Sometimes death just slaps you in the face.
Sure, we know people who die, but when death hits close to home, close to your own age and unexpectedly, then there’s a gasp that comes with the news.
I lost two friends recently. I hate saying it that way. I mean, it’s not like I misplaced them or anything. They died. And, more than anytime in recent years, I’ve had a lot of trouble dealing with it.
At the end of June my friend Bev Saruwatari died of a sudden aneurysm. She was 61. My friend Judy Blewett was diagnosed with leukemia in the middle of June and had begun chemotherapy. Her five siblings were already elbowing to get to the head of the line to see who would be the best bone marrow match for her. But she developed a massive infection that no big-gun intervention was able to stop. It was July 3, and she was 63.
I talked with Judy the day before she died. She sounded great, reporting how well her first round of chemo had gone, and we talked about a column in the newspaper that day in which I poked fun at people who stop abruptly to check their shopping lists just as they step through the doors of the supermarket. “Guilty,” she laughed. She was gone the next morning.
Dying in your 60s isn’t as bad as dying in your 40s or your teens or in childhood, I suppose. But what struck me so much about both of my friends is how very alive they were. Some people just live, but others sparkle. Bev and Judy were sparklers.
Bev and I were neighbors when our boys (her three, my two) were young. We carpooled, fed each other’s kids, organized sleepovers, attended music recitals and karate demonstrations – with any number, if not all, of our boys participating. When her son Jerud was working in Osaka, my son Carl stopped off to see him on his way to Beijing. There has never been a time when these boys, now men, weren’t connected somehow.
She was still teaching at Hamblen Elementary School. And so typical of her approach to life, her family requested that memorials be made to the fund at Hamblen to help buy school supplies for kids who couldn’t afford them. Bev helped her nieces, cooked for friends (great sushi!), bossed her brothers around (just ask them) and was so interested in everything.
Judy and I go back even further. She gave me a baby shower when I was pregnant with Carl. In recent years we worked together on the board of the nonprofit Advocates for the Bing Crosby Theater, where she was the spark plug that made it run. She was a registered nurse but had retired – and I use the term loosely – a few years ago to volunteer for the House of Charity, participate in many church-centered services, be a driver for Meals on Wheels, work as a volunteer on political campaigns and so much more. And, of course, she was a proud and involved grandmother of five. She was tireless.
True, many women have outstanding résumés. But I have found that there is a group of them, whether retired or still employed, who have been givers all their lives, who find a new vitality when they reach 60 or so. This marks an exciting new chapter of their lives as they roll up their sleeves and jump in with an almost reckless energy, enthusiasm and joy that makes them feel younger and happier and healthier as they give of themselves to family, friends and community.
Maybe that’s why they sparkle.
The last day that Judy was able to receive visitors at the hospital, other than family, the day before she began chemo, she sat cross-legged on her bed and positively glowed about her new grandson, born days earlier, and listed all the things she was now forced to postpone – including wallpapering her mother’s home.
Judy threw out her arms and said exasperatedly, but with her typical good humor, “Leukemia, I can’t believe it! I just don’t have time for this.”
But death has its own timetable, as Emily Dickinson noted in a poem: “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me. The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality.”
I hope sometime soon I’ll be able to just be grateful that Bev and Judy touched my life – but for now, all I feel is the loss and the sting, like a slap in the face.