The phone rang early Friday morning. It was an hour later in Michigan, and my sister, Deb, sounded frantic.
“The doctor says Mom’s in bad shape. Becky, he doesn't think she’s gonna make it. He said she has four days, maybe a week.”
I stumbled out of bed and everything seemed to be spinning. My mom had been fighting cancer for several months, and it had been one thing after another: an infection, inflammation due to the radiation, a blood clot, unstable blood sugar, unstable blood pressure, another infection…
Bernie and I began to get things together so we could head over to Michigan. We told the girls to pack, and he called the woman who normally watches our dog. She was unavailable. I began calling the boarders near our home. We were heading into the weekend before July 4th, and every dog boarder I called said the same thing. We’re full. We’re booked.
I thought about bringing Lila with us, but I didn't know where we were going to be staying, and I just couldn't stand the thought of adding more stress to the situation.
I didn't want to be at the hospital with my mom, worrying about the dog. I felt like I was sinking in quick sand. I was roaming around the house, grabbing things here and there, hardly able to see through my tears. My mom is going to die. The doctor said this is it. And I can’t figure out what to do with our stupid dog.
Margie and I have been friends for over 15 years. We became good friends, then best. We've taken trips together and we've met in the E.R. We've shared the joy of each child born and the sorrow of each child miscarried. We've made gingerbread houses with our kids and sang in the choir. Her family recipe for “nut rolls” has replaced mine, mainly because the dough is made out of vanilla ice cream and butter (see recipe on right). We've helped each other parent, stay married, and follow Christ. We've laughed so hard we've cried, and we've cried so hard because sometimes it hurts so much.
I showed up at her house one time at midnight in pajamas and tears. When my husband and I hit rock bottom in our marriage, and I’m sure some people doubted we’d make it, Margie and her husband sent us flowers. The card had both our names on it, and it said, simply, “We’re on your side.”
We both speak Spanish, so we have this private language we can use when we don’t want some of our kids to understand us. (My older girls are becoming more fluent in Spanish, so I don’t have this luxury as much anymore.) Her accent is South American, mine Mexican. We've baked Christmas cookies, shared holidays, and gone through the tunnel of conflict. It took us several months one time to come out of that tunnel, but thank God we did. Because that’s how friendships grow the deepest roots.
And because I can’t imagine life without Margie.
I pick up the phone. Margie tells me she stopped by work to see if I was there – I was on her heart and mind, and she was checking in. She can hardly understand me through my sobs, and I tell her all at once that my mom is in the hospital again and they don’t think she’s going to make it and we need to go to Michigan and I can’t find anyone to watch Lila and everyone is complaining because we don’t have anything good in the house for lunch. She asks if she can bring us Subway sandwiches but I tell her no, that I think they’re all eating cereal. She wants to know what she can do, and I don’t even know what to tell her.
I’m coming over.
I still feel like I’m moving through quick sand, unable to pack my suitcase or get organized. I can’t stop crying and I hear the front door open, then voices. I come down the stairs and my daughter Katelyn is gathering up the dog’s toys. “Margie is taking Lila.”
Bernie puts the crate in her van while she comes to me, hugs me, and doesn't let go. I can’t hear what she is whispering in my ear because we are both crying, and I remember thinking it was almost comical that the dog was going to her house. For the better part of two years I have complained to Margie about what a pain it is to get a puppy – what a pain it is to have to take care of a dog. She is reluctant to jump on the puppy wagon, even though the rest of her family thinks they are ready for a dog. And yet here she is, ready to help. Willing to do whatever is needed.
Then she gathers our family in a circle and prays: for us, for my mom, and for what lies ahead, and then hugs me once more and tells me, “You can do this.”
Over the next several days we sent texts and called and I kept her updated the best I could. She prayed for specifics, and we saw God answer those prayers. I knew that taking care of Lila was just one of the ways Margie was showing up – and that she would keep showing up through my grief journey after my mom died. Her and her husband sent Bernie and me to the Melting Pot for a slow, delicious dinner shortly after the funeral, and sitting across the breakfast table at Egglectic Café, while others may have thought I should be further down the road, she validated my loss and sadness, reminding me, “It’s only been two months, Becky.”
If we could plan for our darkest days, we would arrange childcare and pet care; we would go to counseling before the crisis strikes and come up with a plan, and we would make sure that we have our laundry done and food in the house for a decent lunch. But most often our darkest days come when we aren't ready. When we are busy making other plans: plans that don’t involve sickness and death and loss.
But here’s the thing: Margie showing up in my darkest hour was preceded by years of friendship building. Dozens of hours at Caribou Coffee and hundreds of hours of phone conversations. Sticking it out over the long haul and not walking away when things felt uncomfortable or got a little messy.
I am more convinced than ever that God’s plan is, and always has been, for us to walk this road together. To come alongside one another and do His healing work. Sometimes it’s holding a hand, giving a hug, and offering great words of comfort and truth. And sometimes His most holy work involves seemingly unholy tasks like dog-sitting or preparing a meal – tangible reminders that we are not alone. Loving whispers from Emmanuel, God with us.