When I accompanied a friend to her death almost twenty years ago, I learned that we never know who will be with us at the end. Our friendship, and that of the other two women who were also her companions on her final journey, was surprisingly new. I remain grateful for that lesson.
It’s never too late
by Rebecca Crichton, Seattle, Washington
My friend Ruth died last week at the age of 100, in the same Hospice Facility where she met my daughter, a hospice social worker, nine years ago. After Ruth’s husband passed away there, my daughter decided she wanted to befriend Ruth, a woman with a fascinating background and an iron grip on life.
I met Ruth when she was 92 and fell under her spell. A Polish Holocaust survivor, she was smart and funny, very opinionated but deeply appreciative of the things and people she loved. Those included music, art, good food and intelligent conversations about current events. She read The Economist until her eyesight failed. She relished the pierogi and borscht made by her Polish friend Magda, owner of a popular creperie in Fairhaven, Washington.
We made a sweet threesome. Ruth could have easily been my mother; my daughter could have been her granddaughter. We took outings and had special dinners together. I once ‘liberated’ the iconic brown and white espresso cup and saucer from Whole Foods when she told us it reminded her of her time in Europe.
Like many older people who are used to making their own decisions and adamant about maintaining control, she didn’t like asking for help and resisted receiving it. That independence made it hard to assist her as we saw her increasing frailty and potential vulnerability. We tried every argument we could muster to encourage her to allow people to come and help her, and to consider the possibility of moving to a place where she could have community and support.
As a professional in the field of aging, I believe that people should be allowed to make their own decisions as long as possible. I accept that we can’t always keep people safe from the many hazards and challenges of aging. I don’t accept the concept of ‘absolute safety.’ Life happens. We can be smart about what we do, but we can’t be certain.
Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Healing and Miracles, the 1986 best seller in the field of self-healing, would ask cancer patients, “Do you want to live to be 100?” If they gave a qualified answer: “Yes, but only if…” he thought them more at risk for not doing well. It didn’t matter what the qualification was about, the issue was their conditional attachment to life.
If they said, “Yes. Absolutely,” he would respond: “That might mean that your family and friends might be gone.” They would counter: “Then I’ll make new friends!” That attitude showed an attachment to life that boded well for a positive outcome.
When Ruth was 97, I asked her if she wanted to live until she was 100. She said she didn’t have that as a goal, but if she lived that long, it would be okay.
Our eight years of friendship reminds me that friendship can happen at any stage in our lives, if we are open to it. I admit to the fears I have—usually in the middle of the night—that I might be alone when I am older. I remind myself of the wide circle of friends in my life. I remind myself to be grateful for the many blessings I have. I tell myself that there will be more new friends who will be there for me as I age. “Stay open,” I tell myself. “Stay grateful.”