I wrote this last year. It’s time to share it.
When Kendra was sick, she used to say “When this is over, I want another baby. A girl. A ‘new life’ baby.” I thought it was funny that she’d want another little person, already having three small, loud, demanding little ones. But I would laugh and dare to hope, as she did, that she would be well, and we’d welcome that new life baby and enjoy the heck out of her and celebrate. (And live happily ever after, the end.)
Five years ago right now I was packing to move into my OWN condo. I was happy to be on my own and so excited to be back down the street from her. I couldn’t wait for her to help me shop and decorate. To have coffee together and to play with the kids. Five years ago right now she was safely in between treatments. Packing for a trip to Disney World with her husband Brian and the kids. About to buy her first big beautiful house which she had waited a lifetime to do. About to celebrate her oldest daughter’s 12th birthday. Her little boy also – about to be six. It would also be just over a month away from the second anniversary of her diagnosis – of her beginning of her fight with Stage Four Lung Cancer.
I was there the day she got the phone call, the results of the biopsy. I will never forget being there that day, as she called the kids into the living room, and I asked if she wanted me to leave, and she said no. I was there when she told her children that she was sick.
I was a little less than there physically, but always in heart, while she endured chemo treatments and radiation. As she lost her hair, bought a wig, she was too fatigued to spend much time off the couch. The battle for her life waxed and waned and she prepared all of us, she wrote letters, she told us of her love for us, she prepared journals and albums. She remained optimistic, throughout. She held on to hope, never wanting to face the reality of leaving her children. She never let me consider that she wasn’t going to get well. The only time we spoke of the possibility that she wouldn’t , she was candid – “Andrew will be okay -though it breaks my heart that he will barely remember me. Brian will move on, he’ll be okay too. Kaleigh will do just fine, she’ll be sad right away but she will bounce back and live her life. I only worry about Lindsey. She will take it the hardest and I wish I knew that she will be okay.”
April 30, 2004. I moved into my condo. Mom and I were in the kitchen, putting things away, and I will never forget when she casually mentioned, “Brian called. Kendra went in the hospital today. This time, she won’t be leaving.” I do not remember anything after that.
I do remember it was a Friday. And I had taken the following Monday off because of the move. I remember her sister calling me to ask me to babysit over the next few days. I don’t remember talking to Brian. I remember the Sunday, May 2, crying with mom in the car on the way to and from the hospital. They wouldn’t even let us in to see her but I could hear her in the hallway and I nearly died myself – hearing the moaning and the crying and the pain. I remember Jen’s tired calm. I remember Brian’s frazzled, tired, not calm. I remember leaving thinking – I am not even going to get to say goodbye to my dear, dear friend.
I remember Monday, watching Andrew all day, my heart breaking over and over – or just broken already and raw. Knowing what was happening, how his life was about to change forever, and knowing where she was and what she was enduring. For her, I suffered. For them, for those children, I wanted to die right along with her. And I knew that that was why she loved me as much as she did – because of how much I loved her children. It was Andrew’s voice Monday, Andrew who said “Come visit mommy with me tonight, Big Lindsey! You should come and see Mommy.”
Monday night, I asked a friend to take me – I made Brian promise me I’d get to see her. We got to the hospital, between 6 and 6:30 and her immediately family wasn’t there – they were downstairs in the cafeteria eating dinner. Aunts and uncles were upstairs and they knew me and welcomed me and I got to go to her. I crossed the room alone to her. I don’t remember if I touched her or not. But I remember her face – it wasn’t her. Almost as soon as I saw her, those few painful, awkward, excruciating moments of knowing that her body was there, but her soul would not be for much longer – the nurses came in and ushered us out. I was in the hallway, knowing I would never hear my friend’s voice again, or feel her hug, or look in her eyes. And within a minute a nurse rushed out and said “It’s time to get the family. They are downstairs eating. Not the kids, don’t bring the kids back up.” And I was off. Racing down to the cafeteria. Finding her mom. Patting her on the shoulder – them very loudly wondering “Who will stay with the kids?” I volunteered. I didn’t feel it was my place to be there when she left us. I felt like being with the children would be where she’d want me. So, I sat. Talked to the kids. Watched them finish their dinners. My head was everywhere but in the present with them. I was seeing their future. I was seeing their past. I was grieving for her. For them. For myself.
It was an eternity and a moment that they were gone. And then they were back. And I rushed to her mom, and she said, “She’s gone.” And I couldn’t say anything but “No!” as the hot tears that I’d held all night while trying to be there for her children came down. Her leaving, it was inevitable. There wouldn’t have been any other outcome that day. But the finality – it was still a shock and it still hurt so much. Donna, Kendra’s mother hugged me quickly – sobbing- then gathered the kids – “Mommy’s gone.” Their faces. I’ll never forget, especially Lindsey’s face. We got in the elevator all together. My friend and I got off at the parking level. They continued up to ” Say goodbye to Mommy.” It was not my place to go with them, and I had nothing left in me to walk back in that room with. The car clock said “7:21”.
And my life has never been the same.
Three months later, I was pregnant. My heart ached for missing my friend and for not sharing this time with her. For not having her to turn to. The mother “role model” in my life – gone. I didn’t know what to do without her and every step along the way hurt without her there to share it. I’d hear myself saying things to my daughter, certain words, certain tones, and my heart would skip – it was pieces of her in me, coming out in my mothering. In those moments, I’d be so happy and sad, all at once. I wonder every day what she would think of me now. I imagine what we’d discuss if she was only a phone call away. I dream about her all the time, and in my dreams she’s alive, and it was just a mistake that I had thought that she’d died, we still had more time together. I wake from these dreams with a sadness that is not easy to shake.
Five years and one month after my friend died, I sat on Donna’s porch, between the two girls, Kaleigh 17, Lindsey 14, grown up. Teenagers. Mature bodies, mature young women. Not children anymore. Grown into strong, beautiful women. I look from one side to the other and I cannot believe that these little girls survived the hand they were dealt and are sitting, whole and wonderful, at my side. Kaleigh’s face, it’s like seeing Kendra again. Lindsey’s smile is so geniune and I remember the little girl she was. Andrew, across the room, has his dad’s laugh, but his mom’s freckles. He’s 11. I remember the first time I saw him, held him, two days after he was born. His first steps. How she’d wrap him in his blue blankie and cuddle him when he was sick or tired.
The children are fine. They’ve struggled, they’ve hurt, but they’ve grown despite, into these beautiful people who she would give ANYTHING to see. I would have, in that moment, given anything to have her there with us to see the kids, all grown, all fine. She would be so proud. My heart was so full of pride and sadness and happiness it nearly burst.
And there was my daughter, four, Andrew’s age when Kendra was sick, with curly hair and a profile so stunningly similar to little Lindsey’s, playing between all of us, making us laugh and reminding us how life goes on. My baby who Kendra never held but I believe hand picked and sent straight to me, as her gift. The baby who was meant to teach me to move on, to be happy, to celebrate life. Her “new life” baby.