I have a friend. She lives very far away, across an ocean and a continent, but once we lived in the same city, where a twenty-minute walk beneath ficus trees and cork oaks would bring us to each other’s doors. I’d reach her street, turn past the sprawling frangipani just outside her window, and gather a few of the flowers on my way in – white, waxy petals with a yellow burst at their heart, a fragrance that always brings Beryl to mind, wherever I find them.
It’s been 17 years since I lived in that city, but I’ve been back annually, sometimes more. Beryl and I always get together several times, because one visit would certainly not be enough. We have to have at least three meals, or cups of coffee. Three chances to start a conversation and actually see it through to its end.
We’ve discussed her coming here to Chicago, where I live now, but I’ve always known it wasn’t likely. It’s a big ocean and she’s never crossed it, mostly travelling instead to the English climes in which she was raised. Still, I carried a small hope, folded into a corner of my heart, a small hope that she would see my home, see my beautiful children in their natural habitat, come to walk with me under the trees that grow here, the oaks and the maples, alongside black-eyed-susans and prairie grass. I would have taken her to the lake, to show her just how big a lake can be, how like an ocean, with a continent on either side.
But she will not come. I know that now. She will never come.
I’ve never known how old Beryl is (she refused to tell anyone who dared ask), but I was once able to winkle out of her that she is “about” my mother’s age. Today, that places her in the eighty-year-old range. It may be that sixty is the new forty, but eighty? Eighty is pretty old.
Some eighty-year-olds, of course, are strong like ox; some, like my mother, are so busy running around on new hips that it can be hard to catch them on the phone. Some eighty-year-olds, on the other hand, are manifestly not strong like anything. Some eighty-year-olds have begun to lose the map of themselves, the narrative that once wound into a life starting to fray, or simply unwind.
Beryl was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this month. Those who love her have seen it coming, but one always wants to believe that one is wrong. She was always a little scatterbrained, after all, always amused by her own incapacity to throw out old newspapers. They would pile in her room, as high as her nightstand, because she just knew she’d get to them someday.
All I know is that sometime in the spring of 2014, her emails – once full of exclamation points and demands that I visit soon – became vague, and when I finally rounded the frangipani tree a few months later, she was there – but not really.
Her edges were dulled, her certainties unspooled, her presence in her own home tentative and muddled, laughing when laughing didn’t make sense. I might not have noticed it if we’d met elsewhere for coffee, but I was there to spend the night. To talk until much too late, and then suffer her teasing me for sleeping in. Beryl never needed much sleep. She was always the friend you could call at midnight, because she’d be up working.
Once back in Chicago, I heard from her daughters that what I feared I’d seen was real: there was some kind of deterioration, some loss of capacity. I began to call Beryl more frequently, but I cannot say that it was easy to dial the phone, not knowing what I’d hear when she picked up.
In the intervening months, it has become more and more difficult to know just what to say, because no matter what I say, I often find that it’s suddenly become a foreign language – a thing – a thing that she once knew intimately, a thing about which she once had powerful opinions – a thing that means nothing to her now. About which she can remember nothing. Not least, the fact that she sat in her home, phone to ear, and talked to me just weeks ago, and just weeks before that.
On a recent Saturday, when Beryl recognized my voice on the line, she said my name in the way that she has always said my name, no matter where I was or how long it’d been since we last talked: “Emily!” with a little shout and a shiver of laughter – just: happy. Happy to know it was me.
And then: “Where are you?”
“Oh, in Chicago.”
“In Chicago? Why are you in Chicago?”
And there it was. I didn’t need the diagnosis, it was just a fact: Beryl has crossed some line, a line I cannot see, on what once felt like a distant horizon. She is farther from me than she has ever been, and the simple, sorrowful truth is that she will never turn back, she will never turn toward home. The harbor itself is gone.
I didn’t need the diagnosis but I sought it just the same, writing to her daughter immediately, and the answer came back: “This week… Alzheimer’s… we knew, but still, such a shock.”
Not very long ago, just a couple of years all told, while on my annual pilgrimage to that other place, I had an odd and slightly unsettling encounter with a beloved friend, a friend who Beryl also knows. I got in my rental car, drove in a bit of a daze, then pulled over and pulled out my phone.
This thing had happened, I told Beryl, and that thing had been said. It felt like it was Very Important, but I didn’t know what to do, or how to make sense of it.
Yes, it meant something, she said – but no, it doesn’t matter. What you need to do, Emily, is not worry about it. You need to let it go.
I want to repay her in kind for all the years of love that she has given me. I want to help her and support her and be there for her always. But the only thing I can give her now is something tiny, something vanishing, something so small that it will slip through her fingers almost before it’s arrived.
I can call. I can keep calling. I can chat about nothing and everything in a way that will entertain her a little, and fill a few minutes in her increasingly unmoored days. I can do this much more frequently, in the hope that hearing from me tomorrow will remind her that she heard from me today.
When last we spoke, I did a thing I almost never do, and told Beryl, twice, how much I love her; she, in turn, did a thing that she almost never does, and told me the same.
I will call her and tell her that I love her even as the days steal her mind, even though moments after we hang up, she may not know that I called. It’s the only way I have to love her now, until even that is taken from us, and my name is just another confusing set of sounds – and real love, true friendship, will call on me to say goodbye.
I have a friend. She lives very far away, and each day takes her farther from me. I will carry her love always; I wish I could wrap mine up with frangipani flowers and put it in her small hands, to hold forever.
I wrote this essay in July 2015, and it ran on xoJane. In the meantime, xoJane has been shuttered, and the place is crawling with ads, and who knows how long the archives will remain available. So I’m posting it here. I don’t know how Beryl is doing now – it’s been some time since she’s been able to conduct a phone call.