It’s taken me a while to sit down and finish this post because it is a hard one to write. I have lost a dear friend and was not prepared for it. Not sure you can ever be prepared to lose a loved one, but the way Paula left was so sudden it has taken a while for reality to sink in.
We met in May last year. I had just moved to Tennessee and was trying to embrace my transition and all the changes that came with it. I reported to my new office location and met the friendliest, sweetest, little lady one can ever imagine: Paula. She had this soft yet commanding voice (the kind that makes you feel home but you don’t dare disobey), and a musical southern accent. She was my height too! We just connected from day one. She took it upon herself to show me the area, teach me some basic expressions, and introduce me to southern cooking. I felt right at home when we were together.
It was through Paula that I came to know meatloaf, sweet tea, bbq, and endless casseroles. We had lunch dates once a week and shared lots and lots of stories … listening was so important. She met Garepito the day I adopted him and bought him his first toy. She listened to me when I felt homesick. She laughed when I did silly dance moves in front of her office door. She was ‘tickled’ when I downloaded Pandora to her phone and showed her how to listen to her favorite songs, she liked Elvis. She was always ‘fixin’ to do’ something and I just loved hearing her say it. She was my really good friend.
Towards the end of the year she looked a bit exhausted and started complaining about little red spots on her skin. We joked about the amount of make up needed to hide them and she had plans to see her dermatologist.
I decided to change jobs and we both felt sad about that. She had plans to retire in April so we figured she would not have to miss me for a long time since she would be gone soon as well. Paula was really supportive during this transition and once again made me feel like everything would be ok.
We had a great thanksgiving meal in her quaint little house in Monterey, TN, where the hilltops kiss the sky. This was the home she was setting up for her retirement, it once belonged to her grandmother. It was fascinating, crossing the entry door felt like stepping into a time machine! The house is one hundred years old and has such a warm southern feel, it fit her perfectly. She looked tired but hosted the luncheon with such effortless grace.
Then the bad news came, a mass on her liver. This explained the lack of energy, the change in her skin color, the red dots on her skin; how could we have missed the signs? There were a couple of possible explanations so we remained optimistic for a few days. She seemed optimistic. Christmas came and she wasn’t feeling all too well. I don’t recall the exact order of events after this point because it all happened so fast. It just felt like a very long, gloomy day since the diagnosis was given to her and her family: liver cancer. It felt like a ton of bricks falling on my head but we remained hopeful.
In hindsight I think she knew from the beginning that something was terribly wrong. As I read our text messages I can see that at about Christmas time they took on a different tone. She constantly reminded me how much she loved us and how much we meant to her. This was not unusual for her to say, but as I read them now I can sense a feel of urgency, as if she wanted me to fully grasp the meaning of her words.
We met twice in January, it was fun! We talked about the plan of action the doctor was laying out for her and how she knew chemo would be harsh, she was hopeful. We talked about my bridal shower and how I planned on wearing cowgirl boots in honor of my new home state, she laughed.
The first Friday in February was devastating. It was the beginning of an inevitable end, one we were not prepared for. I received a call from Wes, her son-in-law, who could barely form any words, he was so choked up. No words were necessary. Her first chemo treatment had taken place a week or two prior to this day and I guess it hurt her weakened body more than it helped. I don’t know. All I know is that when I arrived at the hospital she had been declared terminally ill and was being transferred to a hospice facility that night. The world stopped for a while.
How can someone’s appearance change so much in a matter of days? I was blessed to get there in time to talk to her for a bit. She held my hand and said that I was her sweet little Miami friend, that I was her sweet, sweet little friend. She touched my engagement ring and told me it was beautiful and that she loved me, Garrett and Garepito. She told me she was so glad I had come to see her. I was in disbelief, trying not to cry and so confused. I asked if she was scared, my strong sweet lady said: no. I loved her.
The next days were terrible. There are no words to describe the sickening anxiety that took over all of us. We were clinging to every sign of life as it gave us hope. The natural death process is exhausting and painful. It also makes you think and gives you time to cherish the good times you had with your loved one. For me, it was a weird experience. On one hand I was losing a dear friend, on the other hand, I was gaining one: Rachel, Paula’s daughter. Rachel and I spent hours talking, venting, eating, looking at pictures of our dogs, and sometimes even crying. I felt like a big sister who needed to bring comfort, it was the only gift I had left for Paula.
I sat by Paula and told her stories. All of our lunch dates and long conversations had a purpose. I needed to retain those stories to bring them back to her when she needed them most … on her deathbed. She enjoyed hearing all about her trip to Bermuda and the fresh fish she ate there. She loved hearing stories about Monterey and her childhood. The whole family lit up for a bit when we talked about Paula’s favorite childhood memory: Daniel the cocker spaniel. I even sang her an Elvis song which she recognized.
This experience taught me a lot about communication. We drown in our own words, we talk too much in an effort to better communicate; the reality is that communication is the transferring of genuine thoughts, feelings and desires through whatever means available to us. Paula was able to communicate with us with subtle face movements, by squeezing our hand, by blinking, with a few words, and sometimes simply with her breath, this was enough for all of us.
Valentines came and past, so did Paula’s 64th birthday. And on the night of Saturday, February 22, 2014, my dear friend took her very last breath on this earth. She was surrounded by the people who loved her the most on this planet: her brother Greg, her son-in-law Wes, her beautiful mother Gina, and my sweet friend Rachel.
When I think of Tennessee, I think of her.