“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
– Maya Angelou
In the week since you passed, I’ve dimly been aware of the world around me. The 2012 democratic national convention happened, the national football season started, kids have homework. It passed in a blur. I’ve spent the week learning to say goodbye. It has not been easy. Meetings at work seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Minor things like doing laundry or eating a brownie bring on paroxysms of guilt. When I sit down to a meal with my family, I think of Clayton and Melissa and how they would love to be able to have a meal with you just one more time.
The day you died, I called your room to see if it was ok to have visitors. Clayton was kind about saying no, that you were on a morphine drip and were unable to speak because you were wearing an oxygen mask. He offered to hold the phone up to your ear so I could talk to you. I said ok, already choking up.
“Ok, go ahead,” he said. “She can hear you.”
What do you say to someone important to you, knowing it will be the last time you ever speak to them? I searched desperately for something profound to say, something that would lift you up. I’ve never drawn such a huge blank in my life. I had nothing, absolutely nothing, that would help. But I didn’t want to give up this precious moment I was so blessed to be given. So I chose to keep it simple and tell you what mattered most.
I told you I loved you, that all your friends loved you and were thinking of you. I thanked you for being my friend. I said I hoped you were ok, but then realized that was a stupid thing to say because I knew you weren’t ok, would never be ok again. I said some other stuff, going in circles over the same ground. I sobbed into your ear, and I heard your muffled noises through the phone. I couldn’t tell if you were trying to respond or if you were crying, and I apologized for making it worse.
But what I didn’t say, because it was just too hard, was the word “goodbye”. I don’t think even then I really believed this was happening. Not really. Not to you. I still had too much that I wanted to say. Stupidly, I wanted nothing more than to show you my new necklace because I knew you would complement it. I wanted to hear you laugh and see you smile. I want to give you a hug and know that I would see you at lunch next week, next year, twenty years from now.
Clayton took the phone back and I cried in his ear, saying I was so sorry for being such a mess. He was so calm, saying you weren’t in pain anymore and that you wanted this, that you were ready to go. I told Clayton that you were one of my favorite people in this world. He said that you thought the same of me.
I was miserable for the rest of the day. The kids didn’t understand why I was sad and crying, but they tried to help where they could. My daughter snuggled with me and entertained my son with coloring and magic tricks while I tried to pull myself together. My son had a slightly different approach to helping. It is difficult to stay depressed when your four year old son is running around in his underwear singing, “Hiney butt, hiney butt, hiiiineeey buuutt.”
I spent the most of the week reminiscing on our friendship. I first met you when USA called me back for a second interview. You grilled me with questions and I remember thinking she hates me, there’s no way I’m getting hired. I was so surprised when I got the job offer anyway.
I remember driving with you to Greenspoint for a women’s conference. We got stuck in a rainstorm on the way home. You hated driving in the rain. You gripped the steering wheel until your knuckles turned white. It was a terrible storm, one of Houston’s finest. I still have nightmares about going over that bridge on Beltway 8.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of driving, you drove me to the hospital when I went into labor with my daughter. You sat with me until Justin got there, making me laugh in between my moments of panic. I have never been more grateful to someone than I was to you that day.
You always kept little fruit cups in your desk, and you laughed at the pantry of food I kept in mine. You marveled at how I could eat so much. You were not the first or last to make that observation, but you might have been the most tickled by it.
I remember how you walked. How did someone so small take such loud steps? Pam and I could hear you stomping our direction from a hundred feet away. You walked so fast, your normal stride sounded like you were running down the hallway.
You had an easy smile and a kind word for everyone. You were the rare person that was able to consider everyone’s feelings. I always wanted to make you proud. You brought that out in people. You took so much pride in the work you did for the Space Program. Do you remember the year you had 400+ hours of overtime? You were so embarrassed when someone applauded you for your dedication to your job.
Oh and how you loved your hard copies! You printed everything, and had piles of paper neatly stacked and paper clipped all over your desk. I remember your hands folding back stapled sheets of paper, the paper making a crunching noise where you squeezed it into a crease. It was a nervous habit, crunching the paper like that. You did it whenever you had QA’d my work and were bringing me redlines. You never liked giving critical feedback, not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings. You always phrased your feedback in the kindest way possible. You didn’t avoid uncomfortable situations though. Giving me your redlines, for instance. You didn’t like doing it, but you didn’t shrink from the task either. You carefully thought out what you wanted to say, then faced up to the challenge.
But there are things I can’t remember and it frustrates me. Like did you drink Coke or Dr. Pepper? And were they diet drinks or did you like the fully leaded version? I am angry that I can’t remember these things. We sat next to each other for three years. I should remember this. But these things were not you. They don’t matter. Remembering them will not bring you back. It won’t change your importance to me. I only hold on to them because I don’t want to let go.
I didn’t want to go to your viewing. I was pretty sure I would hate it. I kept reminding myself that you would have gone for me. You probably would have shown more class than I did. I ugly cried all over poor Clayton. He looked well and I think he gave as much comfort as he received. His wife, Melissa, was very sweet. I even gave her a hug, a total stranger until that moment. I think she got a lot of hugs from total strangers that day.
I know what your loss means to me. I can only imagine what it means to them.
There were flowers everywhere and the room was packed with all the people whose lives you touched. They had to spill over into the hallway and adjoining room. In one corner there was a slideshow of pictures, everything from when you were young to Clayton’s wedding. Some of the pictures caught me by surprise because they didn’t look like you. Not like I remember you anyway. I know the cancer and chemo took their toll, but you know what? Your smile never changed. It still lit up your face like Christmas. It broke my heart to see those pictures, to see your smile, but I loved it at the same time.
I caught up with Brenda. It was wonderful seeing her, and I know you would have loved seeing her, too. She gets to scrapbook professionally now! Imagine that!
The casket was closed for the viewing and I was glad for that. I was afraid to see you in there. I want to remember you healthy. Now I can. It hurt so much, going to your viewing, but it helped, too. And I was glad that I could do this one last thing for you.
The funeral was beautiful, too. Beautiful and terrible in the way that only funerals can be. There were flowers everywhere. You would have liked that part. I know you love flowers. I thought about sending some. I shopped around on a few websites, but I couldn’t bring myself to pick some out for you. I thought about buying lilies and discarded the idea. I looked at arrangements with roses, and changed my mind. None of them felt right. They were funeral flowers. I wanted to give you life flowers. Flowers for your birthday or mothers day. Then I realized what I was doing. I was shopping for flowers because I wanted to hand them to you. In person. I wanted you to see them and smile. I wanted you to hug me and tell me thank you. I wanted flowers that would bring you back. None of the websites I looked at sold flowers that could do that.
These are the flowers I would give you. Flowers that were still alive, and beautiful because they were alive. I think you would have liked these more than any arrangement I could pick out.
I wasn’t brave enough to wear eye make up to your funeral. I knew I would cry like a baby. The service was very personal. Your minister did a fantastic job. He made us laugh in all the right places, and he eased us over the painful parts. The music even had a positive note to it. Just like you. That was my favorite thing about you, Patti. You were positive, always. You had an innocence about you, and I always felt a little less cynical when I talked to you.
Do you know what I saw, what I was overwhelmed by at your funeral? I saw people who came because they love you. I have been to funerals where there were ugly feelings still floating around the room. Dark, festering clouds of unresolved anger from arguments twenty years gone. There were none of these feelings at your funeral. Sorrow, yes. Plenty of that. But also joy for having known you and a certain amount of relief that you can never again be touched by cancer or pain or sadness.
You lifted each one of us up and always did your best to shine a happy light on every precious moment. People who bickered in the past came together and even comforted each other. I know you would have appreciated that. Even if it was only for that hour, you still managed to unite us and find a way to make the best of a miserable situation.
Between wiping my face and snotting up tissues, I had a moment of profound peace and happiness. I was fortunate enough to have known you. I can only hope I leave this world with the same grace you did. I looked around the room at all the faces of those who loved you and would miss you and I knew yours was a life well lived. For this, for leaving this life so devoid of negative feelings, I applaud you.
Well done, Patti. Well done.