Hold a true friend with both hands.
Today, is my mother's 79th birthday. It was also the day that her long-time friend, Lois, came to visit. Mom and Lois go back a long ways - a very long ways. By my reckoning, they've been friends for about 50 years. They met when we were living on Kansas Street in a new subdivision, with boxy houses set on nice big lots. Lois and her, then, husband had four children. The oldest was only a year younger than me and the second oldest was the same age as my second sister. I'm not exactly sure how the two women became friends, but after 50 years I understand more about the things that have held them together for so long.
For one thing, they both value learning and treasure music. For another, they were the odd women out in our neighborhood. Most of the people who lived on our street worked in car factories. Lois's husband was finishing a Phd in Math and my father worked at a white collar job - although he was still in a union. Most people, including us, drove Fords and Chevvies; Lois and her husband drove a Volkswagen. Lois sang opera and played a harp; my mother wrote poetry and was a voracious reader. They met in the carefree days of the 60s and are still friends today, having weathered one divorce, several moves, sicknesses, bouts with depression, and, finally, old age. Their lifelong friendship is something worth celebrating.
My mother is unwell. In fact, she's so unwell that she had a Hospice Intake about six weeks ago. When I found this out, I was still at home in Vancouver and called my mother's siblings to tell them the news and wrote Lois, Mom's oldest friend. When I got home a few weeks later, Mom had already invited Lois to come for her birthday. I was delighted at the news. My mother, however, waxed and waned on the topic. She has severe arthritis, dementia (or Parkinson's) and is on lots of meds. Her memory isn't the best and she is often in too much pain to enjoy things and, more than once, regretted inviting Lois. "I hate for her to see me this way," was her usual lament. Nonetheless, as the day came closer, Mom increasingly looked forward to Lois's visit. Then today, Mom was like a cat on a hot tin roof - for lack of a better simile. She couldn't settle. Lois and Bob's expected time of arrival was 2:30 and Mom was already getting antsy by 1. She needed her catheter bag emptied, she needed her water glass refilled, she needed her fingernails touched up - on and on it went. She was already worn out before 2:30 even rolled around. "They're not coming," Mom repeated at regular intervals between 2:30 and 3:20 when they finally arrived.
"They're here!" I announced with great relief when Bob and Lois's car pulled up in the driveway. "They're not," my mom said. "They are," I replied and then I went outside to greet them. Lois, like my mom, uses a walker and was slow getting out of the car. Bob, however, despite having a pacemaker, looked hale and hearty, as they say and was out of the car first. Inside, I have no idea what Mom was thinking as she waited in her chair. I couldn't catch what the two friends said to each other first, but I pulled a chair up for Lois to sit closer to Mom and, after a few minutes, I heard Mom ask Lois why her hands were so warm and looked over and the two old friends were holding hands. Meanwhile, I was jumping up to get ice water, iced gingerale, pieces of coconut cream pie - my sister's idea since it's hard for Mom to eat cake - and generally tending to the needs of three elderly people. Mom elected not to eat the coconut cream pie after all, but was content with her mango sorbet. Really, the two women weren't very interested in food. I could overhear them asking after each other's children, talking about grandchildren, and their health: the usual topics of old friends.
Lois and Bob stayed about two hours and I could see Mom was getting exhausted. I was on the verge of suggesting that Mom needed to rest when Lois got up and said that after she used the bathroom, they needed to go. Mom looked both sad and relieved. After the bathroom visit, Mom asked Lois if she could hug her. "What?" Lois asked. "Can I hug you?" Mom repeated. This was no easy feat to accomplish with two women, both of whom used walkers and were unsteady on their feet. Somehow, though, the two managed an improvised hug and kissed each other good-bye. Without being too sentimental about it, it's safe to predict that they'll never see each other again. Lois's last visit was several years ago. The two women only live about 80 miles apart, but when you're frail and old, 80 miles might as well be 800. I'm pretty sure they'll speak again, but even that isn't certain. It might be a cliche but all I know for sure is that today Mom and her oldest friend got to spend time together and they were both happy about that. (Tonight, is another story. Mom's anxiety about the visit, the excitement of the visit, and the sadness of saying goodbye are making it hard for her to sleep.)
Research is increasingly showing the importance of friendship in old age. The more friends the better. And even if your old friends die, making new friends is essential, particularly for the many seniors who end up in one or another sort of nursing home setting.
Next time: the other side of the coin, the epidemic of loneliness in old age.