I need to tell you a story about friendship. It’s a story about Mom and an incredible friend she’s had for what feels like forever. Her friend, my friend, Miriam, is pretty amazing, and without her our world would be a very different place.
Mom, when prompted, still tells the story this way: I was thirteen or so and mom was still working at the group home five nights a week. It was a poorly paid job, as many jobs connected to caring for the disadvantaged among us tend to be, and she had picked up a second job several mornings a week at a cafeteria that catered mostly to trades-people. This restaurant, Corkie’s, did a fair bit of business every day making sandwiches for a mobile vendor in town. Mom would zip home at six each morning, make sure I was up so that I could make my lunch and catch the bus, and then she’d be at Corkie’s by seven to make sandwiches.
So there she was one morning, in the back kitchen, exhausted and broken and miraculously, heroically trying to hold it all together while she made sandwiches. This particular morning she was failing, crying as she spread mayo and applied slices of ham and cheese, when Miriam came in and saw her. Miriam just reached out and helped, offered an ear and a shoulder, and they became friends.
That was twenty-seven years ago.
Miriam was divorced too, and moved into the house a few years later to rent a room off of us for a while. When she had a heart attack and lost her business, Mom helped back. Miriam took early retirement and recovered, helping more and more around the house and with the girls. She’s been a part of our lives since then; quiet, industrious, supportive. There. Always. In another age, maybe this one now, or maybe that one if Mom had seen the word a different way, they might have been more than friends. I would have had no problem with that – Miriam is good folk, and they would have made a nice couple – but that’s not how Mom was raised. Sometimes I think that that's too bad.
Either way, their friendship has always been a strong and pure thing. At least some of the strength that Mom managed to harness can be traced to Miriam’s support. Miriam is eighty to Mom’s seventy. She’s been retired for quite a while now and suffered another heart attack and a stroke in the intervening years. When she had the stroke, back when thrombolytic therapy was just receiving its first public bout of fame, my mom pushed the doctors to use it. They, of course, knew way more about it than Mom and ran the appropriate tests before acquiescing, but then, sure enough, Miriam got the clot-busting drugs, and early enough that she made a full recovery. A miraculous recovery in some ways. I like to think that Mom gets a bit of credit for that, for lighting the fire under certain medical bottoms and keeping it stoked.
When Mom’s memory started showing signs of wonkiness eighteen or so months ago, Miriam was there to take care of her and help her stay as calm as possible. She has the patience of a saint, that woman. (As I read a draft of this to her she humbly gives me a “pfft” when I say this – that’s the way she rolls. And when I tell her I’m going to insert a comment about her "pfft", Mom giggles and Miriam pfft's a again. They also roll that way.)
When I came down from the lodge once a month in those early days of the life inversion, I grilled Miriam gently for the details on how things were going. At the time, her desire to keep Mom’s anxiety down had her mostly in an unavoidable denial mode; she had to play down what seemed to be happening, even with herself. I completely understand why.
As the summer went on and Mom’s symptoms didn’t recede, and started to get worse, there came a time when Miriam and I stole a few minutes and just had a heart to heart. In all the time she’d shared with Mom, with us, we had never done this: mano a mano, face to face, just the two of us. It was a watershed moment, one that was sadly long overdue.
We faced the truth together that day and, in our similarly pragmatic, laid back styles, decided on a few things: We’d make sure that Mom stayed at home as long as possible and that she’d know, be reminded every day, that she wouldn’t be abandoned somewhere; we’d get her as much help as we could and fight as tenaciously as we had to in order to get it; and we’d be as honest as we could with each other and her through it all. For Miriam, whose picture might actually be in a dictionary somewhere referencing a definition of “stoic”, the honesty and openness was a grand and selfless sacrifice.
When I went to the UK earlier this year for my also-long-overdue visit with my Dad, Mom hit her hardest patch so far, as if on cue. Two weeks in I was ready to catch a plane back. Mom, her anxiety spiking, possibly because she felt like I was out of reach, or maybe because that was just part of the rhythm of her decline, basically lost about thirty years of history in a matter of days. Miriam was in those thirty years somewhere and Mom lost her.
After two weeks of this, on my second Saturday there, when I was ready to cut the visit short, Miriam and I spoke on the phone. “Wait,” Miriam told me firmly. “We’re getting by and I have her in for an appointment with her psychiatrist on Monday.”
She has a tone, a stubborn thing that reaches convincingly over oceans apparently. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll wait to see what he says. How are you doing?”
“No, Miriam, how are you really.”
For the second time in the twenty-seven years I’d known her I heard her start to cry. The other time was when, at sixty-eight, she had fallen off the roof cleaning gutters and broken her ankle. And that time there had been a Clint Eastwood-worthy salty string of words thrown in. Not this time.
This time there was only a moment of silence, and then a sniff, and then a sad, tremulous breath. “I’m afraid,” she said, “and tired a bit.” And then, quickly and with conviction, “But we’re just fine. You stay there. You and your dad have been waiting for this for a long time. Everything will be just fine, you’ll see.”
Well it was. The doctor increased the dosage of the medication to help her memory, and put her on the new anti-anxiety treatment. Within days she was feeling better than she had been in months. She got around fifteen of those thirty years back, and the simple, steadfast truth of Miriam returned to her accessible memory files. I have no idea how that works, but it did. We had Mom back.
I wasn’t able to shake the thought of what Miriam went through during those few weeks though. I couldn’t – can’t – fathom what it would be like to wake up and have your best of best friends, someone that you’d lived with for twenty-seven years, created a life of sharing and support with, not remember you when they walked out of their bedroom. I don’t get what that might cost, how deep it would cut; How hard it would be to maintain faith and stay that course.
(An aside here: You may have noticed if you have been following this blog, that I have been mighty fortunate in the strong female role model department. If this were Twitter, I’d underscore this with a hash tag salute, perhaps #understatementoftheyear, or something like that.)
I was over for dinner last night. Mom’s had a slightly harder last few days, the anxiety up a bit, her recall weaker. She was tired and her confidence was shot. There were hugs and re-affirmations of love. I played a few games of single-suit Spider Solitaire with her and helped her get back on a winning streak, and she perked right up. I know that every drug is just a finger in the dyke, and that sooner or later things will start to decline again. That’s reality, and we promised to be honest, but it’s still incredibly shitty to think about. But we try to be hopeful too. It’s just one day. Tomorrow will be better again.
And if it isn’t, we’ll deal with that.
I wait, on my visits, until Mom disappears into the bedroom to play solitaire on the computer after dinner, give Miriam my “I’m serious” look, and ask, “How are you doing?”
“Oh fine,” she said last night. There was a little twinge around here eyes, a sign of the load she carries for Mom. For us. “Some days are better than others, but we’re just fine.”
And I think to myself, this is what friendship really is; something so constant and unselfish that it weathers divorces and heart attacks and bankruptcy and strokes and ALZ and the person you love forgetting who you are, and through it all… remains.
So when I say “we” from here on in, understand that Miriam is a part of that, part of us. It was past time to say so, and she was finally, finally ready to let me. She deserves her due.