There is a line from the movie Steel Magnolias every woman my age knows. It’s at Shelby’s grave when Sally Field, the strong maternal character of the movie, finally breaks down with her girlfriends after losing her daughter (Julia Roberts). One of the women friends breaks up the melt down by encouraging her to hit Weezer, the raunchy, sarcastic woman in the group, to make herself feel better. After a few tense moments, they all start laughing. Dolly Parton’s character then says, in the sweetness that can only come from Dolly’s voice, “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
My friend Tasha knew the day she would die. I’ll elaborate of course, but that sentence standing alone is hellacious. She woke up in the hospital one morning after battling cancer for months while her family was in the midst of trying to coordinate hospice, to learn they wouldn’t be getting that far. That morning, her doctor said to her – today is it, you will die today. We all knew it was coming, but not like that. Who has ever heard of a doctor announcing, while you were awake and cognizant, that this would be your final day? To a young woman. Imagine that. This is your last day, we’ll pump you up with as many drugs as we can, but this is it. You simply have too much fluid in your lungs to make it more than 24 hours.
Her hospital room was already full of flowers, balloons, photographs and countless kids’ drawings. She was a beloved young mother, teacher, daughter, wife, cousin, niece and friend. And when I say friend, I mean friend as in she was the kind of friend every woman cherishes. Funny, quick-witted, snarky and would rip the shirt off her back for you and stand there naked if she needed to to help you. She was like one of the women in that band of friends from Steel Magnolias as I think about it now – she was a small piece of all of them. And I had the honor of being in that band with her.
The level of conversations a young woman has with her best friend in the months she’s battling what everyone knows (even if they won’t acknowledge) is terminal cancer are profound, but to then concise that down to a day, to hours…. well, there’s no pretense of propriety left, no words that can be held back, no reason to soften the blow or dance around where we are. This is it. All of life, death and everything in between punched into hours. Those moments, those conversations, those pieces of insights or tiny intervals where life rips out your soul become who we are. And when one of the people in the world you’ve loved the most asks people to leave the room, grabs your hand, and says “I don’t want this to happen….” the foundation of everything around you is rocked.
I’m an estates and trusts attorney and have attended actual, literal legal education seminars on what they call “dying with dignity.” I get such a kick out of that phrase. We toss phrases around like that, write it in legal brochures, without thinking, goddamn, do you know what that means? Do you know what it means to be told – you will die today and because of that, all of your family members and friends are going to stand around you in a tacky poorly lit hospital room while machines beep and they will awkwardly stare at you while you lay in one of those god-awful gowns, struggle to breath, wondering what to say. Do you know what it means to want to share some fanciful, picture-perfect, meaningful, beautiful, profound moment with your pre-school aged daughter on this, your last day, but frankly she’d rather be in the other room coloring and playing with her cousins and friends than be surrounded by the weirdness that is a tense hospital room with your mom gasping a bit, teary, drugged up and formidably hiding any signs of what could only be described by any human as terror of the unknown while everyone looks at you all day long (as they have been for months….) with deeply, unabashed, sad longing eyes? Dying with dignity. Most people are fortunate to have no idea what that actually means.
It was transcendental. My conversations with her that day were transcendental. The room itself was transcendental. Watching her mother selflessly take on the day like a warrior was transcendental. Transcendental is defined by a google search as: relating to a spiritual or nonphysical realm. And the look in her eyes that day was raw transcendentalism. She had the most incredible eyes anyway, and I won’t belie that the morphine was a factor too, but they were clear blue to the core. You could see her soul at moments in those huge, blue, slightly teary eyes. We all plan days that we know are days that will shape our lives, change our futures, that we will remember forever….. but none like that day. And there is no plan for that.
So many of those I care about will carry that day forever. And I hope with all that I am that someday, there is a day, that I am having a glass of wine (several) with her daughter, who is my goddaughter, and perhaps Tasha’s mother and incredible sister with us too, and I can let it all out. Into those same blue eyes staring at me from another young woman who I love beyond all measure. But for me until then, I will live knowing that I saw the closest thing to God I’ll ever see, right as this angel was heading to meet him, on that transcendental day. The look in her eyes. The powerful resonance of our fleeting, quick conversations and comments on faith in those hours. All that is good, pure, holy, gracious and real was present that day, that worst of all days. In that awful room.
And you already know reading this what happened there, in that room, between two friends on that final day. It was laughter through tears. I have no idea how many times Tasha and I watched Steel Magnolias together – surely ten times, but if I add late nights, laying around on couches, flipping through channels that we’d catch clips or just scenes, ten is not even close. I loved the Sally Field character because her strength reminded me of my mother. For Tasha it was always Weezer (of course it was). I could hear Dolly Parton’s sweet voice running through my head in that hospital room, almost singing – “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” That transcendental day was the best and worst of all emotions and while I’d never wish it on anyone, maybe in some ways it was the closest I’ve ever felt to anyone. While laughing through the most harrowing kind of tears.