I always expect this kind of grief to come in a midnight phone call. It's the only reason why my mobile must always make the long trudge past the turn in the old Victorian stairs with me. And if I've left my mobile next to the blue sofa in the living room, I cannot sleep until I have gone down and fetched it. I like to think that this is really a habit of insurance, that I might believe that keeping the phone close to me will keep it from ringing with the news that a loved one is gone.
That story seems preferable to the truth. I know that the midnight phone calls will come. To miss them would for me mean an added day in travel time back to the States, back home where home is defined by the presence of my loved ones. When that phone call comes that Daddy or Gram or one of my three beloved sisters has slipped from between my fingers and out of this world, I expect that it will come in the evening their time and the dead of night mine. A two a.m. phone call is enough time to pack a bag and book a ticket on the 10 a.m. flight out of Bristol to New York and points beyond. It's enough time to catch an early afternoon flight direct from London to Florida or Colorado or Virginia. It's enough time for a friend to call in to work and rush me to the airport. It's enough time to maybe get home in time to say goodbye.
I cannot imagine my own heart break if I miss that call. Twenty-four extra hours to get home could mean not saying goodbye, not getting the opportunity to make my peace with people I love. I fear more than that phone call, having missed it. Perhaps it is a new neurosis. I didn't keep the phone with me when I lived in Alaska--a place it would have taken significantly longer to get home from. I feared the losses then, but now I am certain they are coming. My grandmother is frail and becoming frailer. My father suffered a stroke in January--the first of many I'm sure. And while I see so clearly that I am now at an age where losing parents is normal I fear losing my sisters--all of whom are within 7 years of being the age my mother was when she died. I supposed that it is that earlier loss that increases my fear of compounding the ones which are coming--the ones which no matter the visa situation or the cost, I'll get on plane and try to be home in time for.
For all of that preparation, I was taken by surprise yesterday afternoon when I made an unplanned stop at home between taking a friend's sons swimming in Malmesbury and having dinner with my friend Annie in Bristol. I'd thought that the bus company that typically stops outside my house also made the connection from Chippenham to Bristol. I was wrong and so stopped to drop off my swimming suit and towel at home and check my email on my way to Annie's house.
I knew something was wrong when I noticed a message from the woman who was my mother's only close friend. Messages from her aren't out of the ordinary. They come regardless of the ebbs and flows on my own communication. It's an easy relationship we have, one which is made up of reaching out without a requirement of actual news; though, when there is news, we share that too. We always begin with the weather a topic which is as predictable in the Indiana farming community in which I grew up as it is here in England. While rain and droughts bring bring her fear for crops and the guarantee or loss of a kitchen garden bounty, a day's sunlight is often the measure of my mood and my triumphs over it. I suppose there's a lot of information in our exchanges of temperatures and forecasts.
Like any other message, yesterday's started out with news that the rain has been avoiding her part of Posey County. Despite this they've had a crop of radishes, green beans, and blueberries. But this time there were also the e-mail addresses of my father and sister in the header--it was an easy way from that to understanding that something had gone terribly wrong. And I knew that news would come in the last paragraph of the message, but I wouldn't let my eyes scan down the page. Instead, I read her words deliberately respelling them into British English as I went. I knew I had to know what she had to tell me, but I wanted to live a little longer without that weight on my heart.
You see this particular friend of my mother held me up when my mother died suddenly but not unexpectedly fifteen years ago. When my father couldn't cope, she offered me a place to live even though I did not know how to accept it. She turned up on my birthday each year with a blood red plum cake that I have loved since we first arrived in Posey County and she landed one on my mother's kitchen counter. It was her I turned to when my father remarried and made the importance of his new family clear. She sent me letters when I went away to college, knowing full well that it was a battle for me to get more than a few words out of my father. When a lump turned up in my breast, it was her I went to and took with me for the ultrasound which revealed that I was in no immediate danger. And she provided me with a place to spend the Christmas after my father had married yet again, even though she knew that I should have been making my own peace with his new life, she let me stay and guided me toward a forgiveness that has been long in the making. But if not for her, it's a forgiveness that never would have happened. So you must understand my fear that this particular e-mail carried worrying news of her.
But this news was of the passing of another stalwart of my youth, Sister Leta Zeller, OSB. And like so many others, I'd lost touch with Sr. Leta; though, I know that she kept tabs on me and my life and I on hers. It's one of the advantages of being from a small town. It's easy enough to get in touch again, to hear about the triumphs and griefs of those you left behind, to find out what everyone has been up to. It's easy to fail to write the letter or make the phone call before someone dear to your heart is gone.
Sister Leta and my friendship started on the third day between the time of my mother's stroke and her death ten days later. I was called to the ICU phone to pick up a call for my father (I still don't know where my father was that night. It was well after midnight, and my sister and I slept fitfully in the ICU waiting room). I knew Sr. Leta was a friend of my preacher father. I recall begging her to take care of him, telling her that my comatose mother couldn't. I recall her soft calm voice down the telephone line assuring me that his care would not fall to me. I wish that I'd kept that clarity that he wasn't my responsibility with me through the following years, that I'd let her voice come through even after we lost touch. I know because Leta told me so later that she came to the hospital that night. That it was her and not the mother I dreamed who covered my sleeping body with the hospital provided blankets. She returned the following morning with bears for my sister and I, so that we would never again have to sleep alone even when we could not find a way to be anything but separated from each other.
It was Sr. Leta who held me when those excruciatingly long ten days were over and my mother finally passed. And it was Sr. Leta who stood in the face of my father's anger in attempts to comfort him. She did her best too for my faith though there is some distance from the evangelical protestantism in which I was raised and the Roman Catholicism in which she lived her life. She made sure that I hung on to God during the worst of the years that followed--years which I am certain would have killed me had it not been for that faith she was so insistent on. It's a faith I have long since lost and a god I have long since turned my back on. But I will always be grateful for what Sr. Leta did to try to save me from the grief with which one loses their religion.
Sr. Leta will be buried on Monday having led a life of service which she chose with love and deeply held faith. I've lost a lot of friends, some I'd kept touch with better than others, in the nine years since I left the continental United States first for Alaska and then England. This is not the first time that I could not attend the funeral of a friend I've held in my heart. This is the first time that I have wished for circumstances that would allow me to attend the funeral, that I have been certain the right place for me to be on Monday would be in a chapel in Indiana. Sr. Leta would tell me that my prayers are more than enough. But I lost my ability to pray long ago. I know that she'll understand that all I know how to give her is the space in my heart that she has occupied these last fifteen years and that she is truly deeply missed.