One of my best friends lost her mum last night. I suppose you could say she started losing her three years ago when Alzheimer’s disease finally started to really tighten it’s grip on her. But she physically left yesterday evening.
In this social media age, news travels quickly. I had just come in from a kickboxing class, had a shower, ate some dinner, and poured a glass of wine. Idly poked at the Facebook icon on my phone and noticed that my friend’s brother had changed his profile picture to one of their mum. And so that’s how I found out. Two minutes earlier, the phone (our landline what?) rang, but we didn’t answer. We never answer. Now, with this knowledge, I grabbed the phone, and made a call. I left a message: “Hey, it’s me. The phone just rang, but we didn’t pick up and I now I think it might have been you. So. Call me back when you can.” My throat was tight and my voice sounded sore. She called back within minutes.
“I’m so sorry” I said. “It’s shitty, there’s no other way to describe it”
She said “It is. And you understand. You know.”
I do know. Five and a half years ago I made the same phone call, at around the same time in the evening. I had just come from the hospital, I had the same news, we spoke similar words. There was nothing to say. When you’ve been friends as long as we have, you know how the other one feels. You know the conflicted feelings, the history, the good, the bad, the everything. It’s shitty. End of story.
I’ve had people say to me after they’ve lost a parent “I was sad when your parents died, Elizabeth. But I honestly didn’t really get it until it happened to me.”
And, like the wise old crone/sage that I am, I would just nod. I understood.
Sometimes they would feel the need to apologize. They’re sorry they didn’t understand when it happened to me, they feel now that they could have been more sympathetic, sadder, more understanding, more…something. And I get it, I think it’s normal to have that kind of “aha!” moment after you’ve experienced loss, a kind of “How the hell did I not see how effing tragic that situation actually was at the time?” But you can’t. Not really. Like most life-changing events that we have not personally experienced, we can only empathize. We can imagine, or we say things like “OMG I can’t imagine what that must be like”, all the while actually imagining what it would be like to be diagnosed with that disease, suffer that sort of loss, survive that life-threatening accident. But no matter how great our imaginations, no matter how we try to put ourselves in that person’s shoes, we just can’t know. Until it happens to us.
And once you have experienced that same situation – in this case parental loss – learning about the death of a friend’s parent is a punch to the gut. I knew A’s mum was dying, she’d told me that before Christmas. And yet last night when I learned that she was truly gone, the grief and emotion overcame me so suddenly and so violently it was shocking. Because I knew. I understood.
Losing a parent is hard. Really fucking hard. Is it the hardest thing in the world, ever? No. There are definitely worse things out there to experience, but it’s still awful. And sad. And especially, in the case of my friend’s mum, whose family was robbed of their mother even before she was gone, I feel it’s extra sad.
Rest in peace, G. I will always remember the post-sleepover breakfasts you would make us – pancakes in shapes of our initials. I will remember your gorgeous gardening dresses, and how you introduced me to the proper way to eat rice and curry. I will remember having tea with you at the kitchen table, where you would offer me treats from the Tupperware conainer marked “Guests”, while A and her brothers could only have treats from the container marked “Pigs”.
And by the way, those kids of yours? They’ll be ok. Not right away, but soon. And they will be able to step into the ranks of those of us who know. Who understand. The club no one wants to join. And, when their friends lose a parent they will make the same phone calls, and their friends will tell them what A told me last night. “You understand. You know.”