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Washington Voices

Long lasting friendships hard to lose

Thu., March 10, 2011

This is about losing Joan.

As I’ve gotten older I go back home to Florida quite regularly so I can visit with friends and family. We’re all in our 60s or older now, so postponing these trips doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even so, I wouldn’t go as often as I do were it not for my dear, dear friend Joan.

Joan just died. She was 86. She had a stroke but lived a few days longer in the hospital. Quite lucid and verbal, she was still talking with her niece about their planned visit to her native New Zealand. The next morning she was gone.

In recent years I’ve felt her increasing sadness and have worried more about her. Hence my trips south. Joan came up to visit me here once – in the summer, of course, as she didn’t abide cold weather – and delighted at everything she experienced. She was one of those people who always seized the moment, with curiosity and a sense of adventure. She gladly took the tiller of our sailboat and learned how to catch the wind. She wanted to know the names of everything green that grew here. She delighted at attending a powwow and asked the young people there all sorts of questions about their culture and traditions.

And she made it her mission to teach people card games – Golf or Oh, Hell or Hand and Foot or any of a number of others. You might try to rebuff her efforts, but she’d keep coming back at you, sweetly, and you had no choice but to learn. Believe me, I know. How much better, she said, to learn these games that challenge the mind while visiting with friends than just sitting and watching TV.

Some years back she read a story in her local newspaper about a middle-aged couple who adopted three young siblings, not wanting to separate the children. She was so moved by the story that she reached out to them and took them all under her wing. She gave moral support along with some groceries to the parents and was something of a grandma to the children, all of whom – naturally – came to enjoy hours of playing card and board games with her. Recently she read about an immigrant family that had some high-achieving daughters in school. Again she reached out and again she was a blessing to another family, one which came to enjoy evenings filled with mind-stimulating activities, conversation and laughter.

I know that she was just about the only person who could easily boss me around, and I didn’t mind at all. Even at my age, it was nice to have a mother figure fussing over me and providing not-so-subtle suggestions when she thought I needed them. She was absolutely the kind of old lady I’ve always wanted to become. I marveled how she managed for most of her life to find things to be happy about, though that wasn’t always easy.

When my family moved to Miami, my very first friend there was Michelle – Joan’s daughter. Michelle and I were both only children and shared the same birthday, though I was a year older. In her junior year in high school, Michelle was killed in a car accident. It was hard for Joan and Mike to carry on, but they did. Then Mike developed a brain tumor, and she took care of him until he died.

Later, Joan and a former neighbor of theirs, Bill, crossed paths again. Bill, too, was alone, and they married, making a life together for a couple of decades until a few years ago when Bill got sick and Joan cared for him until he died. Joan then moved near her niece, for whom, due to family circumstance, she had often been a second mother, and the two of them were close.

Joan had never gotten over Michelle’s death, of course. What mother could? There were just a few people in her life now who had known Michelle, and she sorely missed not just her daughter but even just hearing her name spoken aloud. We’d always talk about Michelle when we got together or when Joan called me for my birthday. The sadness was more evident these past few years, even as she still cherished those she loved, still saw the adventures of life but maybe found that the world wasn’t enough.

I think she needed her daughter.

How fortunate those of us are who have wonderful elderly people who grace our lives. What gifts they are to us, and I hope we remember to hold them tight. When Joan’s niece called to tell me, what she said was, “Aunt Joan got to see Michelle today.”

As I think about her now, my better angels are happy, as I believe most deeply that Joan was ready. But I sure do miss her.

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