Note: It really helped me to write about the last few hours I spent with Mary Monday night. This started as a blog post, so I'm posting it here as intended. However, I do know that some of Mary's family have discovered this blog. This note is to them: If you're uncomfortable reading about your daughter on a "public" blog (though this blog only has about 12 regular readers, most of them my friends), just put a note in the comments, and I'll remove it, no questions asked.
What a week.
What a terrible week.
I worked in a nursing home for about a year and a half when I was in my 20s. I had to quit, and a big reason was this: people kept dying. Of course, you think. It was a nursing home, after all. People are supposed to die there.
But plenty of people work in nursing homes as careers, and they don’t quit because people keep dying. They just keep going. Sure, they grieve for those they became fond of, but … it’s part of the job.
I couldn’t take that part of the job. I loved the residents, every one of them. When they died, a part of me died. The families of the deceased had to comfort me.
Some of us just aren’t cut out for certain types of work, and I wasn’t cut out for long-term care. Praise God for those who are.
I was around death a lot during that time. Most of the residents who died were, of course, up in age. Some of them weren’t. One young man, age thirty or so, had an advanced stage of cancer. A 42-year-old man had something wrong with his lungs … I can’t remember what it was, but it took his life maybe six months after we first met--and grew to love--him.
Mary and I talked about death as we drove to Anderson, SC, that evening of March 30 to the wake for our friend Carla’s brother, Jamie, who had died of cancer. Not the most cheering subject, but … well, we were going to a wake. We had both had grandparents die. She also told me about a friend of hers from high school who had been killed in a car accident, drag-racing, I think. What a shock it had been. We talked about how that kind of death is so much harder to deal with than the death of someone who has lived a good, long life.
When we talked to Carla that night at the wake, Carla told us how she had been able to spend a lot of time with her brother those last couple of weeks of his life. Cancer had ravaged his body and left him paralyzed from the neck down, but they had been able to talk, and they’d been able to say everything that needed to be said. Carla agreed that it was truly a blessing that they’d had that time together. Sure, no one wants to be given a death sentence … but it sure helps you, and those around you, to realize what’s truly important, and to act on that realization.
On the way home, Mary and I talked about that. Tragic as Jamie’s death was, his family was able to spend precious time with him those last few weeks before he died. They were able, on some level, to prepare for his death. They could say their goodbyes. And Carla could have some degree of peace about her brother's death.
How different a situation that was from her high-school friend, she said. She hadn’t been in touch with him for some time when she heard about his death. She went to his funeral. His girlfriend was just standing there next to the casket, crying. Mary said he didn’t look anything like she’d remembered him. It was almost like he was a stranger.
Our driving conversation wasn’t all morbid that evening. We talked about her upcoming wedding (she was getting married on June 20, which had been my start date for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2000; it was a wonderful day for starting new things, I told her). We talked about hiking, about gardening, about books. The usual things. We talked about her brother, Danny; about my niece, Ella. About how no one likes to go to wakes or funerals, but how it’s also important that we do go.
On the way through Georgia, she pointed out a trailhead where she and several co-workers had stopped awhile back. Several people from Drake had gone down to Anderson (yes, Anderson) for the funeral a co-worker's family member, and on the way back, they’d stopped and hiked up to a riverbank, where people could whitewater rafters passing by during the summer.
“I guess we won’t be stopping there on the way back!” I said, since it was going to be well after dark.
“No, probably not tonight!” We laughed, knowing that we would definitely have stopped and hiked under different circumstances.
After the wake was over, but before we left, Carla, Mary, and I joined in a big “group hug.” Then we invited her husband, Wayne, and her son, Thomas, into the hug, and we were all laughing. Later, we met the three of them at a local diner called The Clock. I try to remember what we talked about, but I don’t. I do remember laughing at Thomas’s strange selection of a meal (lasagna with a side of mac ’n cheese) and listening to him tell us about bowling.
We left the restaurant around 9:30 or 10, I guess. I don’t know. The long drive home became even longer when we missed a turn somewhere in South Carolina or Georgia.
“Do you recognize this?” Mary asked as we drove through a seedy-looking little town.
“You know, I was just thinking … no, this doesn’t look familiar.”
Turn on the light. Look at the map. We were headed for Cornelia, Georgia. We could keep going, then go north, or we could turn back and go the original route. It didn’t look like it would matter. Either way seemed equally long. We turned back … and mentally kicked ourselves for missing the turn, which seemed so obvious when we finally got back to it.
We alternated between talking and just sitting as she drove, not turning on music because we would start talking again and have to turn the music off so we could carry on a conversation. She talked a lot about her brother, about the “false alarm” they’d had back in January, when the hospital called and said there was a heart for him—great news for Danny, who had been on the transplant list for five years. But then … it wasn’t right. The hospital called back. False alarm.
“But it gave us hope,” said Mary that night. “After waiting so long and not getting ‘the call,’ it was almost like they’d forgotten about us.”
We were both tired as we rode along the dark roads of north Georgia, then western North Carolina. We cheered aloud when we finally saw the first sign for the Fun Factory, which is in Franklin. Almost to Franklin!
When we finally passed the Fun Factory, though, Mary spoke aloud what I was thinking: “Did it seem like it took a really long time to get here?”
“When we get to my house,” I offered, “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee or something?”
“No, if I drink coffee I won’t be able to sleep once I get home,” she said. “I’ll be fine. I drive home late all the time during development season.”
“More power to you,” I said. “Thanks for driving. I couldn’t have come if I’d had to go by myself. No way would I have been able to stay awake.”
“No problem!” she said, and she meant it.
Earlier that day, we’d made arrangements to go to the visitation for Carla’s brother. Plagued by headaches all weekend, I had gone to the doctor that afternoon. I’d e-mailed Mary:
I’m going to the doctor at 3 and don’t know if I’m going to come back to work afterward—I really want to go lie down. (Don’t we all!) But I’d really like to go tonight for Carla. So let me know what time would work best for you.
She e-mailed me back:
I am free whenever. I have no plans tonight. So really we can go when you feel up to it. How bout this…Lie down and I’ll stay here at work until you call me. Then I’ll drive to your house and pick you up and we will leave?
She sent me her cell phone number, which I quickly programmed into my cell phone that afternoon. I haven’t deleted it yet.
A few minutes before we got into Franklin, she put a CD in.
“Do you like Jewel?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “I haven’t heard anything by her in years, though.”
“She just came out with a new CD, not too long ago,” Mary said. She put the music in and we listened until we got to my house.
I asked again if she needed to come in, use the bathroom, fill up her water bottle, whatever. She said no, she’d be fine.
I said, “Bye, see you tomorrow. Drive safe.” Or something like that. The usual pre-programmed farewell chitchat you say—and even mean—without thinking.
I went inside, she drove off. She was gone. I guess the Jewel CD was probably still playing when her car was struck by a drunk driver a half-hour later. Who knows. All I know is that I still can't believe she's gone.
I’ve kicked myself enough for not chatting more before I went inside, for not watching the road better (as a good passenger-seat navigator is supposed to do) when we missed the turn on the way home. For not being more strongly encouraging that she come in for a few minutes. I know it’s not my fault, but it’s hard to block out all the “what if’s” that have been bombarding my mind for the past few days. What if we’d been just a little earlier? Just a little later? What if things had been … just a little different?
One thing I do regret: that I didn’t tell her how excited and happy I was about our friendship. She joined our group at work last spring, and I’d gotten to know her better during that time. We both loved reading and talked often about books. She’d borrowed my deluxe edition of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and had loved it.
We both loved hiking and the outdoors. She’d just bought her first real backpacking pack, an Osprey Xenon, just a couple weeks before. We both loved the good homemade bread you could buy at Riverblaze Bakery, the little bake shop on Carl Slagle Road that was open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
We planned to do more hiking after tax season. Specifically, we planned to do some backpacking. We even tossed around the idea of a hike while her fiancé, Tony, was on his AT hike from Roanoke to Harpers Ferry. That probably would have been this weekend.
Another memory from that night: When we got to the wake that evening in Anderson, Carla was so glad to see us. She linked her arms in ours and introduced us to her family. We watched several cycles of the slide show that had been prepared showing scenes from her brother’s life. It was time well-spent. Dinner with them afterward was also time well-spent. I don’t regret that we did either, and neither did Mary.
Mary got to spend the last few hours of her life bringing comfort to a friend who needed comfort. How many of us, were we to die suddenly today or tomorrow, could have the same said of us?
Death is a harsh way of making us realize what things in life are important, and what things are not so important. But before we even think about those things, there is the sense that a piece of your heart has been ripped from your body. An aching emptiness, together when a dull, numb, hazy wondering of “What the hell just happened?”
Helen at the coffee shop believes it was God’s will, that God knows our death date before we’re ever born. My sister’s friend, Beth, who just survived a long struggle with cancer, prefers to word it this way:
“I have learned that God’s will is not always what we want, but a better word is God’s purpose, and that it is not her death that necessarily brings purpose, but her life. Her life had God’s purpose and that is what is important to remember.”
I have prayed, but not as much as I probably should. I admit, it is hard to pray in the face of such seemingly random, meaningless, unnecessary death.
Mary’s life definitely had purpose. She brought joy to so many of us with her beautiful smile, her easy, giving spirit, and her genuine kindness. I will always think of her when I am out on the trails.
Rest in peace, Mary Couey.