After driving over 100 miles, I turned off the freeway to a county road then onto a narrow dirt road that leads toward Nancy’s. Driving through the lonesome wooded hills and swampland, cattails grow on both sides of the road. Nature looked picture perfect on that summer day out in the middle of nowhere. One more turn goes down a crude winding driveway that leads to her large rustic house, an impressive work of construction done by her husband’s hands.
Here is where hospice was set up for her.
Nancy rested in a bed by the stone fireplace and her rolling pin collection in an open space near the kitchen and living room.
Plenty of windows look out to the peaceful yard here in the middle of the woods. Her children had gathered to take care of her. No wife and mother has been in better hands.
I can’t count the times I’ve been down this driveway in years past before I moved away. Our young sons were great pals. My boy loved going to their house and had spent a lot of time with this family. Even as an adult, he continued to be close to them and called Nancy his second mom. She’d always make his favorite homemade pizza. My husband and I had sat around campfires and the kitchen table numerous times, enjoying good food, stories and music jams.
In recent years we didn’t live near each other, but Nancy would call if she was in my city. We would meet for coffee and conversation…catching up on life. However the last time she came to visit, the conversation was about life and disease. She was just beginning her 60th decade and had been looking forward to their retirement home in Canada but now there was uncertainty in her eyes as she entered a battle with cancer. A strong and determined person, I knew she’d give the fight 150%. And she did.
Nancy’s battle was with brain cancer. She kicked several tumors and went on living life, going to her son’s wedding, greeting new grandkids and traveling. But then the snarl of chemo began stealing all her energy and ability to fight the ugly side effects. Now she only had one or two weeks left to live.
In that short amount of time I knew I needed to make the trip to see her. I wondered if I should wait for the weekend when I didn’t have to work or if I should I go sooner. I did not want to miss saying good bye to Nancy! The last of the few short sporadic messages I’d received from two of her kids was “She wants to see you!” and, “Feel free to stop over.” Those words became a loop in my head. I was at work. My focus and concentration was replaced by a strong pull of urgency. I could not ignore it. It was relentless. Hours and miles were my enemy. “She wants to see you!” over and over followed by a strong pull that I’ve felt only a handful of times in my life. This was no wishy washy feeling, but as real as the gravity beneath my feet. My gracious boss allowed me to leave work early.
The car radio was set to an oldies station playing the music that came out of California during the 1960’s when Nancy was growing up there. She was a true, real deal hippie chick. Old pictures show her as an adorable brunette with a sweet face. She lived in the same area as hippie rockers, and when hitch hiking was picked up by band members who are now music legends. She was school chums with someone who grew up to be very, very famous, (oh my, I sure could drop some names here!) I always loved her stories about those days. To me who’d grown up in a bland mashed potato world where the only famous person I’d met was Hubert Humphrey at the county fair, and the hippie population was 1, her life was so much more interesting. Nancy was my only connection to the California scene. I never got tired of hearing her talk about it.
She married, started a large family and they settled in rural Minnesota where her life was all about family and friends. By the time I met her she had blended in with the rest of us Minnesotans.
Usually when I walk into her home she’s in the kitchen, but not today. Not anymore. She was frail. Her eyes looked large on her thin body with no head of hair. She seemed glad to see me. Her daughter propped her up, gave her some water from an eyedropper and put the oxygen up a few notches. Nancy seemed to get a tiny spark of energy. Not knowing what condition I’d find her in, I was thankful she was so alert.
I chatted about my family, who sent their love and prayers. I asked her if she was having a good day or not. She said in a slow, soft whisper, “…great”. That’s Nancy, never complaining. Her grandson started jumping on the sofa and she told him ” don’t… jump..on the…couch”. Still a grandma to the end. I told her how brave she was, and how proud I was of her battle. I said thank you for her friendship. I promised to bake her chocolate cake recipe on our shared birthday, to which she said, “….oh, that….. sounds good.” I know hospice visits need to be short, so I told her I should get going, when she said, “don’t go”.
I stayed a bit longer.
I leaned over her only inches away from the oxygen mask. Eye to eye, looking deep. One more round of thank you, I love you, I won’t forget you and a prayer. I told her to not be afraid. She said, “….I’m not”. Then I stopped talking.
Now it was her turn. We looked at each other and she spoke volumes without saying one word. Her eyes said it all. She retold every memory we’d shared and spoke of our friendship through the years. It was loud and it was clear. I stepped in deeper and for a twinkle in time I glanced into the other side. It was calming and endless. The eyes are the window!
I straightened up to leave, ” Maybe I’ll see you this Saturday.. or ‘there’, but I will see you again!”. Nancy spoke,”….or…beyond…the……….b..b…blue”. I knew she was ready for the beyond. Then she said something I couldn’t make out. Her daughter translated, “She wants a hug.” I rested my head on Nancy’s chest and placed my hands on her shoulders. I left the room feeling her gaze.
Back on the country roads to civilization my heart was heavy but my mind was relieved. The nagging pull had stopped. I had beat time and distance.
A few days passed when a message came from her daughter, “She’ll be gone within 24 hrs”. All I could do was hope and pray Nancy was not in pain. Then later that evening came the persistent urgent pull again! Like a strong current in a river. Now what? I could only do one thing. I sat at the piano the living room where a hint of light came in from the low misty sky and sang the old traditional song, ”My latest sun is sinking fast. My race is nearly run. My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun. O, come, angel band, come and around me stand. Bear me away on your snow white wings, to my eternal home.”
The next morning, Saturday, her husband called me. The evening before as he sat next to her and the noise and laughter of family filled the house as they gathered to eat, only a few feet from where she lay, Nancy slipped away.
The same time on the clock the current pulled me to the piano, she was leaving us.
This is life and death. This is the importance and the power of friendship. This is making time to enjoy what days and time we have together. This is to obeying the holy sound telling me to go down those long winding roads whether they take me to joy and laughter or heartache and tears. This is to Nancy showing us how to do that.