My emotions are still a little too raw to be writing this post, but perhaps it will be one of those cathartic things that will make me feel better in the end — but somehow I doubt that I will feel better anytime soon. But at least you, the reader, will have a little insight into my life’s ups and downs, which can’t be a bad thing.
I have a friend LB who is one of my Lunch Bunch friends, and she is one of my dearest favorite people. I have known her for 13 years, ever since our Lunch Bunch circle first formed. Our Lunch Bunch started when my friend and coworker SG went by himself to one of our favorite restaurants for lunch. I had recently changed jobs and wasn’t available that day, so he went by himself. Back then, the restaurant only had 9 indoor tables: one that seated two people, six that seated four people, and two that seated 8 people. The place was packed and there was a wait that would have exceeded his allotted lunch hour. He was waiting patiently in line to be seated, and two very kind gentlemen (MG, 73, and HC, 70), waved him over to their table and told him he was welcome to sit and order lunch and participate in their conversation–or not, depending on his preference. Knowing SG, he probably wasn’t too comfortable with this offer, but it might have been the only way to quickly get lunch, so he accepted. He had a delightful lunch and and engaging conversation, and at the end of the meal MG and HC invited him to join them again anytime — they always came on the same day at the same time.
Some weeks later, SG and I planned to eat lunch together at the restaurant, but he wanted me to meet these gentlemen if they were still there. We arrived, SG introduced me to MG and HC and we all sat down and shared a meal together. And thus, the Lunch Bunch was born (though it didn’t have a name yet).
The restaurant had a waitress named LB who was very friendly and kind, though she had an interesting but endearing quirk: she was kind of clumsy and sometimes she dropped things and you would hear a crash in the kitchen followed by what sounded like harsh foreign words from the owner of the restaurant. The owner couldn’t fire her though: she was married to his son and she worked there for free, and all her tips were given directly to her husband though she did get free meals when things slowed down.
One day, when we all piled in for lunch together, LB gave the Lunch Bunch its name. She said, “the Lunch Bunch is here!” She was always a lot of fun to talk to, so several times we invited her to come and join us if she ever wasn’t working that day. I think eventually the restaurant ended up hiring enough wait staff that she only had to come in during catastrophes or days of poor planning, and she started joining us at lunch and became part of our circle until she and the owner’s son got divorced and she was banned from the restaurant. She also dropped off the radar for a while after the divorce because her life was complicated, I suppose. We stayed in touch on Facebook, and now and then I would meet her for lunch at other local restaurants and catch up.
LB was always generous with her time. She was an outgoing, supportive friend and had a great big heart. When our Lunch Bunch friend MG had his knee replacement surgery, his son who lives in town didn’t feel like taking him the hospital, or waiting for him to get through surgery, or even visiting him afterward. LB immediately volunteered to take him to the hospital, she waited for him to get out of surgery, and she stayed by his bedside all night until he was discharged the next day, and she drove him home. Back in February, when my wife had to be at work during some of the radiation treatments on my liver, LB woke up at 5:00 am for four straight days, drove 45 minutes to pick me up and take me to the cancer center. Her friends and family could always count on her to drop everything to help them whenever they were in need, either by transporting them somewhere, spending time listening to their problems, or by bringing them delicious homemade food.
She was like a Disney princess because wild animals like squirrels, deer, and bunny rabbits would come up to her and let her touch them — even weird varmints like lizards, bumblebees, and butterflies, and moths got in on the action. And so did a large number of people: she had more friends and acquaintances than I could even count. I am kind of an introvert at heart so I prefer to have a small number of very good friends instead of hundreds of more distant friends, because even though I love being with people when I feel like it, all my energy is revitalized by being alone and reading, or thinking, or listening to music, or woodworking, or just daydreaming (about ice cream mostly).
When I got diagnosed with colon cancer, she texted me often, tracked my progress very closely, listened to me complaining about the worst times, and took me to lunches that my stomach could tolerate after chemotherapy. She encouraged me to be grateful for every moment, to live every day to its fullest, and she told me never to worry about the outcome. Life is a journey best taken one small step at a time. I was going to be just fine.
I remember when her dog Layla, a pit mix, had to be put down, she talked about her beautiful dog’s life from puppyhood to the grave. Layla was her companion, her family, and her protector and after Layla died she was so unconsolably sad. And she began to get very anxious about living alone without Layla’s protection since she had several creepy ex-boyfriends who continued to stalk her even years later.
As generous as she was giving her time to so many people, she was petrified of being a burden to anyone. She was fiercely independent and insisted on never needing help. But she always trusted me since, as she said, Layla always stood guard between her and people she should be wary of, and Layla always took an instant liking to me, which was very rare. So whenever LB’s cat Elsie needed to be fed while she was out of town with family or friends, she gifted me with her trust and her house key–and a set of unbelievably specific instructions for feeding, brushing, and caring for Elsie (and also information about caring for her plants).
Then this year at age 40, she got a uterine cancer diagnosis and shocked me by saying she wasn’t going to get treatment for it, she was just going to let it take her. She was anxious, fearful, and suspicious of doctors and hated needle sticks and the very idea of surgery, even though she had a better than 95% chance of survival. I was shocked and saddened by this decision, and I think I was a royal pain in the ass about getting her to have a second opinion and seek more information about treatment.
I work hard to silence all judgment when I am with my friends and family. I focus on always giving unconditional love, and it was personally very hard for me to support her decision without my own feelings getting in the way: here I was, struggling and suffering for the smallest shot at something like a 12% chance of cure, and her just giving up. It was painful for me to contemplate her choice, and honestly it will always haunt me. But her life was harder than I can even wrap my head around. A lot of people took advantage of her generosity and kindness, and she suffered a lot of abuse, trauma, and betrayal from the people she loved the most. She didn’t want to die, but she also wasn’t all that excited about getting dumped on even more in life. In her darker moments, she even seemed sort of relieved at the thought of wrapping things up at this point.
Then she started having panic attacks and being afraid to go outside. I started bringing her food and cat food for Elsie when she was too anxious to leave the house. Then her HVAC system caught fire and nearly burned her house down, and she was anxious about being indoors too even though it got completely replaced with a brand new, safer HVAC system. Her doctors prescribed anxiety meds that made her angry, or gave her thoughts of suicidal ideation. She started going for days without sleep and hallucinating. After two stints in rehab for alcoholism years ago, she admitted she had started drinking again.
Alcohol is a scary poison: she would drink it to fall asleep after days of insomnia but I warned her often that alcohol, especially in large doses, interrupts good sleep, prevents REM sleep and deep sleep, and over time can do permanent damage. She pretty much ignored all that, and soon her drinking quickly led to blackouts, memory loss, mood swings, and mixing SSRIs and sleeping pills with alcohol. She could barely walk in a straight line, drinking or sober. She started getting paranoid. An ex-boyfriend from decades ago has been driving by her house ever since they broke up, and he recently knocked on the door begging to talk, and she threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave. She changed her locks and gave me a new key, “just in case.” Just in case… what? She started alienating herself from friends and family, being argumentative or sometimes just texting and not making any coherent sense at all. She couldn’t hold down food if she ate it at all. She lost all motivation to succeed, improve, or even to straighten up around the house. She was complaining of pain in her legs that felt like her muscles tearing off the bone. I begged her to make doctor appointments with her primary care provider, a neurologist, and an orthopedist. I suggested specific doctors and specialist. I would even take her there if she was anxious about driving. She kept canceling the appointments, anxious as she was about doctors (and it turns out, not wanting me to know too much about her medical status). She also didn’t like how doctors blamed every little thing on her alcoholism (which, to be completely honest, was the root cause of a great many issues, starting with her being born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and decades of drinking leading to Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
For the first time ever, we were getting in arguments as she misinterpreted my attempts to understand her increasingly cryptic texts (often sent in the wee hours of the morning). After getting angry at me, she would stop reaching out for a few days, then returned to apologize. When she did that, she sounded completely normal, like a dark cloud had passed. She was struggling hard to change and cut back, and to leave the house. She was making plans to attend a concert, she went out for groceries, she reached out to friends and family. She reported things were going so much better except for the leg pain.
Last week on Monday I had a CT scan and she texted me at 4:17pm wanting to hear the results, but the radiology report wouldn’t be available until Tuesday before I had chemo. I was feeling sick that day — I took the day off work to sleep when I wasn’t being CT scanned and filled with iodine contrast — and being asleep I didn’t respond for a few hours. I didn’t get a response which was weird, she always responds immediately even if lately it’s just nonsense.
Tuesday morning at 8:00am I went to the Cancer Center for my oncology visit and chemotherapy infusion, and tried to text and get any kind of response. Silence. I called, even at 3:00am, and it went to voice mail.
Wednesday morning I went in to work, had my regular status meeting with my co-workers, and the worst terrible feeling settled on me and I felt some power, some force saying (not literally), “you must go do a wellness check.”
I took an early lunch and immediately drove the 15 minutes or so to her house, where I found her parents on the doorstep trying to get into the house. Their key didn’t work, and I explained about the lock-changing and her sort of paranoid thoughts due to the ex-boyfriend thing. My key worked and got us into the house. We went through the house, and as we got to the bedroom we found her peacefully lying curled up in blankets in bed. She was very cold and very dead. There was lividity and no rigor mortis, and later on my guess for the police and paramedics was that she died on Monday between 4:17 pm and 7:17 pm.
I was shaking and crying, I was immediately in shock. My face felt numb. My hands felt numb. Her parents, who I had never met before, were also in shock. They called 911 and we waited for the police to arrive. We explained everything while the paramedics came and went back to the bedroom. The medical examiner arrived with the forensics team and took pictures of everything. Her parents and I gathered all medications from everywhere in the house we could find so they could make a record and count the pills in each bottle. Her father was looking for a suicide note but I told him, there was absolutely no way it was a suicide. Just days before her mood was improving, her anxiety was lessened, she had hope for the future.
I suspected she had a pulmonary embolism because she was essentially bedridden by the leg pain, and leg pain is often a good indicator of dangerous clots. Her parents suspected alcohol and medications, and told me a great deal about her history I didn’t know (and really, I didn’t want to know that my friend was so troubled in life with relationships, and family drama).
I kept looking for her cat Elsie but she was nowhere to be found, so I assumed she had been let outside before LB died, but it seemed unlikely because the cat only wanted to be outside for a few minutes to scratch at the dirt and smell everything before begging to come back inside. So I just focused on being there for her family and helping them grieve, and trying to hold my own self together. The lead police officer was an incredibly compassionate, sympathetic person and I appreciated his calm demeanor and gentle way of asking questions he needed the answers to. Soon the medical examiner told the family he was going to put her in a body bag and put her in a nondescript white van parked on the street. Her parents went on the back porch because they didn’t want to watch, but I waited for them to put her on the gurney and I walked them out to the van. For some reason I just felt like she needed someone to walk with her body and spirit. I kept thinking about how fearful she was of needles and surgery, and the indignity of the autopsy that was to come. She would not have wanted it that way.
When she was gone and the police excused themselves to leave, I stayed and chatted with her parents who were just reviewing all the puzzle pieces in their head, and I was adding puzzle pieces of my own until we got to a sort of sense of being settled. The cat Elsie showed herself and she was absolutely pitiful. Her tail was puffed out like a wire brush, she was crying and coughing, shaking and miserable after almost two days not being fed and having to see her mommy’s body. I have never seen an animal grieve before, but it was obvious that Elsie was suffering a deep and terrible grief. LB’s parents said they have no idea what to do with her, since one of their cats used to live here but terrorized Elsie and so they took that cat into their own family.
I remembered that LB had been impressed that her cat really liked me and let me pet her, when she was often quite triggered by men due to abuse she suffered in the past. LB made me promise at the start of her anxiety troubles that if she ever died, I would adopt Elsie. I did promise that, but I knew in my heart of hearts that it was much more likely statistically, that I would be the one who died first. But I’ve grown to love Elsie and her little quirks. She is adorable and just very, horribly cute.
I explained LB’s wishes to her parents and they were very relieved. We decided to leave Elsie in the empty house for a couple of days and they would feed and check on her, and when my chemo was taken down I could text them and pick up the cat.
When I came back for Elsie, they had found her cat carrier and after giving me a status update on their obituary writing and funeral preparations, we loaded her into the carrier. They gave me LB’s jacket so Elsie would have her smell.
Elsie has been adjusting to life in a new home with two big male cats — and Elsie is so delicate and small. But she grew up with a pit bull mix and is pretty fearless about enforcing her boundaries. She is also very curious about our family and the children, having spent much of her life with only one or two adults. Her favorite activity seems to be knocking things off all the dressers and end-tables, and she is quite fond of waking me up at 3am wanting tons and tons of pets, but that isn’t so horrible. Elsie is now surrounded with love and doing well in our family.