My friend died. I hadn’t seen her in awhile as we travel in different directions most of the time. She had spent much of the last years caring for her sick mother and sister a few hours away in Birmingham.
I took a too rare trip to my yoga home a few months ago and she was there.
“It’s been too long, how are you?”
“I just found out I have stage four cancer! Can you believe it?” She waved her hand over herself. “Me!”
She didn’t whisper as people with horrific news often do. She shouted it out as if to dispel it by force. We are all friends there after all.
She was astonished by the possibility of a clean life fostering that disease. She is a calm and capable and happy woman. She teaches restorative yoga and heals students with singing bowls. She is a painter, an artist who lives an artful life. Who lived an artful life.
She had digestive issues and found there was cancer there that had metastasized. She felt so fine I think she believed she would denounce that cancer and send it running. I believed that.
She suffered through chemotherapy, lost her hair, kept going to the studio and kept teaching her own classes. Her hair grew back. She had another art show. She had departed from her signature work to something more formed, brighter and simpler. She offered a spread of the same favorite foods she always served. Other than the show being in her yoga studio rather than the usual gallery, all seemed status quo. She was lively, resplendent. I thought she was mending.
A month or so went by that we didn’t cross paths again.
I got the news by a group mailing. At first it seemed untrue. Surely I would have known a different way. She and I had shared yoga time and painting time and healing time together. My bookmarks are all the birthday cards she made me over the years.
She had been on my mind daily as it’s the Jewish holidays and she is an observant Jew, one of my few Jewish friends who feel what I feel right now. This is a heavy holiday as it heralds a week of reflection and forgiveness. I can’t say why I felt it portend to something heavy with her but I did. She died on the Jewish New Year.
I chanted all I could remember of Yizkor, the Mourner’s Kaddish for the dead. Yizkor means remember. I lit a candle beside a wool basket she had made me filled with her signature painted sculptures.
I called a friend who was her student to tell him. He already knew.
I said, I don’t know what to do. I feel stupid and useless and guilty.
Chris, always a wise guy said, hey that’s a great hook for your business card.
I was grateful for the laugh.
And the perspective.
I have the flu. I thought I was past it but a night of grief and memories left my lungs with lead weights and a brain sodden and spongy. I will blame my self deprecation on that.
I am not stupid or useless. And maybe I’m guilty of not living a life as full of potential as she did and as she saw in me. And maybe I was guilty of believing she would live and not sending her flowers or cards as I did my last friend that died in a similar way. I had a heads up with that friend that she was not for this world. I had heard Kaaren was challenged again but I knew she was still teaching and wrongly assumed she would go on.
It’s still hot in Nashville. There’s a dry breeze in the slowly dying trees that tells us things have changed despite the temperature.
I slowly walk my dogs on fully stretched leashes. The puppy is pulling me forward. The elderly dog holding me back. This feels like limbo and I note the irony of my observation.
So much more time is behind than before me. To move directionless is wasted time. It is a prison.
What could be crueler than to be a being conscious of your own inevitable demise? We are all on death row. We know the history of death. But all of nature screams keep moving and to scorn that is to scorn life itself.
When loved ones pass they leave us the gift of gratitude for each free breath. Yizkor also upholds that the soul gains additional merit if the memory of its, of her, good deeds spur loved ones to improve their ways.
Kaaren Hirschowitz Engel, you continue to inspire me as you always did. Though life ends, the legacy of you who nourished everyone you touched lives on with us.
May you rest in peace.