Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Today marks two years since we lost Claire. I have not gotten used to her absence, or forgotten about her. I still cry if I hear any songs from her favorite musical Wicked, and little things set me off: blooming roses, succulents overflowing out of a bowl, an olive-colored sweater, a silver bracelet that she gave me, anyone with shiny red hair.
This morning I met for breakfast with two friends who knew her well. We scanned over the menu at Cajun Kitchen and imagined what she would have ordered... would it have been an egg-white scramble or oatmeal? We couldn't decide for sure. Then we started telling stories, some that made us sigh, some that made us laugh hard.
While we each had years of memories with Claire before the cancer really took hold, it is sad to say that the strongest memories are still from her years of steep decline. We can laugh and cry at the same time when we think about how hard it was for her to speak in the last year, or how she insisted on doing things for herself when she was well past the ability to do so. We each remembered going over her multiple medications with her, learning their complex purposes and side effects. Each of us shuddered as we recounted different ordeals at the ER and the hospital.
Despite the strong visual recollections of scars and thinned out hair from treatments and IV's and glassy eyes after seizures that stay with me, coupled with the even more powerful memories of that hospital smell, I am still able to cling to the essence of Claire, and how I was changed by knowing her. I could share so many different experiences with her, but here is a significant one.
After her first extended stay in the hospital due to that first cataclysmic seizure at the end of school in 2000, she had received a huge number of cards, flowers, stuffed animals, balloons and plants. Don't forget, she was a beloved teacher at Santa Barbara Christian School at that point, not to mention an incredible youth ministry leader with me and all-around friend to so many.
I didn't quite know how we would get all those the gifts packed up. Cam was back at work (and they weren't married yet), so I offered to take her home. I admit I was tempted to say, Claire, can we just throw away the cards, crayon-decorated banners and droopy daisies? but I knew better. She valued every item to the hilt and was going to give them the attention she felt they deserved. We slowly peeled every card taped on the wall, gently groomed the flowers of their dead leaves, and straightened up the potted plants that had been jammed in the corner. We piled each item carefully onto a large cart that the hospital provided.
Of course I then wondered how we would successfully navigate the various doorways, elevators and long hallways with all of this stuff! But I had nothing to worry about. Because the next thing that Claire did took my breath away. As I tried to manhandle the cart down the hall onto the elevator (I let her take a balloon, being the nice person that I was) she just smoothly slid into my place and took over the cart. From there she took a VERY slow lap around the entire floor. She stopped for each orderly, each technician, each janitor and each nurse... whom she each knew BY NAME, mind you... and thanked them for their care. THEN she looked over her ridiculous haul of gifts and would specifically select a plant or flower that she deemed to be just right for that person. Once we had made the entire circuit, she then made sure that there were some things left for those who were not on this shift. Finally, she reserved the most beautiful plant for her favorite nurse, who started crying.
Claire the Patient became Claire the Fairy Godmother. I know it sounds crazy, but she seriously brought so much joy and smiles and love to the people who labored on the cancer ward at Cottage Hospital. She blessed their hard work and redeemed it. And in the years to come, as many of them remained through her multiple visits back there, she continued to remember their names, showering blessings and asking about their families.
Who does that??
I noted earlier that something that always makes me think of Claire are succulents. While she was a master gardener, she always tended several bowls and pots of succulents, arranging them in fantastic ways that were like works of art. Personally I love succulents because they are so easy to take care of (and let's be honest, so hard to kill!).
But I think that succulents are great metaphors that capture the beauty of Claire... Succulents survive in the desert; similarly, Claire was sturdy under incredible and unending duress. Succulents are uniquely beautiful, and while characters like Howdy Doody and Pippi Longstocking make fun of people with freckles and red hair, Claire was an absolute knockout. Succulents thrive on little water and soil and demand little attention; even near the end of her life, when she had lost the ability to communicate, walk or dress herself, she was still a hostess and earnest friend, constantly wanting to know how you were doing.
Claire, we miss you, we remember you often, we have been changed by knowing you. As I said at your memorial, quoting from Changed for Good:
I've heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you...
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I've been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made from what I learned from you
You'll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend...