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My best friend is dying. We met in 1989, and became daily companions. But after 8 years I had moved away, and we had seen each other sporadically thereafter. Now that the cancer is taking its toll, of course, I wish I had put more energy into calling her. Whenever I did call, she would fire questions at me. How did my gallery show go? What is happening with the baby horse? How is the writing coming?
I am learning the sad fact that the current trend is to resent this type of inquisition. It’s been labeled, “Interviewing.” This stems from the habit of questioning for information to use as an arsenal.
But we were never like that. The quick exchange of information is a treasured thing. My friend Rita is an excellent listener, with a razor-sharp mind and ravenous curiosity. She is a great lover of animals, especially cats. She had established a cat rescue in Ann Arbor, called Mosaic Feline Refuge, which she kept open for 22 years. They finally closed this spring. They couldn’t keep up the time, energy, and the vast expense of caring for and surgically altering and then homing hoards of roaming house cats and kittens. “I just felt like I never did enough,” she told me.
“That’s because you see the bigger picture,” I said. “But what are the numbers? I mean, how many cats did you save?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure they’re logged somewhere.” She sighed, a futile huff acknowledging the vastness of an unending problem. I thought the numbers might make her feel better. After all, one saved cat can prevent literally thousands of unwanted kittens. And Rita had saved, certainly, thousands of cats.
I had called her a week before Christmas, because I needed a name for my own rescued kitty. Rita was the first one that came to mind. She is endlessly creative and names all her cats and dogs after food. Over the years she’s had some real classics — Toast and Trifle, Lamb Chop and Wafer. But her husband returned the call and told my voicemail that she was in hospice and hopefully coming home in a few days. He didn’t know if she would want company.
I called back, thinking I would be able to maintain composure, and then left a sobbing mess of a message on his answering machine. I didn’t know what to say. I stammered that I wanted a name for my kitty. “He likes his belly rubbed!” I wailed.
I was able to finally talk to Rita yesterday. She was home. “Chuckles,” she said immediately. “You know, those candies that come in all the colors? They stick — and your guy has stuck.”
The moment she said it, I knew, of course, that this was indeed his name. I had found this silly ornament on Christmas Eve, a tiny handmade kitty that looked like my kitty, but it was wearing a clown hat. I brought it home and put it on the window sill next to the wooden chicken. Rita, with her uncanny insight, had called out the name “Chuckles”, and that ornament says it. Chuckles. Chuckie. Chuck Chuck. A final gift from someone who has already given so much.
When she answered the phone, she sounded down, but the more we talked, the more she seemed like her old self. We laughed and talked about cats and dogs, and Clifford and Trudy, and their new little brother. She asked if I was riding him yet. “No!” I said. “I don’t bounce like I used to!”
“I understand that,” she said.
She asked about my new book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN. “Any way you can send it to me?”
She is a voracious reader. She has devoured everything I’ve ever written. She said, “Everyone’s been sending me books! You wouldn’t believe the stacks of them around here. I’ve been telling people it’s the only thing I can still do.”
I was so anxious for her to read this, because she knows Amanda, and she has her own history with family dysfunction. Her opinion is so important. I’m working on getting a copy to her ASAP. I know at this time in life, every day is precious. While we talked, I kept wondering if this would be our last conversation.
I wish she wasn’t going. But at least, this time, I had a chance to tell her she was dear to me; she was like a sister. No, better than a sister. She just laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re family.”
Through the whole conversation I worried that she might be getting tired. But she rattled on and on, laughing and chatting. I was driving to a friend’s house and when I finally reached my destination and regrettably had to hang up, we both said, “Bye!” quickly, just like always.
There comes a point when there is nothing more to say, and yet so many things to say. If I could have a friend like this for the rest of my life, we would never run out of things to talk about, or run out of questions. I hope I can help her though whatever remains of her lifetime. But the irony is, in reality, she is helping me.