Yesterday I stopped to visit an old friend I had not seen since before the pandemic began. Besides the risk of contagion there were a couple of other reasons I hadn’t seen her for so long, but as soon as I sat down with her I regretted my long absence. “It’s so wonderful to see you!” she exclaimed. “I love you so much!”
“Your face is so beautiful,” she went on. She patted her forehead, “Your head, with the beautiful mind, and your eyes, and your beautiful mouth! To make words!” as she rubbed her fingers around her lips. I laughed and said, “It’s wonderful to see you, too, and I love you so much.”
“We’ve been friends for a very long time,” she said, “since we were just little girls,” and she held her hands child-high above the deck where we sat. “It’s been a long time, for sure,” I said, “maybe not as long as all that.” I reminded her how and when we had met.
“It’s so wonderful to see you!” she exclaimed. “I love you so much!” I echoed her words back to her. “You’re so beautiful,” she said, “your hair, and your earrings look so good on your ears, and your pretty hat.” My heart was breaking. I moved my chair around to sit next to her and held her hand. She had quite the strong grip for someone over ninety, though she had moved ponderously and seemed quite frail when she stepped outside to sit with me.
The propane truck arrived just then to fill the house tank, with its engine and pump cacophony, and so we sat quietly, taking in the fall colors in the trees and shrubs around us, smiling at one another and making occasional hand signs and mouthing “I love you,” until they were done and left. Quiet thundered down.
“God bless us and keep us safe from all harm, in Jesus’ name, Amen,” she said. In thirty years I had never once heard her pray. “It’s so wonderful to see you! You look lovely. We’ve been friends for such a long time, since we were just little girls, and here we still are. We took to each other right away.”
That was true. “Like ducks to water,” I said, and she laughed.
“We’ve been friends for ever so long,” she said, “and look at us now, still friends!”
“Yes,” I said, “two little old ladies sitting on the porch, still friends after all these years,” and she said, “Will we be friends forever?”
“We’ll be friends forever,” I said. “We’ll be friends in the next life too, and I’m sure we were in our past lives.” She laughed again. It felt so good to make her laugh. The Alzheimers that began attacking her beautiful mind so many years ago had advanced dramatically since the last time I’d seen her. Though I’d called every month or so for the past few years, I had not seen the change, and the conversations had followed the same repetitive pattern though with a different theme: How are you, what have you been up to, how are you, what have you been doing, how are you… Her seeing me in person added a new element. Each time she told me how beautiful I am and how much she loves me, my heart cracked open a little bit more.
I sat with her for about half an hour and could tell when she closed one eye that she was beginning to tire, so I tapped on the door and her partner came out to help her back inside. I told them I’ll come back next week. “You promise?” she said. “I promise.”
“God bless us and keep us safe from all harm, in Jesus’ name, Amen,” she said as I left. I’m grateful for the heartbreak that made me softer.
I was grateful for the serene beauty along the road home, and the quiet time it afforded me to metabolize the emotions moving through me. I was grateful to return home and find the internet still out, and grateful it remained out until after I went to bed. None of my usual entertainments (read, ‘distractions’) were available to me, and so I nursed the heartbreak quietly, letting it soften more and more the hard edges of my prolonged voluntary solitude.
Into the softness of the heartbreak I let flow the joy of finishing the puzzle. Another pair of dancers, as my friend had danced the last time before this that I’d seen her. The precious tiny star in the dancer’s hand, and the simple pleasure of spotting the piece that fit it across the board and knowing exactly where it went.
That moment that comes late in almost every puzzle, where you’re sure, you are certain, there’s a piece missing because you’ve looked all over for it — and then, suddenly, it’s right in front of you and has been all along.
And then that sense that there’s not enough room for all the pieces you have left, especially the big groups — where can they possibly fit?
And then you find where they go, and the rest of the pieces flow into place smoothly one right after another…
… and then the puzzle is complete, put back together, and so is your heart.