Joe and I had the same birthday, which, when I discovered this, gave me infinite glee. I don’t know why I love this, the shared birthday thing, so much, I just do. It gave us a kind of foundation—born on May 19—we had the bond people seem to feel when they share an entrance point into this world. I don’t know about you and your birthdate, but I’ve met a bunch of people along the way who are May 19-ers, and it has nothing to do with Facebook, either. I actually know these people from living in the world: Taylor Watts, my high school boyfriend; Lisa, also from high school, who grew up to become Kyle’s mom; Ben, my tall and eloquent birthday twin, who brought me homemade granola and tapenade the other day; Elaine who baked a cake for everyone at church on our birthday; and Joe, who was in hospice care for four years when I had the honor of being his volunteer. Which meant that I visited with him and his wife, Inez, on a regular basis.
It’s breaking the rules, of course, to name names of those in hospice care, but Joe died two years ago in March and Inez and I are just plain friends now, not hospice friends. I visit with her when I can, which, given that I’m rarely in northern Vermont, is less and less often. I do, however, like to check in around May 19, partly because I like to see how she’s doing around difficult anniversaries and partly because I love her.
Mostly because I love her. And also because I loved Joe. On Sunday I put his glasses on the pulpit. He gave them to me, though I can’t remember why, now, except that Joe was always giving away everything he had. He didn’t have any money but that didn’t stop him from making you take everything within reach when you were leaving: cookies, puzzle books, pens. You simply were not allowed to walk away from a visit with Joe empty-handed. I probably didn’t have my readers with me once and so Joe let me borrow his and then he probably insisted that I take them with me.
Joe and Inez really had nothing, by societal standards. No money, no real estate, a car that was barely running. They did not take vacations or go out to eat in restaurants. Nor did they complain or wish themselves out of their circumstances. They loved each other, deeply. They had both lived incredibly difficult lives, found one another after much heartbreak, pain and loss, then devoted themselves to caring for each other.
Joe was one of the most kindhearted, gentle, generous people I have ever known. I would visit and we would sit at the little table in their kitchen and he often did a puzzle, man, was he a puzzle guy! He wore bright pajamas with loud prints. Sometimes he dyed his hair, blue or orange. Always, if Inez was out running errands while I was with Joe she would call, just to check in. And every time I was amazed by how kind they were to each other. How gentle. Somehow they had not allowed their circumstances to eat a hole in their humanity; they did not see the world as persecuting them, there was not some better life they felt they had been robbed of.
Joe had a prayer that was all his own and we held hands while he spoke it to me each time before I left. Fortunately I have a recording of it and so can hear his voice and his beautiful words when I need them. The prayer is of forgiveness and gratitude, so very Joe.
Joe’s death was hard for Inez and I knew it would be. They breathed each other’s breaths, were never far from each other in their tiny apartment (in a subsidized housing development). She suffered with him as he became sicker and sicker. Not surprisingly, after Joe died Inez was unmoored and found it difficult to find a reason to go on. I visited with her in the hospital once, after she failed at attempting to take her own life.
From there Inez managed to climb the steep ladder back to living. She moved from the apartment she shared with Joe into a different one, around the corner. A new and fresh space gave her a place to spread out her painting supplies, though she was not much interested in creating for a long time. Inez paints with and on anything she can get her hands on. I have seen her work on pieces of cardboard, scraps of paper. Her paintings remind me of Grandma Moses: simple yet enchanting scenes of the world around us. Slowly, slowly, she found her way into her new life. She started going to lunch at the local senior center, she bought a decent car, and she started painting again.
We laughed a lot the other day, sharing stories of the things happening in our lives. She told me about her neighbors there: This one is something … schizophrenic? This one drinks a lot … this one is developmentally disabled … but we are all friends she said, with genuine pride, We all watch out for each other.
I sat with Inez for almost two hours, the time went by unnoticed. I realized at some point that all these years later Inez and I are friends, too. What began as an official arrangement through a hospice organization morphed into a friendship over the years. We simply care about each other, we check in, we ask the questions: How is it going? How are the kids? And though Inez’s life is always pockmarked with challenges (knee replacement surgery last winter and a recent fall), she soldiers on. We both do; we have a lot more in common than not these days.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said to me as we hugged good-bye and she was right. Our troubles, our challenges over the years have had different hues and flavorings, but when you strip away the top layer, the settings of our lives, you find two people who are really just working their way through another day. How do we do this? we seem to always be trying to figure out.
Well. We paint and we write and take photos, in our attempts to make sense and meaning through creation. We find the folks who can walk with us through our days: it is so much better to be a we than it is to be an I. Going it alone only goes so far before the tank runs out of gas and you realize you missed something crucial along the way, possibly that hitchhiker back there who might have been able to help you out of this jam.
Inez and I sit and talk with each other, we hear each other’s stories. We care. Sometimes our lives are messy, sometimes there is more light. Sometimes things flow smoothly, sometimes we’re stuck, tired. Strip away the view we each have from our living room, what we are going to eat for dinner tonight, where we went to school, the jobs we have held, the clothes we wear. Strip us down from the places we have arrived at in this life and what you have is just two people, trying to make it through, laughing some, praying a lot, missing Joe, hugging it out.
The older I get the more it dawns on me that this is what it’s about: sustained commitment to something that matters. The enriching of a life through meaningful connections to each other. It can’t be done through texts, it’s not done particularly well long-distance and it’s not a fair weather proposition.
If the world is, indeed, enchanted by a mystical force, as C.S. Lewis put it, I sense that those forces are working hard to draw us into connection, not only with the gorgeous world in which we live, but into relationship with each other. Tenacious, tear-stained, shake it all you want, it ain’t gonna break bonds of friendship and love. I sense this why we’re here, to show up for each other, to hold hands in prayerful gratitude, to give away the extra puzzle book, to come a long way, together.