If you’ve read my books you’ll know I write a lot about loss and grief, family and friendship. They’re preoccupations of mine, not on a conscious level, but on that deeper plane that we tap into when we write from the heart. Lately though, I’ve spent more time consciously pondering these things and this post explains why.
For a long time now I’ve been in denial about my age. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not getting around in short shorts anymore or booking in for plastic surgery anytime soon. But suddenly, in my early 50’s, I’m feeling my mortality. That’s not old, you may say, and I agree. The thing is, my closest friend has Motor Neuron Disease and it’s making me think hard about so many things: my phobia about getting old, the things we never say enough to those we love and my ideas about true friendship.
I read a great post this week on Brainpickings, by Maria Popova. (You can read the post here). It featured a number of quotes about friendship, my favourite one being this by C.S. Lewis:
In other words it vastly improves the quality of our lives. My friendship with my ‘bestie’ is proof of just that. She’s the same age as me. We met in first form and have been friends for 40 years. We laughed our way through school together, and although she finished two years earlier than me we spent almost every weekend going out to parties, bluffing our way into pubs and clubs even though we were under 18, drinking more than we should have but never doing anything too outrageous. We took our first overseas trip together to Bali when were 19, adding in a side excursion to Java and Singapore so we could feel like real travellers rather than just tourists. A few years later we packed our bags and headed to Europe on an extended working holiday, where we both found love – me to an Aussie I’d already started dating at home and her to a boisterous Scotsman who two years later became her husband. I was her bridesmaid and she was mine. We spent our later twenties ‘settling down’ and our thirties bringing up our young children. In our forties we both branched out – me into writing and horse riding and she into a great job in the publishing world and a new social crowd she met through weekend soccer games. But in all that time we barely went a week without talking or emailing, had frequent dinners, celebrated our children’s birthdays and our own milestones, talked often and laughed just as much. Along with 8 other girls we went to school with we started taking yearly trips away and having occasional nights out to keep in touch, all of us with more time now our kids are more independent, knowing how lucky we are to have our shared history, our memories gluing us together.
But sometime in 2013 my friend started having a problem with her right leg. Numbness was setting in and by the end of that year she was walking on crutches, no longer able to carry her own weight. A series of x rays and MRI’s showed nothing conclusive and even after a 5 day stay in hospital in February 2014 doctors couldn’t give a definitive answer about the problem. A few weeks later she visited a specialist. She called me the following day. ‘It’s not good,’ she said. ‘I have motor neurone disease. I can’t talk about it right now but you can look it up online.’ I knew it was bad by the dull tone of her voice but nothing prepared me for the shock I felt when I read about the symptoms and prognosis. And even after reading up on MND nothing could have prepared me for the rapid deterioration that followed.
Within months of being diagnosed she was unable to walk, had to give up the job she loved, lost the use of both legs, then, one by one her arms, spending her days in a recliner, only getting outside for physio sessions and the occasional short restaurant visit since the wheelchair was too uncomfortable to be in for very long. She became totally reliant on others for everything – eating, bathing, toileting, dressing. I visited her at home often and we chatted about life, watched Ellen together and shared stories with friends and family, laughing one minute and crying the next. Unable to drink enough to keep her fluids up, dehydration set in which lead to hospitalization. The hard reality was that her family could no longer care for her at home. They too were dealing with her illness and watching her suffer but now she needed a higher level of care.
Sadly the only places providing the care she now needs are nursing homes. So at 52 she’s a resident in a facility where most of the patients are elderly, many suffering with dementure. She has her own room with a large screen television and daily, frequent visitors but she is bed ridden and rapidly losing her ability to speak.
And yet she can still make me laugh. ‘Boo hoo, poor me,’ she joked just yesterday when the physiotherapist commented on the diminishing lack of strength in her neck muscles. Her courage and bravery floor me every time I see her. As does the cruelty of this horrible disease.
Most of the time the ache I feel is too deep for tears. I’ve lost people in my life. My father died when I was 3, a loss I have no memory of, my godfather (me pseudo dad) when I was 18, grandparents, and my mother-in-law was taken way too early at 56. But watching someone I’ve shared so many experiences with, someone my own age, being trapped in a rapidly deteriorating body has made me realise how fragile – and how precious – life really is. It’s given me a much greater appreciation of what friendship and love really mean. It’s made me feel my mortality but it’s also made me value every minute of every day so much more.
So when my birthday came around this year there was no huge celebration but there was no whining either. I’m alive and I’m healthy and I have family and friends who love me. And that’s more than enough.
This Saturday my school buddies and I are taking on the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for the Cure MND Foundation. It’s not much but it’s a way of doing something to help battle this insidious disease, a way of trying to alleviate our helplessness and a way of sharing our love for Kathie. She will be there watching and no doubt having a laugh at us freezing our butts off. If any readers feel like supporting us you can donate at www. everdayhero.com (click here to go to Freezin For Kath).
I have no doubt I’ll continue to write about family and friendship, love and loss. All of them are complicated, emotion fraught issues that make our lives more meaningful, even when they can sometimes make our lives hard to bear. Writing is my way of trying to make sense of these things, amongst others, and I know I’ve only started to scratch the surface.