Just prior to my recent dental events, my mother's longtime best friend passed away, after having been told over forty years ago she had less than one percent chance of living more than three months, having been diagnosed with an aggressive intestinal cancer. Evelyn was adamant she could beat the disease, had the surgery to remove the cancer, but did not go through any radiation or chemotherapy. As a devout Roman Catholic, a college educated woman with several masters' degrees, a daily swimmer and a mother of three, someone told her of a man in Connecticut, who cured various illnesses by prescribing diet changes. In her case, he suggested a macrobiotic diet, which at the time was considered akin to voodoo. That being said, she followed his advice faithfully, ironically outliving the doctor who originally diagnosed her.
She and my mother met through their spouses, both professors at what is now Kean University. My father taught mathematics, then later computer science. Evelyn's husband taught outdoor recreation. Both of the men were big drinkers, and one night came up with the outlandish idea to take their respective students camping at Stokes State Forest. This was before the current trend of inter-disciplinary joint projects; this was before the internet, before cell phones. This was in the early to middle 1960's. One of my brothers had yet to be born. My sisters barely could walk. My older brother and I, being under ten years old, thought we had new cousins and were going camping with them.
Fast forward to 2013, my mother's best friend called to say her cancer returned; she was ready to go. Her husband had died four years ago; her children had grown up, her sons had married and had kids, the older son having been the governor of New Hampshire for awhile. Her daughter, who looks the most like her mother, is single and a successful business woman. Since the wake was in the evening, I drove my mother. Not a fan of open casket wakes, but I felt obligated to accompany my mother. Evelyn was wearing bright red, surrounded by red roses. I headed to the back of the funeral parlour, as there was a large group of people watching a flat screen TV, with a compilation of family movies.
Suddenly, there was Stokes State Forest with sixties-style hair and clothes on college students. A group of mostly females was trying to set up a chair and some poles, on a leafy road, clipboards in hand. Then, a lake with three students per canoe, two of the three with paper grocery bags on their heads, paddling and crashing into each other. Most people watching had no idea what was going on, but instantly Evelyn's youngest son whispered to me, "It's a wonder any of us grew up remotely normal." Then, as if emerging from the spirit world, my father, alone in a canoe, paddled past with his black glasses and crewcut, smiling.
The next day, I drove my mother to the Mass, during which the priest kept weeping. An unlikely looking stout lady sang, Ave Maria, in the most angelic soprano voice. During the eulogy, the priest tried to tell a few jokes, which I thought a bit odd for a funeral Mass, then he broke down, sobbing, hands covering his face. (I learned much later that he was Evelyn's second cousin). On to the burial at the cemetery, which was not the usual sedate, long line of cars, with headlights on following the hearse, but a race between the two brothers. I kid you not. Driving my mother's 2000 Grand Am, managed to keep up with speedy younger brother, who for the remainder of the time I called Leadfoot, instead of Larry.
Short graveside service, then on to the same excellent steakhouse, where the repast had been held for their father. Despite Evelyn being a longtime advocate of Al-Anon Family Groups, there was champagne. The food was excellent, heard about Evelyn's last minutes of life, being held in the arms of her Jewish daughter-in-law, who was also a nurse. She explained that she was not observant, but still remembered a prayer to ease pain, a prayer to say for a dying person. As she said the words aloud in Hebrew, the nurse/daughter-in-law told us Evelyn's eyes opened and closed, then her lips were mouthing the Hebrew words, although she knew no Hebrew. Her breathing slowed, then she was dead, her sons out in the kitchen, making sandwiches.
I drove my mother home, then announced to my guys I was getting into pajamas, not making dinner, and watching anything on TV. I guess I fell asleep for 2 hours or more. Came downstairs and said goodnight, that I planned to stay in bed the entire next day. But that was not what happened. I woke again in the middle of the night to a very weird brightness and a smiling vision of Evelyn, saying "I'm already in Heaven." It wasn't a dream and it wasn't frightening, but I thought all righty. Got the message, whatever. Went back to sleep only to receive a very early distraught phone call from Evelyn's daughter who asked to meet for lunch before she headed back to Florida. She needed to talk, with me. I suggested 1pm and went back to sleep.
The daughter and I had a five hour lunch, at one of the better Japanese restaurants in town, me mostly listening, eating seaweed with chopsticks. I really wasn't going to tell her about "my vision or whatever it was" because she kept saying how she couldn't deal with the finality of both her parents being gone, nor what to do with the house and everything in it. After some more champagne, I blurted it out. She had been near tears throughout the lunch, yet somehow this made her smile. We talked a bit more, then parted ways, both of us exhausted for our own reasons. I also ended up telling my mother, who replied, "That's sounds just like something Evelyn would do."