She's Not 38

I wake to the sounds of Jerry Jeff Walker singing:

“He’s eight years old and has a flour-sack cape tied all around his neckHe’s climbing on top of the garage and figures what the heck
He screws his courage up so darn tight that the whole thing come unwound

He got a runnin’ start and bless his heart he headed for the ground
‘Cause he’s one of those who knows his life is just a leap of faith
Gotta spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”

One verse and one chorus later, I crawl out of bed to turn off the musical alarm. I check my email, instinctively, and immediately wish I hadn’t. Nothing bad, really, just enough to get my mind spinning toward the Capitol without stopping to breathe. 

Nick daydreams in the shower while I dry my hair. He tells me stories I can’t quite hear. I tell him to finish washing.

We rush out the door; I chide him for lollygagging. I move with urgency beyond the normal morning rush.

Through my front windshield, the sky looks like a preschooler tried to wipe away the clouds with a cloth but only cleared a few streaks of pure sky before getting distracted. In my rearview mirror angry, dense, slate-colored clouds thunder forward, racing to catch me as I race toward the hint of blue.

I answer the phone, ending the every few weeks game of phone tag with one of my dearest friends. I say, “looking for an I-5 weather report? It isn't quite as monochromatic as yesterday but it is still grim." We swap stories about kids and work and the frenetic pace of our lives. Our quarterly marathon dinner may need to wait until summer. I delight in our short talk yet, as he enters a parking garage and we say goodbye, I feel a catch in my throat. I shake my head and spin the volume knob on the dashboard to the right.

Every minute precious on the days I take Nick to school, I pull the green parking pass from the glove box while I wait at a red light, then rummage until I feel the weight of the silver pen I carry in my bag. I pull off the cap, rest the paper on my steering wheel, and scribble 4/8/15 in one of the 20 boxes, not quite half of which are already full. I feel my eyes water but attribute the graininess to staying up too late while enjoying the quiet. The light changes to green and I pull forward, a few blocks from the Capitol. As I arrive and ease into a parking space, I grab my bag and hustle toward the revolving doors with one minute until my 8:15 am meeting is set to begin. I shake my head again and try to shake the uneasiness following me through my morning. 

I scramble between floors and offices. Third, second, fourth, second again. More than dozen conversations, 75 minutes, and one delicious key lime bar later, I start down the stairs to the basement for a cup of decaf and a bowl of oatmeal, bananas, and milk. Another good friend, busy with a big new job, walks behind me and we laugh as I turn because I recognize the sound of his shoes on the marble floor. He orders his breakfast burrito to go and sits across from me as I set up shop at one of the tables in the middle with booth-like benches. The height of the table is mismatched with the height of the seat and I curl one leg under me to act as a booster seat. We make small talk as he waits. We make a plan, he eats his breakfast, and he’s off to his next appointment.

I pull my computer from my bag, open it, and enter my password. The browser has multiple open tabs: gmail, four different legislative pages, and Facebook. I see (1) next to the word Facebook and click the tab, intrigued as always by a notification. I see a name I don’t know listed as (friends with Dara Hatcher) and a thumbnail photo of my cousin and me as little girls. My eyes well with tears and I fight against the instinct to run. I click on Dara’s name and close my eyes. I know what I will see but for just a few more seconds, I can pretend otherwise. Aware I am sitting in one of the most visible spots in the cafe, I focus on staying still as I again look at the screen.

Today is her birthday. I’ve anticipated the day for weeks, ever since I celebrated mine in January; I’ve always been older than her by two months and a few days but, before, her year clock would advance and our numbers would again match. This is the third time her number hasn’t changed after mine and I miss her with an ache in my chest the size of the ocean.

Though I’m nearly certain she used a good 13 of her nine lives before the overdraft caught up with her, a 35-year-old sister-like cousin, mother of a resilient, responsible, loving son, daughter, sister, friend, and generally irreverent badass isn’t supposed to die. Cancer wasn’t supposed to eat her brain and inhibit her her ability to connect; it wasn’t supposed to rob her son of his mom, my aunt and uncle of their daughter, her big sister of her little sister, her friends of someone willing to moon anyone, anytime, anyplace, and, me of my mirror. 

We shared graduations, milestones, stories about our grandparents, being young moms of sons; we didn’t share her willingness to buck the rules and live her life as she damn well pleased. She teased me mercilessly about my refusal to take chances, about my fear of failure and rejection, and about my underdeveloped sick sense of humor. Sometime during the months she was in hospice, I received a text with a photo of testicles hanging over the side of a tea cup and a crass crack about teabags, followed by “love you cousin.”

In August, I stayed with her for a long weekend to give her mom, dad, and son a break. The reality of her decline, her stubborn refusal to accept help with walking and yet her inability to stay upright without bracing herself against walls, her blurry vision and progressive hearing loss, her nearly nonexistent appetite, and her determination to remain normal by complimenting my dress and my sandals was more than I thought I could bear. The last evening, I sat outside in the warm central Oregon evening and cried. Sobbed. Whimpered. Raged. Over the course of the evening I polished off an entire bottle of wine, coffee mug by coffee mug so Dara wouldn’t see the wine and ask for a glass. In bad shape, I hungrily accepted a dear friend’s offer to call and then talked to her for hours. She knew I needed a lifeline, desperately, and she held it tightly. 

During most of Dara’s decline, my professional business card read something other than lobbyist. My title needed two lines and I spent my work life in long meetings (no phones allowed) and at charitable events in early mornings and/or into many evenings. Though I deeply admired (and still do) my boss and mentor, being away from my kids too often and being nearly completely disconnected from my Capitol family while actively grieving a loss that hadn’t yet occurred left me raw. 

As she slipped away, I slipped away too. I retreated and stopped functioning. I talked about quitting, even without a new job, because I couldn’t spend my days and evenings with people I barely knew while also falling apart. I yelled at people I love. I adamantly explained I wasn’t helping because I cared but because I felt guilty she was dying and I was living. I slept longer and longer or I didn’t sleep at all. I didn’t return calls. I pretended unread emails didn’t clutter my inbox. Another lifeline, this time in the form of a lobbying job offer from a college friend (and now boss extraordinaire), coupled with a desperate need to live more authentically, allowed me to admit corporate life was not my destiny, after all.  

After reliving most of 2012 while sitting in the middle of a busy room, I think of the feeling of relief that coursed through my body when I saw Dara’s big sister’s name pop up on my phone on a December Tuesday afternoon, not even a day after Wendy arrived to say goodbye. I knew the 9-1-1 calls from Dara’s cell, telling the operator she was being held hostage, would not continue. I knew Dara’s son, Dante’, would never be the same. I knew my aunt, uncle, and cousin would laugh between bouts of crying as they told stories. And I knew I couldn’t dishonor her life and her memory by making myself small. 

Dara lived. She failed and experienced rejection over and over. And, yet, she never stopped living.

I walk through the rest of today partially present. I listen and engage and then I retreat into my memories. I smile with relief as a friend reassures me I do actually have an appointment with her boss. As a friend juggles his young daughter while trying to talk shop, I offer to hold her and bury my face in her innocence. I whisper in her ear she is the best part of my day. I compare notes with yet another friend and we pinky-swear to get together next week. 

Listless and lonely, I walk out of the Capitol. After a text message and voicemail telling me another friend’s Spidey sense told him he should check on me, and after a talk with a fellow mom as she prepared to spend her evening at a baseball field, I unlock my car door and plop onto the seat. I drive slowly through Salem toward the freeway. My chest hurts and I breathe shallowly. I drive along with the other cars pointing toward home like any other day, even though I don't understand how everyone else doesn't see the meaning in the day. I inventory my life, noting change after change she inspired. I resist the urge to also inventory all of the ways I haven't yet embraced her example.

Then, I turn a corner and spy a brilliant, vibrant rainbow. It isn’t raining and there aren't many clouds. The stump of a rainbow seemingly sprouts out of nowhere and the few clouds behind it are surrounded by blue sky. I gasp and the tears I held back all day spill. Traffic stops and I slow to take a photo. The rainbow is because of her. She knows I have a circle of incredible friends and sent many of them to interact with me today but she also knows my tendency toward loneliness and wasn’t about to let me spend the rest of her birthday moping. I crane my neck as I start down the onramp to the freeway, trying to see the colors for as long as possible, when it suddenly disappears. However brief, her presence is all I need.

Jerry Jeff’s final verse, the best description of Dara’s approach to life I’ve found, bounces in my head as I type and edit (though I'm giving up and just publishing) through tears:

“All these years the people said the fool was actin’ like a kid
And since he didn’t know he couldn’t fly well, of course he did
‘Cause he’s one of those that knows his life is just a leap of faith
Gotta spread your arms and hold your breath and always trust your cape.”