It is one of those perfect fall days: sunny but crisp. Someone in the neighborhood is burning leaves, and the slightly acrid smell in the air is comforting. The kids are outside after dinner, and their screams of laughter echo throughout the gloaming. Those are some of the happiest sounds I have ever heard, and I'm trying to imprint them into my memory.
My mom and I visited a friend a couple of days ago. We met the year I was student teaching at a small Catholic high school in Indianapolis. I ended up teaching at that same school for four years, and our friendship grew and cemented. We're sort of an odd couple: there is a big age difference, we don't have a great deal in common at the core, and we have lead extremely different lives. And yet, of all the amazing people I met those four years, he is the one I see the most often, the one who has been most consistent in my ever-changing world.
Jim isn't the friend who will bring a pint of ice cream and a DVD when I'm feeling sad. Quite the contrary. When I had to move out of my house in Indianapolis rather abruptly because my first husband decided that being married to me wasn't his thing, Jim brought boxes and helped me pack. I remember crying while I packed my broken life, and he kept telling me to quit crying because it wasn't helping me get anything done. "Oh, stop it. You're fine and this is all going to be fine. Now, where do you want all these books? You know you have way too many books, don't you?" And he was right. Well, one can never have too many books, of course, but I was fine after that mind-numbing heartbreak. I AM fine.
We travelled together, had meals together, had drinks together, laughed together. Every time I moved, which was oddly quite often, he came to help put my new places into working order. He became friends with my whole family, my new (much better) husband, and eventually my children. He even visited my parents in Valpo when I was still living in Lexington. We didn't see each other as often as we used to, but we talked on the phone and were always in each other's thoughts.
The phone rang a few months ago as I was making dinner. The kids were asking for the umpteenth time what I was making, T was in the living room chatting with his parents, and I was frazzled. Normally I ignore the phone when I'm busy, but I glanced at the caller ID. I saw the name and number of a friend of Jim's and I went cold. She told me that there had been an accident, and Jim was in the hospital with what the doctors thought was a stroke. The next few weeks were agonizing as I made call after call to try to get information. After a month in the hospital and one measly week in a rehab center, he ended up at his niece's house a little south of Indianapolis.
My mom and I made the trek to see him, and I carried the warning in my head that he was suffering from expressive aphasia. Logically I knew that he would be different, but the tiny Pollyanna in my head assured me that Those People were wrong. Physically, he didn't seem much different although he was unshaven, a sight that I had never seen in twenty years. He knew who we were straightaway and gave us both hugs, but I could immediately see the effects of the stroke. He claimed he didn't know we were coming to visit, that people had been lying to him. He couldn't easily find his words, he went off on tangents that we couldn't understand, and he just looked...old. There were some things that seemed decently fresh in his mind, things about 1995 when a bunch of us starting teaching and hanging out together every free moment outside of school. He somewhat remembered travelling with me and how much fun we have always had together. He didn't remember where he was staying or why my mom was there or even his own beloved cat. Every once in a while, there were glimpses of my old, very funny, very smart friend, but they were few and far between. I tried to stay sunny and happy and positive, but inside, my heart was breaking.
I had a lot of time to think on the three hour drive home. My mom and I went over and over the conversations, trying to dissect them and find the old Jim. It all made me tired. I mean, bone-tired-weary-to-the-core-curl-up-in-bed-on-a-rainy-day-taking-care-of-a-sick-kid-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of tired. It's impossible for me not to worry about my friend. I know he is getting good care with people who truly care about him in every way, but that doesn't stop me from draining my own emotional reserves on his behalf.
And I want this to all mean something. That's why I am trying so hard to embrace the small things in life and enjoy living as much as I can. That's why I want to memorize the sounds of the kids' laughter and their weird comments and their beautiful smiles. Jim obviously isn't gone from this mortal coil, but he's not completely here, either. So I'm trying to embrace life and enjoy every moment. Trying. But that's so much easier said than done sometimes. I can't always find the joy in every given moment. When I am in the middle of telling Lottie to focus on her homework for the twentieth time while Dallas drones on and on about dinosaurs and the clock is telling me that I should have started dinner already and both kids are hungry but not for what I'm cooking and the phone is ringing and my eye is twitching, I can't channel my inner-Zen and think about how much I will miss this all when the kids are grown and gone. Instead, I try to get through the minute by minute drama so I can eventually snuggle with freshly shampooed heads and find a sweet spot of time when no one is fighting or crying or arguing or pouting or hungry or hurt or angry or tired. And I think about Jim and think I should really work hard at finding those great moments because the future is so uncertain and fragile, but I know Jim would think that was a bunch of schmaltzy hooey and tell me to just keep on keepin' on.
So I'm raising my kids the best way I know how; I'm constantly thinking about T's upcoming surgery; I am pretending that the surgery isn't happening; I'm having dreams that end with me waking confused and bleary; I'm attempting to oversee a new deck project at our house; I'm reading books; I'm being a friend, a daughter, a mother, a sister; I'm smiling when I can and crying when I can't; I'm drinking too much coffee; I'm riding my bike; I'm trying not to think too much; I'm over-thinking everything; I want to be left alone; I want to be surrounded by friends; I'm taking one breath at a time. I'm going to keep going because that's what Jim is doing, and that's what I can do, too. For now, that's enough.