Monday, September 05, 2016

Ruminations on death

A friend of a friend died. She had a heart attack early last week and, just as she was starting to recover, suffered a stroke and lost consciousness on Friday. She was kept alive on machines until Saturday night, until her brother and son could get to Miami to say goodbye. She was 77. Until her heart attack, she'd been in pretty good health. She'd recently learned that her first grandchild was on the way. So in all, I think she was lucky in how she passed.

I knew her through my friends in Key West. One of my friends, Henry, was especially devoted to her for the past decade. I spent a great deal of time on the phone with him this morning. It wasn't how I'd planned to start my Labor Day, but I was happy to be there for him.

If it sounds like there's a little tension in this post, it's because I never really liked the woman. She always struck me as precious and entitled. Much of this impression was formed by the way she insisted on dominating every room she was in. She made a big noise for a tiny woman. While she had great style and energy, she also was the one who always sent texts when we were en route to a bar or restaurant to meet her. She'd either be running late, or didn't want to go to the agreed upon spot, and plans would always have to be changed to accommodate her. Made me nuts.

Some of my impression was formed by an ugly stretch a few summers ago. This once wealthy woman of 70+  found herself, literally, homeless. Because she was racing through what was left of their parents' money at an alarming rate, her brother put her on an allowance. She found it impossible to live within her means and lost her home. There was a period of several weeks where she had nowhere to live. This was the time between when her home was foreclosed on and when she and a friend could begin sharing a rental.

Henry told her that, since they had plenty of room, she was welcome to stay at their home. For as long as she needed. Rent free, of course. That's the kind of trusting, generous friend he is.

Mistake. Big mistake.

The only restriction Henry put on her was that she do her best to not disrupt his partner. Reg is a bartender, then working two part-time jobs, which meant he was on his feet more than 10 hours a day. When he got home, usually around 11:00 at night, he wanted to be left alone to unwind until he went to sleep. He also demanded quiet in the morning until he awoke, around 9:00 AM.

That was all she had to do to live there -- be quiet between 11:00 PM and 9:00 AM.

She was unable to stay out of Reg's way. Whether it was awakening them at midnight because she couldn't find the remote for the TV in her room, or the doorbell ringing at 7:30 AM because she had parked where she shouldn't and boxed the neighbors in their driveway, there was drama each and every day. All of it avoidable. As her infractions added up and up and up, it caused domestic friction between her host couple. Finally Henry cornered her and said, "Reg interprets your behavior to mean you don't respect the house. One more incident and he's going to ask you to leave."

"No, he won't! Let me talk to him, I'll make it all right."

"Please don't discuss it with him. Just respect how hard he works and be quiet at night and in the morning."

Well, that night, she waited up for Reg. He was sitting on the back patio, having his last cigarette of the day and trying to decompress after a very long day of pouring shots and maneuvering drunk tourists, when she came bounding out. Acting as manically cheerful as Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Instead of apologizing for her behavior, she tried to charm him, and he was not charmable. One thing led to another, tensions escalated and voices were raised, and Reg told her she had to move out within 48 hours.

Things were touchy among the friends for a while. Henry and Reg were upset with each other: Reg was angry she'd been bought into the house, Henry was hurt and embarrassed that she'd been thrown out. Instead of being embarrassed -- or perhaps to mask her embarrassment -- she acted like the martyr as she went to a motel she could ill afford.

They eventually made it up. She threw a big 75th birthday party for herself, and Reg surprised her by serenading her with her favorite song and a special toast.  All was forgiven.

But here's the thing: this morning Henry and Reg are feeling very guilty about that unfortunate incident at their home. Now that she's dead, they're wondering if they couldn't have been nicer to her.

PUH-LEEZE! IT HAPPENED! She wasn't perfect. She could be selfish and tone-deaf. She took advantage of their hospitality as if it were her due.

And when Henry beats himself up over the incident, he doesn't give himself credit for all he did for this woman. He fussed over her and told her she was beautiful, which she desperately needed to hear. He included her in his vast, diverse circle of friends. He applauded her poetry readings. And, at the end of her life, he drove 150 miles each way from Key West to Miami and back to hold her hand and say "goodbye." And to comfort her son, who had flown in from Baltimore to make that awful, final decision. Chad really didn't know many of his mother's friends, and I'm sure he appreciated how tender and attentive Henry was to both him and his mother at the end.

We're all three dimensional. Death doesn't ennoble us. She's gone from being a rather self-centered woman I didn't like to being a woman I didn't like who died.

I didn't say that to Henry this morning, though. Instead I reminded him of all the wonderful things he did for her, through good times and bad. I told him that I hope that, through his grief, he'll take comfort in and be proud of all he brought to her life.

And, as I say, we're all three dimensional. She was self-centered and tone-deaf and more than a little vain. But she was also vivacious and colorful and very involved with the local chapter of NOW. As recently as March she helped organize an event commemorating the Great Women's Suffrage March of 2013. She loved her son, and I'm glad she died knowing he was happy and about to be a father.

So I confess two things to my blog, both with tremendous sincerity: I'm glad I'll never see her again, and I hope she'll rest in peace.