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Dear Deanna,


Yesterday an email popped up in my inbox. “Deanna,” it said. A wave of guilt swamped me. Deanna was a long-time friend. I had been her reader my senior year in college. I had fallen in love with her savage wit, her brilliant mind, and her kind heart. We remained friends after graduation. When we both lived in LA we saw each other often. We once nearly got kicked out of church because Deanna had brought a book–101 Things to do During a Dull Sermon–and we got to reading it and laughing. We saw the Messiah together, and then my car died and I had to stay the night with her. We went to the beach where it turned out Deanna couldn’t go into the water because she was, as she put it, “painting roses” whenever she sat down.

Life was hard for Deanna–I’ve written about her here before. She battled mental illness and was eventually institutionalized in another state. Still, our friendship survived. We spoke often by telephone, nurturing our friendship with laughter and memories. I wrote her a book. It had pictures in it of our college friends, the campus, the town. It held funny stories of adventures we’d shared. We remained good friends.

Her illness progressed. Our phone calls continued, but while I still shared memories and funny stories, Deanna shared the fears and delusions that increasingly populated her inner landscape. I learned that telling her those fears weren’t real wasn’t helpful or productive. I learned instead to listen for the very real pain that had given rise to those fears, and speak to that instead. And I learned that Deanna and I were to remain friends I was going to have to leave my world and travel with her in hers.

When she feared being tried for mass murder in a McDonalds I assured her that the judge would see she wasn’t that kind of person, and if he didn’t see Deanna should call me, and I would be her character witness. And she was comforted. When she told me, voice trembling, that President Bush had decided she had to go to Afghanistan and hunt down Osama bin Laden, I told her to let me know when her orders came through, and I would go with her.

And then suddenly we were laughing, deep belly laughs like we had laughed back in college, at the thought of two menopausal women, one a paranoid schizophrenic, one chronically depressed, being armed and turned loose and left to their own devices in a war zone. “The country won’t be safe from us,” Deanna chortled. It was the last time I heard her laugh.

Her condition deteriorated. She could no longer speak, but she listened when I called, and made soft chuckling sounds. And then I stopped calling. I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d kept calling and calling, and giving her my memories when hers failed her, but I didn’t. I got busy. It was hard to sustain our friendship. It was hard to remember that Deanna was still there.

I got a call from the care center. Deanna had read the book I made her until it fell apart. “She’s just loved it to pieces,” the nurse said. I sent two more copies, asking the caregivers to give her one and keep the second in reserve–and to let me know when the first wore out, so she’d always have a copy. I started calling again.

And then I stopped again. Increasingly, Deanna wasn’t able to receive calls. It made a decent excuse. The reality is probably that it was hard to come up with conversation. She started handing the phone back to the caregiver mid-conversation. They had changed her meds and she could talk a bit sometimes, but the fog was closing in. Her world had become the care center. I was no longer sure she even remembered me. And slowly the deterioration advanced.

It had been months since I’d last talked to her, perhaps a year, when I got the email yesterday. “Deanna’s failing,” it said. “She hasn’t eaten or drunk anything for several days. She can’t get out of bed. She can’t feed herself. It won’t be long.” It turned out that she had had COVID-19, but had beaten it.

And then another email popped up. “Deanna died this morning.”

And I’ve been sitting here ever since, thinking of all our friendship sustained, and how in the end I failed. I stopped calling, even though I had made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t do that–that wherever Deanna’s illness took her, I would go there too, because we were good friends.

Sustaining a friendship with a person who does not share your reality can be very, very hard. It’s a test that didn’t show me in a particularly good light. But here’s the thing. Deanna and I were the kind of friends who, no matter the time lapse, could pick up a phone and a conversation as if we had just spoken minutes ago.

So Deanna is dead, having left me with one final lesson–it’s easy to make the noble promises. It’s a lot harder to keep them, particularly when the keeping extends for decades. But here’s another lesson, and another gift–because I can see Deanna in my mind’s eye, and I can hear her voice, laughing, and telling me not to worry, that we’re talking now, and do I know what’s happening in her life?

Deanna was my friend. Deanna is my friend. Even death can’t change that. So, Deanna, one more time…

How’s it going? Where are you now? What’s happening? I keep thinking of you and me, in that little office, reading Woody Allen and looking at Edward Gorey cartoons and laughing our heads off. I can smell the musty air. I remember the fish poster you got me. I’ve incorporated my business, and The Boy and I doing really well. I need a good proofreader, if you’re feeling better. I’m worried about having to teach in a closed classroom with COVID-19. I’ve got the guts for another book for you–it’s about Portland. I know you’re going to like it. Well, I guess I’d better go–I know you’ve got a lot going on. Take care. I love you. Talk to you soon…

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Yesterday was a hard day. By the time evening arrived I felt like I had been beaten up. All day. I found myself wanting the simple comfort of a friendly voice. And so I called my friend, Deanna.

When she came on the line she sounded blurry, like she often does when I call. But within a few sentences she was there, with me, also as often happens. But in spite of the fact that everything seemed to be going as usual, this conversation was different. Usually I call because I want to be a friend to Deanna. Last night I called because I needed her to be a friend to me.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Oh, pretty well. Same as usual,” she said.

“Were you busy?”

“No, just … I can’t find the words…” she said after a bit.

“It’s okay, I just needed to hear a friendly voice,” I said.

She laughed, and I felt immediately better. Deanna has one of those laughs that can light up a room. “Well, I think I can do that,” she said.

And then we talked. We just talked. And when Deanna couldn’t capture the words she needed we just listened to each other breathe, and after a while we would find something else to talk about.

As many of our conversations do these days, our conversation last night meandered back and forth between worlds and realities. Sometimes we were in hers, and sometimes we were in mine. And it didn’t really matter where we were at any given time, under it all I felt the love that we have for each other, and I knew that, no matter how far Deanna travels, no matter how far her world’s orbit may swing from mine, that there will always be this tesseract of love, our wormhole in mental and emotional space, the conduit that keeps our crazy elliptical orbits from spinning completely away from each other.

Our conversation was different because last night it wasn’t Deanna needing me–it was me, needing Deanna. And it reminded me again how much she has taught me about the nature of friendship–and of reality–over the years.

In the beginning, right after Deanna was hospitalized, I found myself dividing what she said into two categories: “real” and “delusional.” I thought that “healing” would mean that the “real” stuff squeezed out the “delusional” stuff. I was wrong. As we have traversed the last few years together I have come to see her “delusions” as her way of reaching a deeper, more painful reality, one her conscious mind couldn’t bear. I have learned to listen not to her words, but to the fears and pain behind them–the fears and pain she could never acknowledge when she was “all right”–the fears and pain that, I think, played a huge part in breaking her.

I am not a mental health professional. I am only her friend. But, because I am her friend, I can see that many of her “delusions” are simply parables for the sometimes terrible realities of her life. When she speaks of the woman who raised her “not being her mother, but someone who took her mother’s place,” I can agree. Deanna was indeed raised by a woman who was not a “mother” to her in the best sense of the word. Deanna’s explanation, that another woman replaced her true mother, is her effort to make sense of one of the deepest, most painful truths of her life. When she speaks of family members stealing from her, lying about her, and trying to kill her I think of the pain of rejection she felt when she lost her job working for the church that was everything to her–and that, in fact, frequently referred to itself as her “church family.” Her “delusion” is allowing her to face that pain in symbolic terms, and over the years I have learned to respond to the pain and anguish behind her words, rather than the words themselves. Instead of trying to convince her that her relatives are not indeed framing her for murder I simply offer to be a character witness, and reassure her that when the judge comes to know her he will see that she is not capable of such things. And then we move on, and she is comforted.

Deanna is teaching me that we humans are more than just fleshy machines that move through a static world. We are not creatures who exist in a single, simple reality. We are creatures of air, of fire, of symbol, and of story. For the last few years, Deanna has moved beyond living her biography. These days, she is writing myth in the purest sense of the word–she is finding the deep truth that has lain below her waking world, and she is giving it voice.

It’s not easy. There are good days and bad days. Neither of us knows if she’ll ever be well enough to move beyond her current sheltered world. But that’s okay. In these years that Deanna has been “confined,” her spirit has traveled vast distances. It is still traveling. She has been to places most of us will never go. She has been to places none of us will ever want to go. But in all that journeying, even on the very worst days, there are two central truths. She has always remembered me. And we are still good friends.

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Well, not exactly. Things are a bit narrow here, but not really absolutely tight. It’s been a hard year and we’re still digging ourselves out, but for the first time in a long time I find myself wanting to make Christmas–and having the energy to do it.

In the past I’ve dealt with Christmas by throwing money at it. This year there’s not much money to throw if I plan to pay the mortgage. It’s nice to think that somebody at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage might be visited by three ghosts and decide to forgive my loan, but it hasn’t happened so far. Like the Cratchits, we will be doing Christmas on the proverbial fifteen shillings.

In the past situations like this have sparked the, “Bad Mommy! Bad Mommy!” inner diatribe, the one in which I have failed as a parent and as a human being because I find myself short of funds at Christmas. This year, though, it’s different.

For one thing, the last few hard years have sent me to financial places I never dreamed I would go. When I started this journey bankruptcy seemed like a soul smear. But it’s happened, and we have all survived, and like Gwion Bach, who in surviving Ceridwen’s murderous rage becomes more than he ever dreamed possible, we have been transformed.

For one thing, we have become a family in a way we weren’t before. There has always been deep love and laughter, but surviving the times has forced us to a deeper level of honesty. When The Boy asks for things these days he first asks about what checks have come in, and what bills are due. And I no longer have the luxury of protecting him from the reality of our finances. We have learned that the things we took for granted before–money for the mortgage, utilities, and school lunches–need to be considered before we buy treats.

I have learned that I can be honest without being frightening. I’ve learned how to say, “Let’s make a list. Right now I need to save for the mortgage, but when we next get a big check let’s talk about this again.” And I’ve learned that there is no shame about acknowledging the fact that, for us, funds are not unlimited. I am not a bad mother if I can’t buy him everything that catches his eye.

Removing money from the equation has allowed us to really see the things that make our lives good. We are healthy. We are warm. We have a house that cleans up nice. We have food. We have learned to take pleasure in little things. I love frost on branches. The boy loves the narrow old bridges that lead out of town and onto the country roads that surround us. The House Leroy has found a happy substitute for cable in Netflix, which allows him to feed his passion for documentaries.

Most of all, we have friends. We have lots of friends. And we live in a town where “doing something” is as likely to be going over to somebody’s house, sitting in the kitchen, and talking as going out for an evening’s entertainment.

So this Christmas, while there will be presents, I’ve decided to plan for fewer of them, and more money for cookies and hot chocolate. We live in a town where electricity is cheap, so we have lights on the house–lots of lights. We have lots of Christmas decorations for inside. We have lots of Christmas shows on DVD and on Netflix. Our stove is working. This Christmas is going to be about people. I’m going to make hot chocolate for the people who come by to look at our house lights, and for The Boy’s friends. My goal will be to have someone over every day while he’s on vacation. I’ll bake a small batch of cookies every day. We’ll have the kids at Step-Ahead over to watch movies, decorate cookies, and play games. The house will look and smell like Christmas. And we’ll be surrounding ourselves with friends.

So if you find yourself in our town this holiday season, stop by. We’ll give you hot chocolate and cookies. The house will be lovely, inside and out. We can play games, or watch movies, or sit in the kitchen, eat chili, and talk. We’ll be spending time, rather than money this year. And in exchange we will get a Christmas we’ll love to remember.

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My amazing, bald sister

My sister called me today. “Have you seen my Facebook page?” she asked.

“No,” I answered, only half listening.

“Go look. I shaved my head.”

And suddenly I was all ears. I was on her Facebook page in three seconds flat. And there was my conservative Christian, middle-class American little sister, she of the beautiful silky blonde curls and the bright blue eyes–balder than a billiard ball. I could tell, even though she was wearing a hat.

“Lili shaved her head, too,” my sister said. Lili is her daughter, and until she ran afoul of the razor the possessor of long, platinum-blonde curls. I went to her Facebook page and there she was, bald. And she wasn’t even wearing a hat.

“Why?” I asked. My sister is a conservative woman, and wife to a Christian school principal.  She is also pretty, and puts effort into staying that way. She loves fixing hair–her own, her daughter’s, anybody who comes in range. If I had had all week to think, I would have had a hard time coming up with a less likely woman to make such a radical fashion statement.

My equally amazing, equally bald, niece

“I have a friend who has late-stage breast cancer. She’s going in for chemo on Monday, so sh shaved her head this week. Lili and I shaved our heads so she wouldn’t be the only bald woman at church.” She laughed. “My hair’s gonna look really funny when it starts to grow out, sticking straight out all over the place.” It didn’t seem to occur to her that not many women would do what she and her daughter had done quietly, kindly, and courageously, finding the humor instead of the sacrifice. I don’t know that I would. And if I did I’d for darned sure want credit for it.

My sister and her daughter have willingly chosen to sacrifice their beautiful hair not for their own benefit, but to ease the loss for a friend, for whom baldness is not a choice. Tonight, I honor them. May each of us have a friend like that–a woman who will shave her head, just to keep us company. And if we’re very fortunate, may each of us be that kind of friend.

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