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The commute: My friend died


Fri, Dec 27th, 2002
Posted in Columnists

I’d planned to write this column about New Year’s resolutions and my aversion to physical exercise, but every time I start to write it, I am thinking about Deanne, who died December 16.

At the age of two, she was diagnosed with an “old person’s disease”–arthritis. She battled it until she was forty three. For the twenty years that I knew her, she was in a motorized wheelchair.

Back when we both made our homes in Fairmont, I accompanied her on one of her many treks to the Mayo Clinic. I remember riding an elevator with quite a few other people, and suddenly noticing that she was leaning forward in an awkward manner, and the look on her face was pure discomfort.

“What was wrong in there?” I asked when we got to our floor.

“Didn’t you see that man leaning on my chair?”

Yes, I had noticed a silver-haired gent leaning lazily against the back of her chair as we rode up. I was surprised that she had seen him. She’d felt him, she explained. I think she would want me to tell you that when a person spends life in a chair, that chair is an extension of their body, and you should no more use the chair as a leaning post than you would rest against a stranger’s back.

At her funeral, the pastor described her as a beautiful, radiant spirit, in an impossibly twisted, pain-ridden body. I agree. Her radiance was so dazzling that people often didn’t notice the twisted body. That was how she wanted it. I think she knew that her illness made the people who cared about her often feel helpless to do anything, and she tried hard to put others at ease. Once, about eleven years ago, she uncharacteristically complained that she got tired of helping everyone else feel okay about her illness.

Though she kept up such a brave front, she expressed herself in poetry. Randy, her brother, daily physical assistant, and best friend, felt she would want some of this poetry read at her funeral. A lot of it was raw, difficult to hear, but it told the truth about her illness.

But I must embrace

my fellow one

who blocks the sun with rain.

For eternally beside me

is my old companion, Pain. (from “Constant Companion”)

She attracted a lot of religious types. If there was anything she hated, it was being told that if she just prayed hard enough, she wouldn’t feel the pain. Dozens of times she heard that God wouldn’t give her any more than she could handle.

The truth is, God gave me all I could handle ten years ago, and I see no end in sight. (from “The Truth is...I Used to Be”)

Yet, I’ve always believed that she was fairly tight with God. I imagine they had regular conversations, perhaps not always friendly on her part. She had much to be angry about. Like when the arthritis reached her lungs and she could no longer sing with any ease.

The truth is, the one thing I could do to touch people’s hearts and take me away from my pain, if only momentarily, was silenced years ago. Weren’t my joints enough? Did you have to take my voice as well?

I can’t speak with authority, but I’ve always felt God is okay with human anger. You have to believe in someone to feel anger.

And she certainly wasn’t always angry. Deanne had been especially close to her grandmother, staying at her house frequently before her grandmother’s death. Each night before bed, they would recite Psalm Twenty-three together. The pastor told us that when Deanne died at the hospital, her mother held her hand saying, “I’m going to hold your hand until Grandma takes the other one.”

I’ve been thinking about her a lot: her wisdom, her surprising and delightful sense of humor. My only sorrow after hearing her poetry is that she may not have realized how much of an impact she had on people.

We all want to feel needed,

even me, this piece of fluff.

But I’m the only one

that needs me,

So that will have to be enough. (from “Needed”)

Back when I was leaving Fairmont, I remember whining to her about how much I hated goodbyes because they were uncomfortable and emotional. She said something I’ve always remembered, and I’ve quoted her many times. She said, “Yeah, but wouldn’t you rather leave a place feeling sad, and having others feel sad that you’re gone? Then you know you’ve made an impression.”

Now Deanne has left this place, and I’m feeling sad. I was not ready to lose her yet.

Maybe this column is about New Year’s resolutions after all. I resolve to try to let people know when they’ve made an impression on me.

My life is so much richer for having known you, Deanne. Thank you.

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