Every night on the local news (and morning in the paper), we hear about people mourning loved ones who were murdered or died in a fiery crash. We don’t hear about the people who die every day in less sudden and spectacular ways. What’s overlooked is that every death is sudden, regardless how anticipated. I knew my friend Laura was going to die almost from the minute I met her, but when I got the email from her sister last night I was stunned. I was stunned and then I cried and then I wailed at that primal level I’ve only done once before. I was glad I was home alone and yet that same being home alone made me feel so profoundly alone. No shoulder to cry on, no one to hold me, but also no one I’d have to fear upsetting, so maybe that evens things out.
Laura Viehmann approached me in my store a few days after I had a port implanted in my chest, a few weeks after I had been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and a week or so before I would start chemo and become a “cancer patient”, a full fledged cog in the wheel of the medical industrial complex. Laura recognized the tell-tale bandage on my neck and she showed me her port, newly replaced as she had relapsed from ovarian cancer. She told me her port wasn’t ever coming out, but I don’t think I totally got it at the time, what that meant didn’t fully register. We laughed about how the bandage placement made us look like we had been bitten by vampires.
From that moment on, Laura became a trusted and faithful friend who always knew the right thing to say. A friend with whom I could laugh about the macabre that is the cancer experience. I went through a period of obsessing about the odds, that my diagnosis gave me a 30% chance of dying within 5 years. Laura told me that statistically, neither of us should have the cancers we did and therefore the statistics didn’t apply to us, they’d already proven themselves false, flawed. I can’t tell you how much better that made me feel. For a while, whenever I saw her I’d bust a move and sing “odds don’t apply to me” and she would do the same. I just can't quantify how much Laura helped me during that time, what invaluable support she so generously offered me.
Laura liked farmer’s markets and loved art and craft, so any local artists reading this, especially if you made handbags, jewelry or hats, you've met Laura and she took great pleasure in supporting you. About five years before I met her, kind and gentle Laura the pediatrician with a heart of gold and character of steel was happily married to a painter/musician. He was fit as a fiddle and after one of his daily runs, he collapsed and died. He probably didn’t make the evening news, but I doubt that made her grief and loss or that of their two sons any less intense than the loved ones of whoever died in a fire that night for whom donations were pouring in. Within a year, this gracious, beautiful healer and widow was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She went through surgeries and chemo and thought she was done -- a survivor as they say, but too shortly afterwards she had that port put back in.
I was a novice at this cancer thing, so I guess I didn’t get it, and you hear about people living with cancer for a decade or more, but I know now, those are the outliers, we hear about them because they make everyone feel better. Just like we hear about every obsure cancer treatment breakthrough even though not much seems to dent what’s really going on with cancer, which is that it’s killing people, lots of people, every day.
Time goes by so quickly and it turns out I’ve known Laura for three and a half years now, throughout my whole treatment ,and as it quietly ended, as hers, while less fast and furious continued. She had upswings and down, but she always came back up until she didn’t, and two days ago, she didn’t. I saw her about a month ago, she came briefly to an event at my store, she was weak, but I’d seen her weak before and then robust. This time she was with her two sisters from out of town, I should have put two and two together, I didn’t. I was getting ready for my event, but I strolled around and chatted with her. I should have hugged her, maybe I did, I don’t know, I should have told her how much she meant to me, how much she had helped me, how happy I always was when I saw her come for her regular, but unexpected visits. I should have put two and two together, but I didn’t. Maybe I couldn’t, maybe I chose not to, maybe I’m obtuse.
Laura was a better friend to me than I was to her. She always came to see me and I didn’t make the effort to be more aggressive in coming to see her. I was always happy to see her, I hope that showed, I hope that made her feel loved. I hope it did and that’s why she came by so regularly, I hope I provided her a safe place to be herself in all her cancer patient glory. But where was my effort in that relationship? I should have followed up more, emailed more, especially after seeing her so weak a month ago, but I got swallowed up by my own life, my own needs. Maybe different relationships have different dynamics and that’s why we should ditch considering the quid pro quo. I have friends with whom I’m always the one dropping by, doing the hosting and inviting. Sometimes I’m resentful, and then my insecurity takes over and I feel like I’m pestering them or that my feelings aren’t reciprocated because they don’t invite me, drop by on me. Maybe what I can learn from this is that my role, my dropping by might be what they rely on, that they would miss it if I didn’t do it, that the relationship is meaningful to them and they count on me keeping it going. Just like I would miss Laura were she not always popping up. Just as I will miss her so very much now.
The thing about Laura was the sparkle in her eyes, always, always present even when she was feeling terribly. Always smiling, she had a unique light and life in her. I know that sounds corny, but it is just plain true, this woman had a special essence and grace. She went through more than any of us has physically and never complained, never wallowed. She experienced terrible loss, she lost her husband and then she lost her health. She and I had that loss-thing in common, so we understood each other and had a special connection and we were both people who chose to live, learn and transcend. Neither of us was bitter and neither played a victim. Laura and I laughed. Laura buried her husband, and it was a good marriage and yet only last year she was on-line dating, and until she died, she was raising money for her beloved La Leche League, and volunteering in her church and seeing patients, if only part-time. She saw one son graduate from H.S. and just missed seeing the other. I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t seem right and when I think about what this boy is going through, trying to pick a college, that right of passage, and he goes through this? That doesn’t seem fair either, but no one said anything about fair, ever.
I should have put two and two together and told Laura how I felt about her. I don’t do denial much, but I did it here, I knew my friend was dying, but right now you could knock me over with a feather, I just can’t believe it because I never met anyone more alive, or with more spirit. Laura had a boyfriend this past year, now that ladies and gentlemen, is a man. It seems crazy to get involved with someone who’s health is so precarious, but now I can see how lucky he was to have shared time with this special person, and I hope he knows the joy of companionship he brought to her. Dating with a colostomy, now that is one bad ass lady, but she knew her worth and apparently, so did he.
Laura was 54 years old. She touched my life so deeply, I can only imagine to how many others she did the same. No story on the evening news, no reporting of grieving family members, no 15 minutes of fame for anyone, but I can tell you that for me, the world stopped spinning for a split second and it’s going to take a bit to regroup. I will never forget that light in her eyes, never. Yep, the world stopped spinning, a light has gone out, may she rest in perfect, blissful peace. Laura Viehman, I am so lucky to have known you, and my gratitude for your friendship and support will not end. You will be alive in so many hearts, you will inspire me, be my role model on what it means to be courageous and alive, and gracious and giving, always.