Saturday, February 11, 2012

A No-Regrets Life

I met Mary the way hundreds if not thousands of people around the world met Mary.  I was traveling into her city—at the time, Beijing—and a mutual friend arranged for me—a poor foreign student—to stay with her.  Stay I did, for a week, with my traveling companion, in the home of this vibrant perfect stranger who truthfully I didn’t see much of because her work schedule.  The most vivid memory I have of Mary’s apartment there was the pantry.  I had just been living in Taiwan for a year, and familiar Western foods were hard come by.  Because she had generous shipment privileges being in the Foreign Service, Mary had the best-stocked pantry I had ever seen.  Particularly I remember the gusto of tucking into Quaker Granola paired with local yogurt.  Yummm…

We didn’t stay in touch after my visit beyond a heartfelt thank you note, but one day back in Washington, DC some years later, working in the Asia field, I spotted a familiar looking face at some seminar.  It was Mary.  Agreeing to talk soon, we did, and in so doing discovered many mutual interests.  We quickly became fast friends.  That was about 30 years ago. 

My friend Mary passed away on January 8.  I write this still with a sense of how surreal it is—can she really be gone? 

Her death was sudden and too soon, but I still feel blessings around it.  First of all, Mary lived what I call a no-regrets life.  She travelled all over the world, she had friendships from her work and those travels that had lasted for many decades, she immersed herself in things she loved to do (like reading and collecting books), she was respected and well loved.  She had an amazingly close nuclear and extended family with whom she spent a great deal of time, including a big Christmas reunion she had returned from the day before her first massive stroke—a huge blessing for her family. 

My getting to see her a last time was a blessing, too. Though another friend and I had been told she could not see, move, speak, or eat, that morning (after a visit from a therapy dog, her sisters told me) she became a bit lucid. When we got there her bed had been rolled out into the hospice’s garden. It was a magical 65-degree January day, and as I shared stories about Mary’s and my friendship and escapades with her sisters and a niece, she was definitely there.  Mary was there, and she even spoke—albeit with great difficulty-- to me, using my name.  Not having been with anyone in this condition, I had opted to bring a couple of particularly fragrant flowers in case she still had her sense of smell, as well as a few clementines, thinking of that delicious aroma when they’re cracked open, even if she couldn’t eat.  One of her sisters had the bright idea of taking a slice and very gently dribbling juice onto her lip, and you could tell Mary loved it.

I’m grateful I’m able to remember Mary in that serene space, not at a hospital with needles and tubes and hospital smells and noisy intercom and staff bursting in at all hours of the day or night. It was so peaceful, that time together, as I talked and I stroked her hair, having decided in her position what I would want was for people to touch me.  She just as peacefully passed away a couple of nights later, with her family at her side. 

This is the first time a friend—a peer, though a bit older than I—has died, and I didn’t know what to expect.  Tears come at odd times every day or so, as something or other touches a chord that says “my friend, Mary”:

v  Looking at a list of museum openings in the Weekend section of The Washington Post. Mary was always game for a museum jaunt, despite the fact that one of her two most recent jobs was as a tour operator taking visitors from school kids from the Midwest to business people from Germany or China around the city’s attractions (in their native language, one of about five she spoke). 

v  Flipping through a clothing catalog, seeing a kind of shirt we both loved and had in several colors.

v  Every time I look at my living room bookshelves and worry about where my framed picture of Mary I’ve had for perhaps a decade has gone, oddly vanished right around the time of her death.

v  As I stand in Second Story Books chatting with the bookseller who is appraising the hundreds of books I’m selling in advance of a move, and wonder where Mary’s collection will go.

v  Flipping through a Healthy Back catalog when I see a blue recliner. I remember having to go to the La-Z-Boy store and arranging for delivery of one just like it to Mary’s home while she was in rehab at the hospital after a knee replacement surgery.  I helped her when she returned home, too, and we enjoyed many “picnics” with her sitting in the recliner recovering.

v  Thinking I’m really overdue for a press trip for a travel article.  Mary was my partner in crime for two trips, one to an Eastern Shore resort that was fun, but its luxury not really her kind of travel, and another that was more her thing, staying in a small B&B and tramping around exploring Richmond, Virginia.

v  Telling my mother about a program I had coming up in Annapolis that was to start at 8 a.m., and that with some of my classmates considering staying overnight the night before that. Suddenly I was remembering the group’s opening retreat in Pennsylvania where I did stay at a motel the previous night, courtesy of Mary, who told me she didn’t want me driving early in the morning—also for an 8 a.m. start--after my usual late night working and the medications I take usually at 1 in the morning. Just a beautiful, completely generous gesture so typical of Mary.  Her Facebook page shared stories of even huger generosity, given still so openly.

v  Reading the spring National Geographic Live! brochure and reaching the page on the All Roads Film Project, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” films by women directors from international and indigenous cultures. We had gone to one of these programs together a year or two ago, to a film about a matriarchal community still existing in modern China. That’s the kind of cultural outing Mary and I loved best.

v  Reading a book about two women travelers in the 1920s and wanting to share the fun of it, thinking I’d pass it to Mary when I finished it, that she would love it.

v  Seeing women wearing Asian-inspired jewelry or clothing.

v   Every time I write to certain friends on Gmail, when a suggestion courtesy of Google pops up automatically suggesting other people I might want to send the email to-- often, Mary,

v  Seeing people with the beautiful ruddy faces suggesting they might be from Nepal, or seeing the word “sherpa” in a mail-order catalog describing some thick comfy outerwear.  Mary spent years in Nepal in the Peace Corps before going into the Foreign Service, and retained many friendships from that time, including her favorite Sherpa.

v  Roaming in the library or a bookstore.  Again, despite the fact that one of Mary’s job was as a bookseller at the now-defunct  Border’s, she could always spend more time around the books that we both loved so well.  One of our favorite mutual haunts was the Freer & Sacker gift shop/book shop.  Oh, the trouble we could get in there! 

v  Seeing a play last night that dealt with how a group of people at the hospital together got through the last hours of a loved one, how one in particular remembered the man. (Perhaps it was a bit too soon for me to take in a play like that.)  

Mary was always up for dim sum and we had a favorite spot the town over from where I live in Maryland.  At Chinese New Year, just a couple of weeks after her passing, two friends who’d become friends of Mary’s through me over the years, and their children, celebrated with the traditional dim sum, and we saved a seat for Mary.  And every late July, those same two friends and I will celebrate the Leo Birthday gatherings the four of us had held for years.  And Mary will be there with us.

For the first few weeks after her passing I would hop on Facebook every night to see if there were new photos of her or anecdotes about her shared by all the people whose lives she had touched. I still go back, though less often, hoping for more.

I am grateful to Mary’s sisters for having a memorial service here, though at her instruction she’ll be buried back in Wisconsin with her family.  It allowed some of us who had been privileged to know her, as friend or as colleague, a chance to swap warm and funny anecdotes about her, to sing some songs she loved, to learn more about her family, to look at some adorable pictures of her as a child and fondly remember the times of her photos as an adult, and to honor her immense but easy generosity and her no-regrets life which I, for one, aspire to emulate.

I love you, Mary.

“I think of memories as…bringing [her] back before me. 
No, she is not reborn. And she is probably not a ghost drifting above me, or an angel singing in heaven. 
But nor is she nothing, and there is not nothing after her death.
.  There are all my recollected moments of time I spent with her.”  
(Nina Sankovitch, from Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading)