Why at the end of a life do we most appreciate its worth? It’s on death beds that most people find forgiveness.
I didn’t foresee the early deaths of six close friends in their forties, but I knew I’d lose Jennifer.
Even so, each time I listened to someone say they had been that person – that person in the room whom everyone wrote off as the one who wouldn’t make it, and who’d proved them all wrong to become the one who had made it, I hoped for Jennifer.
I don’t remember the day we met. I befriended the young girls who whispered it was their first time, the women who sat in back and cried, the relapsers who asked for help. One of those women was Jennifer.
Each person I helped in some way saved me in return. They allowed me to put my own demons away, even if only temporarily, to have their backs while they wrangled with their own. I helped a lot of women, walking them home past the bars they were afraid would lure them inside, sitting with them all night until their cravings passed.
Then I lost my job, and a few months later, my apartment. I had nowhere to go. The people closest to me told me no. I could not stay with them; their sofas were too uncomfortable, their places too small, their relationships too complicated. And the most heart breaking: no, I couldn’t come home.
I called Jennifer last. She’d just lost custody of her daughter. I knew she didn’t have much room and even less money. She didn’t hesitate. “You’re coming here.”
We went to meetings, then came home and sat on her sofa watching Law and Order SVU. We told our stories, the good ones and the dark secrets. Despite her fixed income, she made me steak for dinner; she lent me her car; she gave me Christmas presents. She never asked for rent or money for food. We got dressed up and spent New Years Eve at a hookah bar, drinking tea and yelling over Middle Eastern dance music.
She relapsed New Year’s Day.
I wouldn’t give up on her. I held her through seizures, sat with her in the hospital, sobered her up and took her back to meetings. When she drank, she raged over her past – being raped as a child, then as an adult. She’d once been a rising star journalist, breaking glass ceilings in her field, her byline on the front page of the nation’s most respected newspapers and magazines. But by her late thirties, she was so depressed that she left her career and barely left the house. By 44, she couldn’t stay sober more than 60 days, and when trying to save her threatened my own sobriety and sanity, I had to leave. I stayed away for a long time and, even after moving away, shied away from her attempts to reconnect.
In February, her daughter, now 17, called to tell me Jennifer was in the hospital with a failing liver and only a few weeks to live. I broke down, all the bad memories immediately dissipating and replaced by unconditional love. I left her a voicemail and waited two days, preparing myself for the reality that she’d be too angry to let me say goodbye.
When I heard the phone ring and saw her name, I grabbed it. “I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too.”
I traveled several hours each way three times over the next month, partly to say goodbye, but also to help her daughter prepare for her death. Jennifer had scared everyone away and few people remained in her life. Some called and asked what they could do, but none did any of the work: helping us sell the furniture, clean the apartment, pack to move, and countless other details that come with preparing for the end of a mother’s life.
Then I sat with Jennifer for 36 hours, alone, as she died.
I didn’t go to her funeral. I didn’t need to. I also didn’t want to eat cheese and swap stories with the people who’d asked what they could do, then didn’t come through when we needed packing boxes.
But here’s what I would have said: The Jennifer I remember kept me off the street, cooked for me, listened to me, shared everything she had with me when no one else would. I still wonder if I would have stayed sober without her generosity and friendship.
And here’s the kicker about people who who’ve felt true pain and tried to recover: I wouldn’t be that person who comes through if I wasn’t one. And neither would Jennifer.