My friend died today.
I knew this was coming – she has been losing a fight with cancer – and I have been waiting for the phone call for several days now. This friend, Helen, is a dear friend of my family and I was expecting (dreading) a call from them back in Virginia to tell me the sad news. Waiting for the phone to ring with bad news is a terrible feeling; yesterday I thought about hiding my phone so I wouldn’t have to face it, but that doesn’t actually stop life from going forward. Or death.
My alarm went off at 6:55am today, slicing through my pitch-black room and sound sleep to wake me up for a 7am work teleconference. I was barely awake as I dialed in and then while waiting for the call to start, Andrew texted: “Hi.”
I responded, whining immediately about being exhausted and on a call. Andrew replied that he was sad, and I asked why.
“You haven’t heard yet?”
I had been awake for three minutes. No. Was Trump elected overnight?
“Helen passed away last night. I kind of feel like you shouldn’t hear that from me, but I guess it’s just as good me as anyone.”
I read that a dozen times, struggling to process. The work call got started, people introduced themselves and talked about a document. I have no idea what document.
Andrew explained that my mother had let him know this morning. As he was explaining this, she texted him to say she planned to call me once a reasonable hour came around on the west coast. Oops. Guess that ship sailed.
Finding out that somebody you love has died is terrible. Finding out by text message in a roundabout way while trapped on a teleconference is almost funny except that it’s also shocking and breathtakingly sad.
The good part (if you can call it that) is that Helen had been in a very bad way for a week now and her passing comes as somewhat of a relief to everybody who has watched her suffer. It’s not for me to say “she’s in a better place now” but at least she isn’t in pain anymore. From what my parents tell me after being by her side every day for a week now, she was ready to go and to stop being sick.
I first met Helen when I was 15. She and her husband lived down the street from my parents, and they were part of the neighborhood social group that started having regular get-togethers. These people had better parties and more fun than I had in my own social life; everybody would eat great food and drink too many good drinks and things would get loud and crazy and I loved it. Helen was always a fixture at these events; a bold, classy, blunt lady who could drink me under the table easily. Over the years, she and her husband became a part of my extended family. It wasn’t a Bayer family event if they weren’t present, and they became my parents’ best friends. The expression says you can’t choose your family, but Helen is proof otherwise.
A few years back, she was nearly at the 40-year official retirement mark for her job and we spent a lot of time talking and joking about what she would do next. I said she should go be a cocktail waitress for fun, because her brash, confident, take-no-shit demeanor would make her the perfect person to dish out drinks and banter. She was more than ready for that official deadline to come around, but when I suggested bailing early to get started on the next step in her life, she was adamant about seeing her work through to the end. Her loyalty and determination were impressive and unwavering.
Then came the cancer diagnosis. She was stoic and fought it hard, made it to her official retirement date, and kept enjoying life while battling the cancer. I was away more and more for racing and missed a lot of opportunities to see her while she was still healthy and strong. Maybe that’s a normal part of life – you grow up and go out into the world and leave behind people back home – but in retrospect I feel selfish and filled with regret. She was around for years and I wasn’t, and now she is gone and I can’t take any of it back.
The last time I saw her in August, I was caught up in personal drama that left me wandering in a depressed haze. She came over to my parents’ house for dinner and I was poor company at best, silent and withdrawn and emotional. It was so good to see her but I was too focused on myself to appreciate the time we had. At the end of the evening, I came back downstairs from where I was hiding in a dark room to hug her goodbye and that was it.
That was literally it.
She spent the last days of her life surrounded by family and friends that adore her. My parents were there every day, and Andrew went over last week to share a message from me to her. She was loved and cared for until the last moment, but that still doesn’t make the ache of her absence any less now. She was a wonderful person and my life and family are richer for having included her and emptier now that she is gone.
If I could tell her one last thing, it would be to thank her for demonstrating how to be strong, loyal, feisty, determined, and the life of any party. If she could tell me one last thing, it would probably be to stop crying already and go pour myself a double of something strong.
She was amazing. We were lucky to know her. There is never enough time in life to spend with the best people and it always seems we figure that out too late.