A wonderful thing about being lesbian is that we usually maintain friendships with our exes.
Our friend John’s theory is that’s because it’s easier for men to be friends with men, and women to be friends with women, because we have more in common with people of the same sex. My theory is that, as a minority group, we can’t afford to alienate anyone, or our pool of friends would diminish. So once the pain and anger of a break-up have lessened we find, again, all the things we’d liked about each other at the outset.
Which is why, when my ex was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I was right there with her all the way. Together we endured bouts of chemo and bouts of remission, bouts of dreadful bloating and endless fluid tapping.
She approached each 3-monthly check-up, each blood test absolutely certain that she would be in the clear. And each time the count had rocketed. Each time more chemo-therapy was scheduled. Each time I came away a little more defeated than the last.
But not Pat.
She fought the cancer-years with an indomitable spirit, a bright and hopeful face. None of us believed that she would not win the battle.
When it came to administering the chemo it was harder and harder for hospital staff to find a vein. But eventually some poor unsuspecting blood vessel would remain open and the life-sparing yet poisonous chemo could begin.
We played countless games of backgammon as the chemicals trickled in. I ate countless coconut doughnuts. Pat just licked my fingers. I read her countless bits of newspaper gossip. Pat just rested her head on my shoulder.
Then one Christmas she took her last turn.
Pat had always fought against being hospitalised. So when she agreed saying, “Okay, I’ll go … but just for a day or so for rehydration,” we all knew that that fighting spirit had taken a knock.
On the second evening the oncologist called me. “Barbara….” she said, and I knew by her voice what was coming. “Pat’s condition has deteriorated very rapidly,” she said slowly. “So I think it’s time that her friends come and say their goodbyes. I’ve told the ward sister,” she went on gently, “that there are to be no restrictions on visiting hours for Pat’s friends.”
She said that Pat was on a mechanical morphine drip, not in pain, drifting in and out of consciousness. “And, Barbara, if people aren’t up to coming, or feel that they simply can’t face the parting don’t take it personally. People have different ways of dealing with this. It’s not easy for anybody. Tell those who are able to come to hold her hand, stroke her arm, touch her face. Tell them to say whatever they need to say.
“Tell them that touch and hearing are the last sensations to go and that although Pat is not in a condition to respond she will be aware and comforted.”
And throughout the night the friends did come. Some just to sit in the room and listen to her breathing. Some to kiss her forehead or hold her fingers. Others to whisper final private words. Some for five minutes others for fifteen. But in Pat’s last hours she was never alone.
When she died just after 9am the next morning Lynette, Sandy and I were with her. We gave each other strength and comfort as we grieved for the loss of one of our own.
Yet, in the following months I, and many of her friends, had a hard time getting what is euphemistically called ‘closure’. Because in this techno age there are so many reminders left behind. I am only thankful Pat never got onto Facebook because then there would really have been no ‘ending’.
As it was, her recorded message spoke to us in the old familiar way when we called her landline. Pictures that she had taken in happier times were still on her digital camera, yet to be downloaded. Her mobile phone answered with a chirpy message in the voice we knew and loved. All of which made her seem so alive, so NOT gone
In this techno age, with so much evidence of the living, it is more difficult than ever to deal with the finality of death.
I haven’t yet found the courage to delete her name from my mobile phone book or my Mac contacts. I’m unwilling to remove her last SMS. Her messages remain on our answering machine and her picture smiles at me when I scroll through my online address book … because I’m simply unable to delete her name from it. And her photographs are in my digital album, meticulously recording the last few years in which we had her with us.
In the words of that great old country song, “You never miss a real good thing until it’s gone” I can honestly say that I had never realised how many times a day she crossed my mind, how often we’d talk for a few minutes on the phone and how frequently we’d meet for a quick fried egg and crispy bacon. And I wonder why, in all that time, over all those years, I had never leant across the empty breakfast plates and told her that I loved her and what a hugely special person she was in my life.
And I wish that I could call her up, just one more time and have her boss me around or give me streams of advice in that imperious manner of all Taureans.
Because just for once I wouldn’t sigh, wouldn’t keep interrupting, wouldn’t disagree. I would listen … with all my heart.