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My sister held the phone up to Margaret’s ear and I could hear her labored breathing.
“Hi Margaret, it’s me, Cathy,” I said in a soft voice. I paused, searching for the words to say. “I want you to know how much I love you.” My voice cracked as I tried to hold my emotions back. Could she really hear me?
“She only has a few more hours left with us,” my sister said, her own voice trying to hold back the sadness and sobbing she wanted to pour forth.
“Is she conscious,” I asked?
“She’s not awake right now. But she can hear you,” said my sister. “I can see her making facial expressions as she listens. She’s listening to you. I thought you might want to say goodbye to her.”
I spilled out my heart to Margaret one last time over the phone. I told her not to be afraid of the journey ahead of her, that I knew she was going to do amazing things in the place she was going. Not that I had any idea what that place was going to be like. I haven’t spent much time living near to death to have much insight to what’s on the other side. But I had a hunch that Margaret was in for something wonderful.
I don’t have many memories of Margaret, my older sister’s best friend. I’m on one coast of this big country, and Margaret spent much of her time on the opposite coast. But I knew how much she had integrated herself with members of my family back East. I knew about the yearly ladies getaway weekends she spent with my sister and sister-in-law and several of their vivacious, middle-aged friends and relations. I had heard about how much happiness Margaret brought to my anxiety-ridden mother on several occasions when Mom would visit my sister in Florida. I knew how much Margaret loved her husband John and how they seemed to live a life together surrounded by laughs and fun and the warmth of friends and family.
I did have one memory of Margaret that will always stay with me. It hails back to those terrible weeks in October 2013 when we were moving Mom and Dad out of their home of 40 years and into a senior living residence an hour away in Annapolis. Dad’s health and the burden of a two-story home in the suburbs outside of Baltimore had become too much for Mom to handle on her own. So with heavy heart, our family had begun the process of relocating my parents to a residence closer to my brother, where Dad could be cared for in 24-hour assisted living and Mom could have some space of her own in a small independent living apartment in the other wing of the same senior residence. Dad made the shift in September that year, and I had flown in from California to help with Mom’s move, all the more painful, in early October.
We’d made the grand shift over the course of a few days, shuttling all of Mom’s 40+ years of belongings to her new residence. Margaret flew up from Florida in the midst of the move to keep Mom from having a complete melt-down. All of us had had our share of melt-downs and full-on outbursts of emotion at each other during those chaotic days. My older sister’s control complex was in full swing, questioning every move I made. Mom’s anxiety was through the roof. My older brother and his family were close to combustion too. We were all physically and emotionally exhausted as a family. Margaret walked into an absolute furnace of emotion when she arrived. Somehow, her calm demeanor and warm smile kept us all from killing each other.
I remember going to dinner at Jalapeños late one evening with Margaret and the whole family as we all tried to decompress from the stress of the day’s big move. Somehow the topic of Mom’s lace curtains and the valance that hung across the main window in the living room became the subject of intense conversation. I don’t recall the details. But I remember it came to some sort of climax. Someone had to go back and retrieve these items. Despite my exhaustion, I resolved that I would drive back that evening to fetch these precious items for Mom so that she could be at peace.
Everyone at the table balked. “Don’t you dare go, Cathy. That’s crazy! That’s an hour drive each way. Don’t be ridiculous. You’re exhausted. Don’t even THINK about it.”
Being the youngest in the family, I was always the one that everyone seemed to have the least faith in. I was the baby, the weak one. And despite my years of successfully creating a life for myself thousands of miles away in California, I was always the one that my family tamped down. I wasn’t the least surprised that everyone was trying to squash my resolve that evening. I remember bottling up all my emotions as we made our way to the parking lot after dinner.
“I’ll ride back with Cathy in the van,” said Margaret.
“Don’t you dare let her drive back to house in Baltimore, Margaret. We’re counting on you. Keep her straight,” said my sister.
“Of course, of course,” said Margaret.
I stood there in the parking lot, fuming inside, just wanting to be taken seriously for once, wanting my sister to let up on her control, wanting my mother to stop panicking about everything. Mom, dad, my brother and his family, my sister — everyone peeled off into their separate vehicles. And once they were all out of ear’s range, Margaret turned to me with a sly grin and twinkle in her eye like Santa Claus and said, “So, shall we go to Baltimore?”
I absolutely loved her in that moment.
She rode with me in the van that night, one hour there, one hour back. We grabbed the last few precious items that Mom needed and took care of a few more housekeeping details to put things at rest for the time being. I said a spiritual goodbye to the house that night before we hopped back in the van. This was my childhood home. Nothing would be the same from this point on.
Margaret was my special companion that night in the van. She listened to me tell my story. She let me cry. She let me go silent when I had become exhausted from my own chatter. She made sure we got back safe and sound to Annapolis. She slept alongside me in the guest bed at my brother’s house that night, at once a stranger and a second sister from another life.
I finished my goodbye to Margaret on the phone and then sat there in silence, listening to her breathing on the other end. I could not see Margaret’s face, nor could I see my sister as she sobbed nearby pulling the phone back to her ear. We said I love you to each other once more and hung up the phone.
Margaret passed at 7:45pm this evening. I can still hardly comprehend how such a woman so full of life and joy and wit and grace could have the life extinguished from her in such a harsh way. She didn’t want to die from cancer. She fought to stay alive as long as she could. What a brutal beast cancer can be, a terrorist of the human spirit.
Here in my home in California this evening, just hours after Margaret’s spirit has begun a new journey, I imagine she has somehow traveled many miles from her body in Florida and is perched close by me in my living room. At the same time, I feel she is standing vigil with my sister, with her husband John, her children, her friends, people who knew her far more deeply than I did. I remember the journey Margaret made with me that night from Annapolis to Baltimore and back, bright and brilliant human being that she was. And I muse to myself that tonight she’s on a very special journey of her own. I can’t go with her on this trip, but I can imagine her with that big beautiful smile and sparkle in her eye winking back at me like she did in the parking lot that night in October.
“Well, let’s go!” she says.
I wish we could, Margaret. I wish we could.
This song came to me tonight and comforts me as I think of Margaret and remember what’s most important in life.
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February 13, 2016