Two weeks ago, I got the call from Hadassah’s son: she only had a few hours left, and since she gave me her funeral wishes, could I send those now? I was in Vermont, in the middle of a residency, right between the opening reception in a warmly-lit cottage of a room and a film I was about to see. I forgot about the film and ran to my computer to send the information they needed, crying a little, stunned a lot.
Hadassah has been my friend for 30 years, both of us arriving in Lawrence around the same time, she for graduate school and me for love. We met at International Folkdancing, and although she was from Leeds, England, by way of many years living in Israel, and I was from New Jersey and Brooklyn, we spoke the same language: no holds barred, fast and direct. We understood each other instantly, and joined together in slow, mournful Israeli dances such as “Mana Vu” or fast, twirling ones, such as “Haroa Haktana.”
Years ran or moseyed by. We talked quick and happy whenever we saw each other, but it wasn’t very often. Hadassah was wild-busy in her passionate work as a speech pathologist, who did particularly powerful work with children. She could lure an autistic kid into words and help his/her parents keep the language flowing. I was busy with popping out babies, going graduate school work, doing dishes badly, writing and working. I saw her occasionally at folkdancing, the Jewish center for holidays or when she read the names of the dead with Ron each Yom Kippur. We always hugged, said it had been too long, and we should see each other more.
Seeing each other more came to pass when she was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer this summer. Because Ken is an occupational therapist who runs a wheelchair clinic, and is able to build a wheelchair on a dime (literally) and position people for comfort and mobility, we were called in early to help. Hadassah’s daughter Merav and brand new granddaughter also were welcoming, and we spent time with them in early autumn, me holding the baby while Ken adjusted the wheelchair he had built for her. There was an excited run to the hospital one night, me hauling our big labaraner and the wheelchair in my van along with the baby and Merav to get the wheelchair to Hadassah in the hospital. Merav and I joked about what order was best for unloading things without letting the dog out, and that evening, I walked in the pale dusk of the parking lot, rocking the baby, singing to her and telling her about her grandmother while everyone else was with Hadassah.
Hadassah got better, a long (but not long enough) reprieve, and we lost contact for a while, mostly because of my travel, and run of sinus infections I didn’t want to share with the family. When she started to struggle again, we were there. “We’re the opposite of fair-weather friends,” I told her. She said she didn’t care, and she herself was a foul-weather friend and appreciated others who were. Besides needing Ken to occasionally help her with positioning, she was interested in having me type up some of her life story, which was one of the most fascinating ones I began to hear.
The last time I saw her, she decided her life wasn’t a narrative but a collection of songs, each other unfolding a moment of vitality and adventure. She also went over with me again the plans for her funeral I was to co-lead her with our friend Jack. Yet she also thought she might have a year or more left and had already worked out, in detail, arrangements. I felt a gut punch that it wouldn’t be that long as I hugged and kissed her goodbye, told her again that I loved her. “I love you too” were the last words she said to me.
Four days later, she had a stroke, and Hadassah, who never did anything half-way, didn’t linger. She stayed alive until all three of her beloved children were around her, and for some hours, Ken also, who went over there to adjust her positioning so as to lessen the pain. I heard in his voice, as he stepped away from her bed to call me back late that night, the sorrow that she was dying. Early Friday morning, she stopped breathing. The funeral, held a few days later, was beautiful, according to Ken and others who told me about it. I sent a poem, which Ken read at the service and wished like crazy I could be there.
Now that I’m back in Kansas, taking in the vast white sky and snow-clung fields, it’s starting to land in me. Hadassah is gone. I looked through a bundle of photo albums for a photo of her, sure I had one somewhere of her at her wedding in 1985. She was wearing a brown corduroy blazer, a skirt, brown boots, and she was half-turned around, laughing. While I couldn’t find the photo, I find pictures of her in my mind, all of them so alive. I’m grateful to be part of the end of that life, but I also miss my old friend.