.

Other coincidences… it was also her father’s birthday and the day she got the signed copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the mail from Harper Lee years earlier. I don’t know if there is such a thing as cosmic timing, but this seemed to have it.

A little after 11am, Steve, Nettie, and I were in the room when Mary’s mom Claudia came in. She sat with her for a few moments quietly, not saying anything, while the three of us chattered away. Claudia got up to leave but I stopped her for some reason. I don’t know why, but I did. We began talking about this and that and eventually worked our way around to the beads.

“I was saying earlier that we should just say to heck with this,” I began and then caught myself. We had promised Mary that we wouldn’t talk about her as if she wasn’t there – no “Steel Magnolias” moments for her. I turned to Mary and said, “We’re just going to say to heck with all of this and go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?”

She turned her head slightly at that moment. It was the first time she had moved in hours. Her chin came up a bit as if she was looking up, and out. Away. It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t breathing.

“You guys,” I said loudly as I jumped to my feet.

Everyone turned to Mary and began crowding around the bed. Pounding footsteps came down the stairs as everyone crowded into the room. Her mother. Her sister. Her brother and his family. Steve’s mom and brother and sister and their families. Bianca. Nettie. Robin. Me.

“We love you Mary,” someone said.

“So much,” I said, weeping openly, loudly.

I stood at the foot of the bed, my hands on her leg. I held onto her as she left. I watched as my best friend left.

I don’t care what you read or hear or even what you have experienced, but those who say that the moment when someone dies is beautiful are lying to you or perhaps to themselves. It is ugly and horrible. It is like the end of a war where you realize that everything is destroyed and in rubble. It is final and uncompromising. It is the hardest thing in the world, ever.

I stumbled out of the room onto the back deck, gulping in huge breaths of air in between sobs. It was bright and sunny, a blue sky and green trees, which was wrong, somehow. Steve came out shortly after and grabbed him tightly.

He was her husband and I was her best friend – we were both important to her in different ways. And more importantly, she was the love of both of our lives.

The next few hours were the classic and clichéd blur. I made some phone calls. I sat in the room with her body and sent some e-mails. I watched as a hospice nurse came to collect the medications. I watched as somber men came to put her body in a bag, then on a stretcher to carry her upstairs as the dogs barked madly. I watched as they put her body in a van. It had the name of a rental car agency on the license plate frame, which I thought was weird. I watched it drive away as all of stood at the edge of the driveway and waved. Then the van stopped as the driver realized that he was going the wrong way, turned around, and drove back by again while we all waved again.

Mary would’ve thought that was funny.

I stayed for a little while and made sure that someone was going to stay with Steve before I collected my stuff and headed home. I slept for a few hours as the emotional toll and the lack of real sleep for the last couple of days finally caught up with me.

When I woke up it was dark and I considered just staying in bed until the morning but I knew there was one more thing I needed to do.

I went on to the Plucky Survivors website and found six pictures of Mary and I together. The first from 2006 of us in front of the Biggest Ball of Twine; the second of us recreating “American Gothic” complete with costumes in front of the Grant Wood house in Iowa in 2007; a third was the two of us sitting next to a statue of Colonel Sanders at the Kentucky Fried Chicken Museum in Kentucky, 2008; fourth was Mary sitting on my lap in the Washington DC airport at the end of our trip in 2009; fifth was the picture we took in her foyer the morning of our Plucky Mini trip in 2010.

I removed everything from the home page of the site and replaced it with those photographs and this:

February 16, 2010

Dear Plucky Readers,

I’d like to ask you to take some time and go through the Plucky Survivors site… read our travels, look at the pictures, laugh with us, and remember our adventures and please, promise to have many, many more of your own.

But first, a note…

Mary and I often ruminated on the odd randomness of things; how one event, if it had happened differently or not at all, could change things so dramatically. If any of a billion tiny little events and coincidences and happenstances hadn’t, well, happened we never would’ve met. When Mary ruminated on this she got scared, as if an axe wielding maniac was hiding under the bed waiting to pounce.

I just remain in awe of it.

For more than 20 years, Mary was my best friend. We saw each other through the grand events and the minutiae that happen over the course of a life. For instance I remember when she started talking about this guy named Steve (which for the record would be one of the grand events although that wouldn’t become clear until sometime later when she married the guy).

I remember road trips to Vegas. In fact it was Mary that got me started writing about Vegas. We wrote our first travel guide together back in 1998 about Las Vegas and that led to more travel guides for the both of us, my Vegas website, and me looking like a dumbass on The Travel Channel.

I remember when I mentioned that for my 40th birthday, lacking anything else interesting to do, that I might go see the “Biggest Ball of Twine” in Branson, Missouri. Her response: “Cool. Can I go?” Four years later we had covered nearly 10,000 miles across the country in adventures that we called Plucky Survivors See America.

I remember when she called to tell me she had cancer and I remember her worrying about my own health issues. I remember how we kept each other alive in many ways, even before we both got sick.

To say my life would not have been the same without her is too small. I can’t find words that are big enough. Perhaps there aren’t any. Perhaps there are no words that can represent the bond, the love, the unbreakable solidity of a best friendship other than the knowledge that it will be there, always, even if we aren’t.

Earlier today, February 16, 2010, her house was filled with family and friends, and her husband Steve, her mom, her dear friend Nettie, and myself were in her room with her, talking about how today was Fat Tuesday. New Orleans has always been one of her favorite cities and it was there that our very first Plucky Survivors trip started.

I looked over at her and said, “We’re going to go get on a plane and go to Mardi Gras, right Mary?” And she raised her head slightly and then she was gone.

And so, a new Plucky Adventure has begun. Safe travels my friend. I love you.

Rick

At the bottom of the page, I put the photo of us sitting under the Friendship Oak in Mississippi at the end of our first Plucky Survivors trip in 2006. Its branches reach out around us as we sit smiling on a bench, a plaque at our feet. It reads:

“I am called the Friendship Oak. Those who enter my shadow are supposed to remain friends through their lifetime no matter where fate may take them…”