Saturday morning, September 5, 2009. As I pulled my weary body out of bed, I reached for my cell, finding a stream of unopened emails. I scrolled down, reading, “Call me when you get this.” My heart sank. I didn’t need to dial the numbers to know Sharon was dead.
I met Sharon in elementary school. I couldn’t have been more than six or seven. She had a strong personality, even as a child. Stubborn. Knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it. Two years ago, her brother called to deliver the news of her ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was 44 and mother of three. Sadly, life as working mothers had forced us to lose touch, absent the occasional Christmas card or accidental meeting. But despite that, she wanted me to know.
Even though I hadn’t seen her in six years, her smile greeted me with all the warmth of someone I saw every day. Only months after her diagnosis, she was already dependent on a walker. Despite the obvious decline, denial was everywhere. We didn’t broach the subject of her disease or what it meant. I simply cleaned her kitchen, made her laugh as much as possible and played with her young children. As we talked for hours, catching up on our lives, I puttered about her house, being her arms and legs to do her bidding. The joy of being together was exhilarating.
At the end of the day, I arrived home exhausted but still had my own family to care for. As I cooked dinner, I looked at the timer. Ninety seconds before the pasta was ready. I raced to the bathroom and returned before the buzz went off. Seems simple, right? Except just hours earlier, I watched Sharon take a total of 25 minutes to walk to and from her bathroom. I drained my pasta, crying. Everything I did that night, no matter how simple, was something Sharon could no longer do. Her life was now full of dependency… my greatest personal fear.
Although I lived almost an hour away, over the coming months, I helped care for her whenever possible, always spreading a constant stream of laughter through her house… my forte. Each time I’d arrive, I’d see a steady decline – the wheelchair being used more often, and then her hands betraying her. I cut her food and fed her. But the task I remember most was taking her to the bathroom. Allow me to digress: When Sharon and I were in the third grade, we went to her family’s lake house. We were changing into our swimsuits, when she asked me to turn around. I wanted to laugh. We were so young, and as insecure as I was, I was never shy about my body. Besides, I was all of eight. What was there to hide? But that was Sharon: Conservative, modest and stubborn to the core. You simply didn’t deny Sharon a request, even back then. So, here I now was, helping her with the most personal bodily function, yet trying to allow her dignity. As I wrapped my arms around her, lifting her almost lifeless body from the wheelchair, we looked like a couple, slow dancing. I held on with one hand and slid her pants down with the other. She giggled and whispered, “Jeanne, come on… at least you could romance me a bit first.” We laughed so hard I almost dropped her. She’s lucky I’m a mule.
That moment got me thinking, who would wipe my ass if I couldn’t? Have you ever pondered the notion of not being able to do the simplest of tasks? I now look at my friends and family wondering which one of them, if any, would be humble enough to serve me.
Sharon always said, “Who ever thought when we played Barbies, I would need you this way? ” Who ever thought, indeed.
I was usually alone with her, but as time went on, the family required more caregivers, not just for Sharon, but also for her children. Sharon’s posse of supporters, live-in au pairs, nurses, and her neighbors would flutter in and out. I no longer spent hours cleaning her house, as she had people for that. My time with her became a luxury of laughter and remembrance.
My job now was to bring Sharon any friend from the past she wanted to see. Her first request was Julie, a woman neither of us had seen in almost 30 years. I found and delivered the talented and self-proclaimed “crazy artist.” Upon pulling up to the curb, Julie handed me a small bottle of vodka, cracked hers open and downed it for anesthetic. She didn’t yet know there was no need to be numb to see Sharon.
We entered to meet Anne-Marie and Joanne, Sharon’s neighbors. I’ll have to save the entire, fantastic Julie story for a longer installment, but suffice it to say, when Joanne left, she pulled Anne-Marie aside and said, “Don’t you dare leave her alone with them… I’m sure they have bongs in their purses!” Anne-Marie warmed up to us though, and by the end, we had her laughing in hysterics and looking forward to my next visit, and to whomever I brought through the door.
Most people assumed visiting Sharon was depressing, but I only cried once. Just once. I had called another childhood friend, Paul, who lived four hours away and put him on speaker, allowing me to translate her facial expressions as the ALS had taken her voice. When I hung up, I expressed how much he loves her and hopes he can get here “before it’s too late.” It’s the only time I ever acknowledged someday we’d be without her. Neither of us could hold our tears back. However, I felt I betrayed her that day by permitting reality to seep into our cocoon of love. I never let it happen again.
Despite not being able to talk, Sharon was a marvel with her ability to communicate. She had this chart to spell things out with… we referred to it as the “damned alphabet.” Between her alphabet and her intensely expressive eyes, she could “talk” for hours, and truly LIVED.
She was still Sharon, just trapped in a body that failed her.
Stubborn. Forever stubborn, she asked for what she wanted. She spelled out “R. I. N. G.” every time I was there. It meant one thing: MY ring. She wanted it on her finger. So, I would dutifully take it off and place it on her hand. Each time, she’d hope I’d forget it, but I wouldn’t. I’d slip it off, joking she can’t keep it. But each visit, I would place it on her finger, until one day, I left it there. This ring is one I had worn daily which literally feels like a hug on your finger. I placed it on her hand and leaned in, “When you feel this, know I’m here with you.” I knew the next time I wore that ring, Sharon would be gone. I touched my finger for days, feeling the nakedness, but hoping she was feeling my love.
Always waiting for word of Sharon’s health, I slipped back into my life with my own family. While at the same lake Sharon and I swam in as children, I got an email on my cell: “It’s bad. She’s scared.” My teen daughter saw me crying… not something I do publicly… grabbed my hand and cried too.
I went to Sharon immediately. When I arrived, her four crazy, nurturing, beautiful friends who I heard so much about were all there. Never having been in the room at the same time, we immediately embraced, tears flowing… but not in front of Sharon. Never in front of Sharon.
Then something magical happened. The five of us sat with our unresponsive, dear Sharon, telling stories, talking to her, laughing, and reminiscing about each of our roles in her too-short life. We took turns wearing my ring, finally placing it back on Sharon’s hand. What we learned that night is, when each of us took care of her, she’d give us the ring to wear. She symbolically bonded us, without us even knowing.
Full of emotion, one of the girls declared, “We need to make a toast” and ran to her neighboring house to retrieve wine.
These incredible women turned a death vigil into a celebration. Sharon’s brother, parents and husband came in. We toasted her. Toasted her life, her love. Toasted mothers and friends. We laughed, took pictures and lingered for hours. Finally, we laid our hands on Sharon’s, with my ring prominent, and took a picture. We kissed her and said our goodbyes. Anne-Marie sang a song in Sharon’s ear from Wicked:
“I’ve heard it said, that people come into our lives, for a reason, bringing something we must learn. And we are led, to those who help us most to grow, if we let them. And we help them in return. Well I don’t know if I’ve been changed for the better, but… because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”
It was the most beautiful night. A celebration of life. Sharon passed five days later.
The story of Sharon isn’t the story of a woman who tragically died young, but rather one of unique and rare friendships. She brought five women together who were strangers. She made us one. She united us in a way that changed our lives. I sit here typing, watching my fingers fly across the keys and seeing the ring all of us had on our fingers at one point, if only for the symbolic gesture of feeling closer to Sharon. Because we loved her, we now love each other.
Since her death, so many people have said, “Jeanne, you’re such a great friend.” They’re missing the point. Sharon was the great friend. When she would relentlessly thank me, I would jokingly drop to my knees, bow and say, “It is an honor to serve you.” Giggling, she knew in her heart, I meant every word.
It’s not that this group of woman who served Sharon were special, myself included. It’s that Sharon herself had the ability to attract selfless, humble people to her world. It speaks volumes of her character.
Think about your friends. Think about the people you follow on social networking sites. Think about those who have passed through your life. Would you wipe their ass? Do you think they would wipe yours? And more importantly, what kind of people do you attract? Selfish or selfless? What is the purpose of your connections with people? Is it for personal gain or for love? If you can answer those questions, you might learn a lot about yourself… just saying.
Sharon’s story is one of my works in progress.