Today I opened a puzzle from my dear friend, Martha. She passed it on to me last year before she died, before cancer ate away her brain. That brain that earned a doctorate, ran museums, and met presidents. That brain that believed in me.
I open the box and it’s full of cat hair. My eyes fill with tears. Is it because I am allergic?
I met Martha nearly 10 years ago at an event for Seattle Art Museum. It was a beautiful summer night; a new exhibit was opening celebrating the museum’s 75th anniversary. There were cocktails, hors d'oeuvres and a jazz band set up outside on the lawn of the museum. My husband recognized her from an event they both attended the night before and we saddled up introducing ourselves. We talked, laughed and drank the night away until we realized the exhibit was closing, the band was packing up, we had never made it inside. Not one of us cared. We gave her a ride home that night and became fast friends.
Older than my own mother, Martha and I spoke the same language. We filled our homes with interesting people we loved and then shared stories about why we loved them when they were not present.
I was one of the people she loved.
She cheered for my husband and I as we became a family of three and then four, attending every baptism, birthday, and brunch with the love and attention of a devoted grandmother. She noticed when my happy hour stories were more than bar stool chatter but a desire to write. She encouraged me in it, as if I had something to say, something people wanted to hear. It is a powerful thing to have someone believe in you. Especially someone like her who should have been impressed with so much more, not so little.
She told us she was sick one brunch as we celebrated the New Year. She wanted us to know but not to concern ourselves as she assured us it was manageable. We came when she asked us to, bringing flowers and cartons of buttermilk, a comforting childhood treat of hers. She continued to work, managing the move of an entire museum, then making that museum a home. She only let the illness have the weekends. Until it came back, again and again. Then she knew it was time.
She arranged to return to the place of her birth, where her son still lived and could take care of her during her last days. She arranged last meetings with all those she loved to say goodbye. It was the most gracious, beautiful, goodbye anyone could hope to give …but I couldn’t. Mine was rushed, uncomfortable, and hollow. I couldn’t say all the things I wanted to, in front of other people, in front of my children, in front of her cats. I couldn’t say that she was more family to me than mine ever was. That I didn’t understand her faith in me. That I wanted to make her proud.
I couldn’t say that I loved her.
Looking down at the puzzle box in my hands, I know she understood. She didn’t expect me to be as lovely and gracious as herself. She understood when my anxiety over downtown parking had me arrive at her apartment disheveled at best. She understood when I worried whether my sons were developing on track, saying “Don’t worry too much. They aren’t going to receive their college diploma in diapers”. She understood that there were years in my life where I wasn’t allowed to be myself. She let me be myself. Even liked that self. She had carefully folded the puzzle back in the box, with large sections still attached, making it easier for me to put together. Is she giving me direction from beyond the grave? I hope I have all the pieces.