The Secret of Counting Gifts
dedicated to my warrior friends,
those who have battled breast cancer and won
and those who are currently in the fight
to the memory of those
who have gone on ahead…
save a place for me,
I’ll be there soon!
“Can I get you anything else, friend?” I ask, offering her the straw to her ice water.
“No,” Liz replies, taking a small sip. She can hardly swallow. Years of battling cancer have taken their toll on my long time friend.
“Time for gifts?” she rasped. “Here, now?”
“For you, I have all the time in the world. And, yes, your gifts are on their way,” I reply, with a small smile. Liz’s time, though, is running out.
Twenty-eight years ago, I met Liz for the first time. Eighteen years young and full of life, we thought we could conquer the world as college freshmen. From the first time we, literally, bumped into each other in the hall of the Williams Dormitory, we have been inseparable. Blissfully, we thought we had forever to live life together. We rented our first apartment together, stood up for each other at our weddings and held each other’s babies. She held my hand when I buried my father and I stood with her when her husband walked out. It was I who encouraged Liz to pursue her dream of song writing when she lacked purpose, and it was I who found her agent. When my son was deployed, it was Liz who framed his Army portrait and put it on her mantle. I think Luke is as much her son, as he is mine. And, it was Liz who threw the party when Luke returned from Afghanistan. No one throws a party like Liz. The boundaries of our lives blurred long ago.
“You?” she quietly asks me. Even in her death, she still looks out for me… asking me how I am.
We both know where we stand. Twenty-eight years have not been enough. Yet twenty-eight years will be all we will have. She will soon go and I will be the one left. Weeks ago, she began the process of letting go. We talked about her last days. She insisted that I gather her “living gifts” as she calls us. She wants her family around her for her last breath. I spent the earlier part of today gathering. Her gifts are on their way. Much to my chagrin, she also made me executor of her estate. It will fall on me to be sure that her funeral is what she has requested… “please don’t wear black, no hats and for goodness sake, have a party…with balloons!” And, it will be my responsibility to finish the plans for her daughter, Jenny’s, wedding. Jenny has already asked me if I would walk her down the aisle in place of her mother. It’s funny that I would even object. As she said… “who else could do it?”
I don’t answer Liz’s question, of how I’m doing, right away. Silence is our companion. I look at her frail body lying in her big queen bed here at the Estate and I memorize the laugh lines around her eyes. Much is spoken in the quiet. I want to savor this moment because I cannot stop time. Seconds, minutes, hours have blended into weeks, days and years. Together all of those blur into sweet memories and forgotten stresses that make up a life long friendship.
“I’m okay. The list is long today,” I answer.
An understanding passes between us. She knows my list, for she has one, too. Together we count the things for which we are grateful. It was her idea to count. As her sickness progresses, Liz’s list gets longer. She has become the most grateful person I know. The days when our lists intersect are my favorite days. I feel, as if, for a moment, I am as grateful as she is. Although, we both know this is hardly true.
“Tell me first,” she wheezes. I cringe at her labored breathing. I hate being here with her. Yet, my love for Liz is greater than my hate of her disease.
I chuckle. This is a game we play. Liz first came up with the idea of counting our gratitude gifts together. As the IV dripped the chemo poison, yet again, last spring, she read a brilliant book aloud to me. The book spoke to both of us. From that day forth, we began keeping a gratitude journal, and sharing our lists of thanksgiving with each other. Of course, she soon learned not to tell me her gratitude list until I gave her mine. Apparently, I cheat. I didn’t realize it was cheating to say, “Oh, I’m grateful for the sunshine, too!” when she said it. She never believed me when I told her that I honestly hadn’t thought of it before she mentioned it. Not only is Liz much more grateful than I am, she is also more thoughtful.
“Ok,” I say. “Today, November 10, my list is this… you.”
“What?” she groans. “Cheater!”
“Well, since I’ve previously been called a cheater, I figured I might as well behave as one and list you again. Besides, if you would stop interrupting me, I will tell you why I’m listing you twice.”
“Go on” she whispers, closing her eyes.
I’m touched anew at how much this dreaded disease has changed my friend. Though still witty and feisty, she no longer has the strength for long banter or conversation. My heart constricts. For a moment, I close my eyes as well. What will I do without her?
“Well, Ms. Elizabeth Renee Ashley-Bower,” I begin taking a deep breath, “I am deeply and truly grateful for all you’ve taught me and all you’ve been to me. Shall I refresh your memory?”
“Again?” came the moan from the bed next to my chair.
“Yes, again! And, again and again and again,” I laugh. “I will tell you this for as long as your ears are willing to listen to it.”
“They’re listening,” she looks and attempts a smile. My eyes fill with tears.
Ours is a friendship filled with tradition. We have Christmas traditions, birthday traditions, Easter and Mother’s Day traditions. We revel in tradition and have been known to break out singing “Tradition! Tradition!” from Fiddler on the Roof, which, of course, embarrasses our children immensely. Liz and I have a habit of developing traditions around just about everything. Now our traditions are coming to an end. Our first Friday pizza tradition started in our early college days and ended last month when Liz could no longer chew well. Counting our gifts has become a tradition, just as telling this story has. When Hospice moved in, ten days ago, we started our last tradition. Each and every night, I tell her our story, these details that we still remember. Together we count all the gifts of gratitude that came along the way. And, as is true to our relationship, we rarely agree on what constitutes a gift.
“Love you, friend,” her voice hardly above a whisper. “Find the secret.”
“Secret?” I question, holding her hand. “What secret?”
“Secret of counting gifts,” she whispers, closing her eyes again.
“There you go. You’re all finished with your freshman registration. We’re so glad you chose to come here. If you step over to that table there, you will get your dormitory assignment and you can move in,” the student hired as the university’s welcoming committee pointed to a table a few feet away. “Good luck!”
“Can I help you?” an older woman asked, as I approached the table labeled “housing.”
“Ah… yeah… um… my name is Kristen Murphy.”
“Murphy, Kristen… you are in Williams Dorm, 3rdfloor North, room 312,” she read off the master list in front of her. “You should find your resident assistant in the lobby of Williams. Her name is Julie. Here is your key. Replacement cost is $7. Good luck this year!”
I carried my key, my student ID and the registration packet to my parents’ car. My brain felt mushy with information overload. I wondered how I would find my classes, remember all the information that I was just given, and not lose my key. A small part of me wanted to turn around and go home. Instead, my Army chaplain father drove us across campus to Williams Dormitory and to Julie.
“Feels like just yesterday that I went off to college,” my mother rambled. “Isn’t this exciting for you, Kris? I just know you are going to have such a great time here!”
Fortunately, before I was required to give an answer, my dad found a parking place in front of Williams Dormitory, my new home away from home… or so they say. Home is a concept I had never understood. Because of my father’s Army career, our little family moved regularly. We never lived in one house long enough to make it a home, or to even really memorize the address. I lived in many houses. I had never been home.
“Welcome! My name is Julie and I am your RA. That’s short for Resident Assistant. Are you ready to get moved in?” A small girl, with a name tag identifying her as ‘Julie’, cheerfully asked, as we walked through the open lobby doors.
“Oh, great!” I muttered to myself. Perky little Julie belonged on the pep squad as a cheerleader not on the dormitory staff as a resident assistant. She wasn’t big enough to be anyone’s RA.
“Pardon?” Julie asked.
“Please don’t mind our daughter, Julie. She’s just tired.” Although “being tired” was my mom’s excuse for everyone’s negative behavior, I was thankful for the excuse and took it.
“Yes, I’m ready,” I replied, faking a smile.