January is here. It’s almost Lea’s birthday. She would have been 52.
Six and a half years ago, I sat at a bedside in a care facility on the coast of California, near Santa Cruz. The sun was going down, and the only ones in the room were Lea’s 20 year old niece and me. My friend, who had planned a reunion with me only a month before, was now suddenly, shockingly, dying. She whispered to me that her husband Mark had all the papers for the funeral arrangements, because her mother had died only a year before.
She asked me about her children, age four and six, who I had just met. I told her she had done a wonderful job. I reminded her that she wasn’t going to go just yet, there was likely a little time left. I didn’t know if I was talking about a day, weeks, or months, it wasn’t clear, and my heart and mind was so scrambled by the sight of my friend, halfway out of this life already. Her niece, who Lea adored, began to sob quietly in the chair across the room. I thought, she’s only a child, she’s losing her aunt, her favorite aunt. Lea fell asleep quickly after these short conversations, a blessing of her illness was sleep came more and more quickly, for longer and longer periods.
It was my job to sit with Lea, it was my job to witness this moment. I did my best. To this day, I hope I said the right things. I hope I added to her peace.
Lea’s brain tumor was inoperable. Technically, it sandwiched around the amygdala, a central switching station for the brain. There would be an attempt to radiate the area, to shrink the tumor, to buy more time. I told my friend, an oncologist at Stanford, about the situation when I visited him on my way to see Lea. He and I were picking up some food for his family. He looked at me, grabbed three chocolate bars, and threw them on the checkout stand. “Can we get a year?” I bargained.
“It’s not good” he said.
A day later Lea was awake. A confusion about transportation and extremely poor judgment led to the care facility to send Lea to the oncologist on her own in a medical transport vehicle. Mark was trapped in traffic, having raced home to see his two small children. So I trailed the bus to the appointment and was again alone with Lea when she spoke to the radiologist/oncologist about her brain. The woman I had sat next to in neuropsychology class where we had mapped out brain function according to function and location, who I had stayed up late with memorizing words like “amygdala” and “Broca’s area” and “prefrontal gyrex” was now looking at scans of her own brain and we could sadly, desperately, apply the knowledge we learned. The oncologist was very compassionate and did not patronize. He told Lea about the treatment. Then advised buying a large box of See’s candy and really enjoying it. Chocolate again, from men. Not so good.
I understand that we all create narratives about our lives; it’s part of a search for meaning. I suppose our brains all engage in this search to create a story. Whole schools of therapy are built around the idea. Part of my narrative is that this sad loss began my own transformation, led me to lean on someone I remembered from long ago who suddenly appeared on the scene, led me to my marital discontent, and so on. Maybe.
I still miss Lea. Her children are now 12 and 10. Her husband cut off contact with me, I resented it, but now I understand. I probably remind him of her and he needed to move on.
Would she forgive me for failing with my marriage? Could I yell at her for dying on me? I still wonder, occasionally when I wake, where she is. I stand in front of my classes, I look at my grad students and wonder, these young friends, these friends that will walk through the rigors of all this study, of building your mind and your work, some of them will be your lifelong colleagues, and some will be your friends.
And if you are very lucky, you’ll find a friend to laugh with, to love, and I hope that person stays with you your whole life through.