So, tonight, it's 10:15, and I'm sitting on my bed, being anxious, knitting, reading, and watching TV (yes, all at the same time). And I decided to go move things around in the still-isn't-unpacked office/spare room/whatever it is, with the idea of channeling some of that anxious energy so that maybe I could get to bed at a halfway decent hour (or, as it stands, not). And I came across a box. It was small, and unassuming, and taped up with that blue painter's tape. In it is the tiny little foot-high Christmas tree that my friend's mom sent to me when I was in college.
And then, I wept.
She died this past Wednesday. Patti was my friend Brett's mom, and of course my friend Robin's mother-in-law (as, Robin is married to Brett). I'd known her since I was 15, maybe 14. And over the past, gosh, I think 8 or 10 years, she battled with thyroid cancer, lymphoma, and melanoma. It was weird. It was horrible. And she was so incredibly strong through the whole thing.
When I was home last month, I really, really had wanted to go see her. But, it was looking like the end was upon us, and I didn't want to take away from their family time. I didn't want to intrude, you know? In retrospect, I so regret not asking for a ten-minute drop in. I thought about writing her a letter. But, in the end...I guess the week got away from me, and then I was back at work, being scattered and being wrapped up in my own life...until my cell phone rang at 9:30 Wednesday night. And when I saw Robin's number, at that time of night, I knew it could only mean one thing.
It's my personal belief that, in death, in what lies beyond this life, she knows what she meant to me. So tonight I decided that maybe it's still worthwhile to write that letter. Here it is.
I can't even begin to tell you how glad I am that I was able to have you in my life.
It's funny now to think about the first few times I visited the old house in Brookfield. I remember how festive the house always looked. I remember Brett's battleship grey room in such stark contrast to the rest of the house, the one splash of color in it being the stuffed Grumpy Bear on his dresser (a gift from Robin, before they were even officially dating, I think, because she thought it looked like him. She...well...she wasn't wrong). I think time I was over at the house was, of all things, for Reformation Day - we watched a black and white movie about Martin Luther. I still don't remember why I was invited to that, but I still remember the movie. And I remember sitting in the living room, with you, and Mr. P, and Brett, Robin, Amandah, and Kyle, and thinking...this is really nice. I'm Orthodox, of course, so I had no idea why this was a holiday, but I was just so grateful for the inclusion and the hospitality.
I have such great memories of the lake house. I remember the red white and blue room, covert discussions of unexpected visitors, and lying in bed in the loft at night and listening to Mr. P and Bianca snore in (dis)harmony. I have vivid memories of the thick green algae in the water and of jumping off the pier, of girl talk in the front of the pontoon boat while Brett and Mr. P manned the helm, of watching everyone tubing off the back of it, laughing hysterically even though we were chugging along in a pontoon boat while those show-offs zipped past us pulling waterskiers behind their speedboats. My very favorite were the nighttime cruises on the lake, looking at the fancy houses all aglow, the fireflies that twinkled on the banks like a million stars, and the whole universe that seemed to open up in the expanse of the night sky. I remember being in the kitchen, baking muffins for breakfast, and talking about the first cancer, the thyroid tumor, and being so impressed with your strength and optimism, although this would hardly be the first or last time that would happen.
I loved the day that I showed up at the school where you taught as part of an outreach program we did in medical school, and you hugged me in front of all your kids and told them what a special friend I was of yours. I know how much you loved to teach, and I credit you (at least in part) with inspiring your daughter in law (before she was). I've seen her in action and I can only hope my kids have such great educators. I know you taught long after you could've stopped, after the illness had started to become a significant burden on you...and I kind of understood it. Now, being older, being in a place where my work means a lot to me and the people whose lives I touch mean even more, I get it. I get the not wanting to give in, to let it win; not wanting to let it steal something that meant so much to you (and to the students you taught).
Some of my very favorite memories of my adolescence were from Senior Year. Robin and I made a decision that year to go to all of the away football games. We would stop for hot chocolate on the way, we would bundle up, and by the end of the first half I was usually sitting on Robin's feet to keep her toes warm. After the first couple of games, we started sitting with you and Amandah-with-an-h ("Hamanda?" I asked Robin), watching #64 on the field with his neatly tucked-in orange towel. I was a little nervous at first, but by the end of the season I found myself being really sorry it was ending. I had no idea back then just how much Robin and Brett - or you - would come to mean to me.
You were always festive, creative, crafty, but mostly I remember you as maternal. In kind of a different way than my own mother, neither better nor worse, a difference I could never quite verbalize. In the end, I carry some of that ineffable difference with me (You? Would have totally LOVED the Christmas wreath I made for our office door this year). And I have to tell you this - when, Freshman Year, you sent me that little Christmas tree, I cried. I felt so loved, and was so grateful that you would think of me. You might not have known it, but it was a time at which I really, really needed that.
I remember one night, when I was back in Illinois after my first attempt at residency, your family was in town, and you invited me over for dinner. They were hilarious, and they were good people. I had a really long conversation with your brother that evening, which you later joined, and I still hold that as being one of the formative experiences of my decision to go into Psychiatry. I remember, that evening, at a time when I was feeling pretty worn down and worthless, you telling me I would be back on my feet in no time and how proud you had always been of me. I can't quite remember why I'd been at your house the day before and managed to garner that invitation, but I remember feeling over those two days like I really got to know a part of you that I (albeit appropriately) never got to see as a kid - who you were as an adult, as a woman. (I'd always suspected that sassy sense of humor...)
Ultimately, I see you so strongly in Brett, in Robin, and in Baby Luke, who are so dear to me. Your children, your daughter-in-law, and your grandson are a powerful legacy - through them your light will continue to shine, your grace, kindness, compassion and generosity will continue to bloom. And I see your influence in myself, in Bianca, in Katie, in Alison, an influence that goes far beyond festive holiday plates and Katie's delight at being successfully crafty.
I wish, and I will never be able to express how much, that you hadn't left us so soon. This is one of those times that I find myself angry at the unfairness of having such a good person taken from us, at the suffering and trials that you had to endure to leave us prematurely. My relationship to God is such that I don't question His judgment or direct my anger at Him. Instead, I find myself holding it out to Him; I entrust to Him my sorrow, and pray that in time, He will lift it from all of us left behind.
We'll miss you, but I trust in the belief that you are in a place of lightness and relief. I hope that what comes next is extravagant in the joy and peace you find there. Keep an eye out for my Yiayia and my Aunt Eugenia - I think they're people you'd enjoy (and give my old dog Wolf a scratch behind the ears). Meanwhile, we'll do our best to honor your memory in the kindness, humor, and comfort we offer to others.
I love you, Patti Pumpkin.