There are some people I can’t forgive even though I’ve never met them. Jean’s mother is one.
Because we’ve spent a weekend a year together for nearly forty years, we fall unthinking into our familiar ways. The three of us who flew have taken necessary precautions—isolation, then testing, and N95 masks en route. Otherwise, all appears normal. Just another reunion. This year we’re meeting in chilly Colorado at Jean’s cozy home where oil and watercolor renderings of the distant sea and warmer places cover the walls. Our dear friend Sarah is too forgetful to travel anymore.
Routines help us through awkward first moments of this gathering that can’t be postponed until the pandemic ends. Hugs all around when we three travelers first arrive followed by a few perfunctory how-are-yous; lengthy check-ins will follow. Sleeping arrangements are finalized and luggage put away. We place bags of chips and Oreos on a coffee table and take our places—four women well past a certain age, in loose clothing, without makeup, sprawling on comfortable couches and chairs as the temperature outside fall toward zero.
Jean sits in the recliner where she spends most of her time these days, a view of the snow-covered Rockies out the window, a glass of Gator Aid and her pill bottles on a TV tray within easy reach. She smiles a here-we-are-again smile, a small sighing smile, unlike the one in her senior portrait that dominates a cluster of photos on the bookshelf behind her. In the 8x10 glossy, her eyes shine as if she’s imagining the brightest of futures, her grin so wide you know she burst out laughing the instant the shutter clicked.
Nothing in her background explains the kind of person she is. “Given your upbringing, how in the world did you turn out so well?” we have asked her many times. Forgiving. Kind. Naturally optimistic. Warm-hearted. Who else would adopt a squirrel left for dead by a neighborhood cat, bring him back to life, name him Billy, and keep him as a pet instead of handing him right over to Wildlife Rescue? Who else but Jean would try to have a relationship with a mother like hers?
There are some people I can’t forgive even though I’ve never met them. Jean’s mother is one. She divorced Jean’s aloof and distant father shortly after Jean’s birth—no blame there. But then Jean’s mother gave up custody of her infant daughter to a father unable to give her love, and she never reached out to her again. As I said, I never have, but Jean has forgiven her mother and even initiated contact with her off and on throughout her life. Her mother never reciprocated.
“She sent me a diamond ring just before she died,” Jean says. “It arrived not long after she wrote about disinheriting me. That was a few months ago. She knows about my condition. Now, what am I going to do with a diamond ring?”
Jean is drawn to the wounded. I’m referring here to her mother and father, an unloving stepmother who joined the family when Jean was three, and also her two husbands. A willingness, even eagerness, to come to the rescue might even explain how she and I came to know each other. I was so desperately lonely that summer I moved south. New to Pasadena with an infant, isolated, disconnected, without a community, friendless, I had once asked a woman with a baby in her shopping cart for her telephone number.
I met Jean beside the sand pit at an infant-toddler program, our nine-month-olds playing at our feet. I didn’t ask for her phone number immediately, but we talked. She listened to my story of moving away from where I had lived for most of my life. After a few weeks of friendly conversation in the play yard, she invited me to join her mothers’ group. That invitation was lifesaving. And here we are still, all of us except Sarah, in Colorado for the weekend.
“Tea anyone?” Jean asks. “Help yourselves.”
Because we met soon after our first children were born and not long before our second kids arrived, we’ve never stopped appreciating the luxury of uninterrupted conversation and the naughty thrill of snacking on foods we denied our children. Talk, eat, talk, eat, walk, talk, eat. Who brought the chocolate? Where are the candied nuts? Is there another bag of chips? Are we having pizza for dinner?
We were conscientious mothers, like-minded in our thoughtful approaches but not necessarily alike. Over the years, our differences grew. First, I moved away. Then Jean moved. We no longer share political affiliations (not even close), not marital or socioeconomic status or interests other than family and books and the occasional indulgence in junk food. But we shared milestones over important years of our lives, and of course, the milestones keep on coming. Turning seventy is one although Jean will be a few months shy when she leaves us.
We have seen each other through four decades of ups and downs. The births of children and grandchildren. Our parents’ ill health and deaths. A stillborn daughter. An abortion. Three divorces. A child’s serious illness. And the worst imaginable, the death of one of our children when Sue’s brilliant, handsome, charismatic, and schizophrenic son died of a drug overdose. Loyal friends. There’s more than enough to sustain the bonds between us, but we agree that mostly, it’s our ability to listen. Easily six hours at a sitting. Until there’s not another word to be said.
Not that our differences haven’t caused a few ebbs in how close we feel to each other. Jean answered a knock at the door at a personal low point after her first husband lost his job. She became a Jehovah’s Witness and remains a Witness to this day even though the community shunned her when she left her marriage for another man. The rest of us were incensed at her commitment to teachings that caused her terrible guilt and suffering. Nonetheless, when she married that man a few years ago—after decades of living together—she requested to be reinstated. Now, the Kingdom Hall is at the center of her life. I’m not sure how she explains her three non-Witness friends. Spending time with people outside the community is discouraged.
“I did some bad things,” she says, repeating a refrain from years past. “You know what I mean.”
“Ah, still feeling guilty. What did you do that was so terrible?” I ask.
“My boys needed me, and I wasn’t there,” she says.
“Right,” I say. “Senior boys really like to hang with their mothers.”
“I had a freshman too,” she counters.
“Are you not allowed to do anything for yourself after eighteen years of giving?”
“I should have been there. Instead, I got together with Tom.”
“Do Witnesses believe in forgiveness?”
Jean doesn’t respond.
“There are no do-overs,” Carol adds. “Forgive yourself.”
Jean is happy with the carpenter she ran away with. Needy though he is, no one begrudges her happiness in whatever form it comes.
The conversation moves on.
“Dust to dust,” Jean says. “This is my belief now. When it’s over, it’s over.”
None of the rest of us believes in an afterlife either.
“But you know, when I was young,” Jean continues, “I believed I’d go to heaven and look down on the people I loved. I’d watch their lives unfold. The boys, the grandkids and all. Everything I’ll miss makes me sad.”
I can’t allow her to just feel her sorrow and instead rush in to say something comforting: “You’ll miss the bad outcomes too. You’ll be present in their lives in memory. You’ll live on in them.”
She stares out the window.
“I have two more chemo treatments, and then I’ll meet with my doctor to discuss options, but there aren’t any that I know. I’ll have three months.”
“Before symptoms return?” I ask.
“No, until I die.”
I can’t think of a thing to say.
We spend too much time talking about health. I don’t mean just Jean’s; we give her all the space she chooses to take, which turns out to be very little. But accounts of the aches and pains common to women in their seventies grow tedious and pale in comparison to Jean’s prognosis.
“Have that cataract surgery,” Carol orders, when Jean mentions blurry vision. “You deserve to see well.”
“I’m not sure I want go through yet another medical procedure,” Jean says.
“Well, if not that, how about a trip to Hawaii,” Carol says.
“I can afford to,” Jean muses.
But she probably won’t. And I sort of get it. Routines bring comfort, and someone who’s leaving this life doesn’t suddenly become another person, a world traveler. Is a view of the Pacific necessarily an improvement over her familiar one of the Rockies?
When Jean leaves for a treatment on Friday afternoon, the three of us remaining pick up our devices and check in with our families after which we take a walk in the neighborhood. For dinner, we order two pizzas: a meat supreme and a vegetarian. Each of us takes slices of both kinds.
The most tense moment of the weekend comes the next day when Sue says something about the current state of our country. “The problem in the US is capitalism. Everybody is out to make a buck or rather as many bucks as possible.”
I add my two cents about how in the Netherlands, my distant cousin has access to healthcare and guaranteed housing for life. But taxes are higher.
And as on previous weekends away, we’re off and running.
Carol jumps in. “I blame the billionaires. They’re the problem.”
“I think we’re doing OK,” Jean says.
Sue explodes. “No, we’re not,” she shouts at Jean. “I lost my son. The system failed him.” She stands abruptly. “I can’t talk about this anymore.”
We look up at Jean and then down at our laps as Sue storms out of the room. At this moment, we’re all very aware this isn’t a weekend like the others. No one says anything.
“Sue did everything she could to get him help,” I remind Jean after a pause. “Everything. There was no help available.”
The sky is growing dark when Sue rejoins the group. Unlike other years when we knew to agree to disagree and avoid a topic—not another word said—she apologizes to Jean and to Carol and me. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” All three of us assure her that she had every right to her reaction. She suggests we order dinner and leaves a few minutes later to pick up burgers, three with cheese and one without. Truffle fries all around. We deliver Jean’s food to her chair. “I’m sorry I can’t host you properly,” she says.
“You’re not allowed to say sorry,” Carol scolds.
“Sorry,” Jean says.
Over dinner, Carol suggests we talk about good times we remember. And those stories take us up to Jean’s bedtime at 8:30 and half the next day. Camping trips with and without the kids. Birthday parties and Christmas parties. Our dinners out. Our weekends away. Quibbling over Scrabble games. Trips with our toddlers to the zoo. (We never made it beyond the flamingos and the monkeys.) Nutcracker performances with preschoolers. The time two of our kids sent a pet hamster down a slide on a hot day. And grandchildren, grandchildren, grandchildren. Jean has two.
“I am not afraid to die,” she says. “I’ve made my peace with this.”
“You are courageous. You’re my role model,” Carol says.
Sue and I nod.
By Saturday afternoon, Jean is tired, so we leave the house to explore Fort Collins. Later, we order take-out fried chicken with fries for dinner and turn in early.
How do you say a final farewell? We didn’t. Were we in denial? Not really. Were we protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed by sad feelings? Maybe. Believe it or not, we spent the final hours of our weekend with Jean looking at her teacup collection. Teacups are not my thing, but trust me, hers are extraordinary. Anyone would think so. Large, small, painted, textured, translucent, opaque. Some elaborately decorated with gold. Ten of them will go to a museum.
She asks each of us to choose one. It’s a difficult decision, but I choose the Murano cup and saucer made of red glass. When I get home, I’ll put it above the kitchen sink where it will remind me not of loss but of one of life’s greatest gifts—friendship—and the irreversible sorrows that render it precious.
Kathleen Canrinus is 77 years old and her debut memoir, The Lady with the Crown: A Story of Resilience, was published by Fuze Publishing. She’s also been published by Feminist Press, the AARP Bulletin, The Sun Magazine and more.
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