Staying in touch, and living in the face of dying

May 17, 2009|By SHARON RANDALL

One of the hardest things about moving to a new life is staying in touch with the people you loved in the old one.

Three years ago, when my husband and I moved from California to Las Vegas, we promised to visit. But visiting is not the same as living nearby.

I love the spontaneity of life, the unplanned, unexpected moments. Coffee at a kitchen table. A walk on the beach. A dinner that lingers in memory.

My husband (editor by day, bass player at heart) has missed playing music with his friends. So he invited some old buddies to fly out to spend a weekend making music together.


I love those guys. I wanted to hear them play. But I decided to go see another old friend and make music of a different kind.

Maribeth and I met a lifetime ago when our husbands started teaching together. We were new to California, homesick for our families (hers in Colorado, mine in the Carolinas), and became more like sisters than friends.

Our boys were born four months apart and grew up fighting like brothers. We shared camping trips, chicken pox and Thanksgiving dinners. She was a teacher, and told me once that, as a child, she liked to strip naked and sit on the curb barking at Greyhound buses. I put that in a column. Her students loved it.

She and her husband Steve were two of the rocks I leaned on after my first husband died.

It's a fine and lovely thing, sharing your life and your children with friends who double as your family.

After retiring, they bought a condo in Reno, near their son and his wife and their two little girls. I spent last weekend sleeping in their guest bed, staying up late telling old stories, getting to know this new chapter of their lives.

When I hugged their boy, he still smelled like one of my own. When I saw the light in his wife's eyes, I recalled how happy I felt at their wedding. When I played games with their girls, I did not want to leave.

But it's always best to leave before anyone wants you to go. Maribeth dropped me at the airport and waved the way she used to wave at Greyhounds.

On the flight back to Vegas, I took a window seat. An older woman (even older than I am) took the aisle. Her brow was furrowed, hands shaking.

"How are you?" I said.

She smiled, apologized for her English (I assured her it was better than my Spanish) and told me she was afraid to fly.

"Were you visiting family?" I said. She lit up, talking about her grandchildren. Then a man squeezed into the seat between us. After takeoff she fell asleep and he turned to me and smiled.

"How are you?" I said.

Slowly, as if opening an unwanted gift, he told me the story of his life - his job, his marriage, his wife's suicide after the death of their son, his struggle to grieve and move on.

We were soon to land. I had to be quick. I told him I, too, had lost loved ones: My mother and first husband to cancer, my dad to suicide. Then I recited words a friend once gave to me:

"The challenge for you now, having lost your loved one, is to live a life that is honoring to her memory, but at the same time that life moves forward so only one person has died, not two."

Suddenly, things got bumpy. The poor woman on the aisle woke up and began to cry.

I reached over and took her hand. To my surprise, the man between us took her other hand, then mine, connecting us full circle. We held on until landing, then laughed and said goodbye.

There are many ways to make music. With instruments and voices, lifelong friendships and brief encounters, simple words and knowing looks, or even the touch of a stranger's hand.

In the end, all that matters is not how well we play, but only that we never stop trying.

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