“I’m going to come sit with you tomorrow. I’m good at hospitals,” she said. It was September 28, 2008, the night before my husband had major surgery to remove his cancer and his esophagus along with it. I’m not sure what I was thinking by not planning to have someone sit with me that day. Clearly I wasn’t thinking at all. Thankfully, Laurie and the rest of my book club came to the rescue.

Laurie arrived in the waiting room that morning and presented me with a cute book bag with giant polka dots of blue and green. It was filled with items I didn’t know I would need: tissues, water bottle, lip balm, lotion, hand sanitizer, a shawl for cold waiting rooms, a starter kit for knitting, a small spiral-bound notebook with pen and more.

Others wandered in before work or after kids were seen off to school bearing hot drinks and cheer. Team Ken was formed. These women I had known for a decade or more by then made me laugh and forget why we were sitting in those uncomfortable straight back chairs in tight rows across from cartoonish prints that had us inexplicably looking out castle windows to other castles beyond. The distraction was complete until it became too late in the day and the surgery was taking too long for the news to be good. Some had to go; it was time to get kids from school and think about dinner. Our pastor arrived.

I noticed the surgeon the second he walked through the door, his eyes on the ground, legs propelling him toward a conversation that I could already tell he didn’t want to have. One of “those” conversations. Laurie removed the notepad and pen from the charming polka dot bag and started making notes as he spoke. Stage 3, not stage one. Couldn’t get it all. Radiation and chemo to follow. My chest buzzed. I pulled my legs up into the chair. I was suddenly cold and shivering from my core. “May I ask questions,” Laurie looked at me. I nodded my brain had entered a fog-like state anyway. Laurie, a fact-finder, asked the doctor good question after good question and scribbled diligent notes in the little red notebook. So many things I wanted to know or didn’t know that I wanted to know were recorded there.

When he left all attention turned toward me. The buzzing in my chest was now rising up through my throat in searing heat. Cold seconds before, I now felt aflame. I don’t recall saying I was nauseous but a plastic lined trash can appeared at my side. “You’re not having a heart attack. This is a panic attack,” Laurie said. “It won’t kill you, it just feels like it will.” I laughed.

So much of what happened the rest of that day is a blur. Everyone around me was so supportive, each doing what they could to help me as the doctors and nurses watched over Ken through the end of the surgery and recovery. They each made sure I wasn’t alone in turn. Laurie took my doctor’s number and told her what was happening. A prescription was called in and she left to pick it up for me and make a quick dinner for her own family before returning. The wait went on past dinner and into the evening. Laurie stayed. We were moved to the ICU waiting room. Another friend and her husband came back to keep vigil with me. I had a banana for dinner that I couldn’t finish. Laurie’s calm and non-anxious presence was perceptible and pulled me back toward her across the spectrum of anxiety when I strayed. At long last, I was called back to see Ken and left Laurie sitting in the waiting room with her knitting. She told me later that she watched us through the window to make sure I was alright. She truly was “good at hospitals.”

Ken and I were both Presbyterians but, truth be told, he had become more agnostic over time. When talking to our pastor one day he discussed a new change in his faith. “I have felt the presence of God through angels right here.” I knew exactly who he was talking about. Laurie was one of several angels we had around us. He was in awe of their selflessness and compassion.

While I have never truly lost my sense of spirituality, I have admitted before that I don’t know how to pray in a piece I wrote about my inability to find words that felt sufficient on the eve of Laurie’s surgery after her cancer diagnosis. Throughout her illness, remission and illness again I have tried to be there for her in word and deed but always feeling inadequate in reflection on what she had done for us. Yes, I know it’s not a competition and I really don’t see it that way. I would simply like to return her generosity in good measure, if that can be simple. I make another attempt at prayer. And another at deed.

On what would have been Ken’s fifty-third birthday I had the honor of staying with Laurie over-night in hospice. Her family prepared me that she slept a lot so I packed up my polka dot book bag with a few items I thought I might need including, of course, a spiral notebook and pen. I had learned from the master after all.

When I arrived I was comforted that she called me by name. She was remarkably lucid and alert most of the evening as we chatted off and on between her catnaps. She recognized the polka dot bag. I shared that when I told my son where I was going for the night he remembered her as the one who let him play games on her iPhone outside Ken’s hospital room. Noting that it was Ken’s birthday she asked me how I felt about that. “It’s bittersweet,” I told her honestly. Being with her on that day felt like a divinely conspired event, a thank you from both Ken and me for the role she played in our lives. An answer, of sorts, to a prayer though naturally I would have preferred a far different answer.

On that night I learned more about how to be “good at hospitals” from Laurie like the perfect ratio of crushed ice to water. In my toolkit, I now have a procedure for how to help someone who can’t get out of bed to brush their teeth with a real toothbrush and toothpaste. Imagine, for a minute, what a simple pleasure that is. Laurie luxuriated in the task and it was a joy to watch.

When, addled from a recent dose of medication or a brief sleep, she said odd things, I went with it. Correcting someone in this state just causes anxiety and no one needs more of that. At one point she attempted to lean forward and spoke to me as if we were on a retreat.
L: “So Tamara, tell me what you want to get out of the weekend?”
T: “I’m sorry, what?”
L: “What do you want to get out of the weekend? Accomplishments? Set priorities?”
T: “…I think I’d like to work on letting go, on finding peace.”
She nodded, sat back and relaxed.

We talked about the expressions of love that surrounded her: the mountain of cards, the dresser-top full of flowers, the mini ice creams tucked in the freezer, the prayer shawl folded over the bottom of her bed rail where she could see it always. She told me who was responsible for the latter, a common Facebook friend, so when Laurie slept I made sure that Grace knew it was there. She told me the story of the Gracynjoy Prayer Shawl’s creation and how tribe members of Patti Digh’s Life Is a Verb Camp, at which Laurie presented in 2013, had wrapped themselves in the shawl to place within it their love, prayers and admiration before it was sent to Laurie.

January 10, 2010 post on Ken’s Caring Bridge journal: “…The story here is that [Ken and his family are] deeply loved and this corner of the ICU waiting area is a calm raft where people are bound together by that love and caring for each other. We are praying together and feel your prayers, too. Thank you. Laurie”

That’s the story here too now. Laurie is on her own calm raft. Just as we did back in 2010, she and her family feel love surrounding them today. I can’t say it is easy but there is more peace. That’s what I pray for her now, deep peace.

It feels right that Laurie is leaving us this Lenten season, a time of reflection where we enter into the darkness before coming into the light of resurrection. (Well, as right as it can anyway.) This time last year Laurie felt called to create an online group where she shared her personal daily Lenten devotionals with others. This devotional is my final offering, in deed and prayer, to Laurie:

Dear God - Thank you for the life and love of Laurie. If there are angels personified, she is surely one. We are blessed to know and be inspired by her. Help us navigate the darkness that we begin to walk through as she enters into the light of pure love. Enfold her in your grace as we carry on changed and better for her presence in our lives. She is - and we are - transformed.

The last words I said to her were, “I love you, Laurie.” “I love you too,” are her final words to me. I will carry those always. Love lives on.

 

(Prayer Shawl collage photo credit: Laura Goyer Photography)

Do you have a Laurie in your life? Someone who has changed you for the better? How do you let them know what they mean to you? What words and deeds have felt significant to you? I’d love to know. Leave a comment in the box below.

10 Comments

  1. Grace Bower

    It is an honour to read this from the far side of the sea in Lord of the Rings country, Aotearoa,New Zealand. This is perfect – perfectly from the heart, perfectly going full circle, perfectly allowing us to enter into Lauri’s farewell visit, perfectly allowing us to again thank her and tell her of our love – and perfectly leaving a legacy of more leaarning how to live and die with integrity and dignity. Thank you Tamara.

    Reply
    • Tamara Beachum

      Thank you, Grace. It has been a pleasure talking to you these last few days. I appreciate your encouragement.
      Tamara Beachum recently posted..Good at HospitalsMy Profile

      Reply
  2. Katie McClain

    Dear Tamara- Thank you for these beautiful words. I am so moved by the love, support, and grace that she offered you and your family. By sharing this, you are teaching many of us and we can take this to others who need it. I am praying for Laurie and her family daily. I wish I could do more. Laurie is grace.

    In December, a dear friend and coach of mine passed from metastatic breast cancer. Michelle was so special. She changed so many lives. And she came into mine at the perfect moment. She helped me heal some deep wounds and trauma. She was a gift to so many people. Just like Laurie. Michelle taught me true love and acceptance. I will be forever changed and grateful for my short time with her.

    Sending you love,
    Katie

    Reply
    • Tamara Beachum

      Laurie was mentor as well as friend. We are lucky to have such great people in our lives. There is no such thing as enough, right?

      Love back at ya!
      Tamara

      P.S. I apologize for just now responding. My blog has stopped notifying me that there are comments. I’m sure Laurie would know how to fix that. 😉
      Tamara Beachum recently posted..Book Review: The Husband’s Secret by Liane MoriartyMy Profile

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  3. Selina

    oh my dear….you are such a light to so many.In your times of great grief and sorrow you continue to share truth and the grace of your being. Your Laurie, and your wonderful Ken are at peace and you are here continuing to live your life with such bravery. Thank you for sharing your Laurie with us.

    Reply
  4. Deborah

    I am so very sorry for this great loss of your beloved friend. Sometimes it is so hard being in human skin. My husband passed 2 years ago at Christmas, my father passed 6 weeks before him, my mother passed a few months prior to Daddy, and then my only sibling brother had a massive stroke one month after my husband’s passing. It is so much loss that I am still only able to mourn my husband. I do pretty well at keeping the guilt held back over not being able to be with everyone dying at the same time, and choosing my husband, to honor my marriage vows. The weight of great losses is just so heavy to carry. All my love to you, Deborah

    Reply
    • Tamara Beachum

      “Sometimes it is so hard being in human skin.” Yes…good way to put it. Thank you. You have had so many losses all together. That must be a lot to take in. I’ve had a period lately where I’ve felt like there has been one wave after another knocking me down just when I stand back up. I imagine you know what that feels like from what you have written here. I’m glad you’ve found some peace in your choices. Sometimes there aren’t many good ones.

      Deep peace to you,
      Tamara
      Tamara Beachum recently posted..Book Review: The Husband’s Secret by Liane MoriartyMy Profile

      Reply
  5. Deirdre

    Tamara,
    Thank you for sharing your experience during your husband Ken’s illness and death! Also, what you have written about your times with Laurie’s is beautiful and inspirational. You both have touched me and many others, I am sure.

    Reply

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