My friend Barbara had a stroke last night, the second in eighteen months.
She lives in Sydney, 2.5 hours away from where I live on the south coast. At 6 pm, just four hours before it happened, she and I were having one of our lengthy telephone conversations. She suggested I get a gin and tonic. I told her I already had one. We talked about the things women talk about, our husbands and their health (both of ours suffer headaches), dogs (she and Les are our doggy Cino's 'adopted parents', and they look after a dear little doggy called Buffy every day whilst his family is at work). We have an unending supply of anecdotes and stories about our current dogs, our dogs already passed in the Rainbow Bridge, other people's dogs, and doggy stories elsewhere. We talked about a short film we both had seen on Face Book, about a n obese man in his fifties who is warned by his doctor that he will need a plot at the cemetery unless he loses weight, and he goes out to a doggy rescue and adopts a middle-aged, overweight dog: the two of them become fit and slim over a series of months and years, and both their lives transform. Then his doggy died, and the man was devastated, still weeping about it as this film was made several years later. Then six months later, he makes a second trip to the doggy rescue and adopts another doggy, an entirely different doggy, and the two of them now run marathons together. We talked about our friends. Our friends health - one who is in failing health, and she asked how I thought her husband would fare if 'anything happened to her'. (You talk a lot about health when you are in your mid sixties). We talked about Jon English and his untimely, and early, death this week. The four of us had tickets to go and see him at the Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre in July. Barbara said "He was so young!" to which I responded, "He was 66." She said, "Well, today that's young. How sad for his family!" We talked about the tickets we have to see Fiddler on the Roof in Sydney on Easter Sunday in a couple of weeks time, and where we should eat beforehand. We talked about seeing My Fair Lady in September in Sydney, and I told her I could not go, as we are probably going to be in India. No problems, I can ask Bev, she said. We talked about what we were having for dinner, that Gerald fitted my new oven door which exploded on Xmas Eve, and how I would have a virgin trial of it this weekend. She mentioned the leg of lamb we took up as part of our 'thank you for having us to stay' weekend a couple of weeks ago, when we were in Sydney to attend the Hindu wedding of the son of old friends. "I haven't cooked it yet, it's sort of too hot to do a roast." I told her I was going to an International Women's Day Breakfast this morning in Gerroa with Zonta, and that I wished she lived closer, she could accompany me. She talked about the neighbours and their children. And I am happy that we ended our call, as we often did, with "I love you." She would usually say the more English version, "Love you", leaving out the "I" makes it easier to say for some people I think.
Two hours before the stroke, she sent me fifteen photos of her two beautiful grand nieces in England, which I received this morning after hearing the news. The irony of that did not escape me. So much happened between the sending of those photos and the receiving of those photos. So much happened in the moments after our conversation, our gin, the emails. So much altered in her life, Les's life, my life and the lives of countless others, when in a moment, or some moments, something catastrophic happens in our lives.
Moments. Mundane, sometimes trivial details, being exchanged by two old friends, nothing out of the ordinary, yet a deep understanding and connection created over twenty years or more. A conversation which I realise now I am trawling through in my heart and mind, stamping them into my memory, fearful that it may have been the last time I spoke to her.
When I rose to leave that International Women's Day Breakfast this morning, and turned my phone back on I realised that Gerald had called me three times. Unusual. Alarmed I called him from the car park, to discover that Les called at 8.20 am to tell us. Les had gone upstairs to prepare for bed, and she followed a few minutes later, suddenly feeling 'odd' and seeing strobe lights. She went into the bathroom next to their bedroom, where she collapsed, but only for a few seconds. She somehow got up and made her way to the doorway of their bedroom, where she said in a very strange voice "Call an ambulance." They were there 8 - 10 minutes later, and immediately started tests on Barbara, and when they got to the North Shore Hospital, a team of doctors were waiting for her. Her speech is slurred, and her left side is very crooked. Thank God for our Australian medical system.
Gerald tells me that Les was very distressed when he called, he was the first person Les had told, and hearing his own words come out of his mouth was a major reality check. He was imagining, as we all would do, the worst possible scenarios. I spoke to him as soon as I got home, and he sounded clear and in control and grateful for our amazing Australian medical service. I said "I want to come? Can I? But only if it works for you. If I can help, I will be there. If you prefer not, not an upset." He said there was little I could do. I said, I can wash, and clean, and cook, and hold your hand, and hold Barbara's hand. He managed a laugh and told me he is a good housekeeper. And then he said "You will be the first person I ask for help we need it. Thank you." His voice cracked only once, when he said with an attempt at a laugh, that he and Barbara used to make jokes, and promised each other that if they were ever disabled, unable to walk or talk, the other partner would 'shoot them'. Now he waits to find out the results of many tests and the fate of his beloved. He was heading back to the hospital at noon and would keep us informed.
I cannot imagine the anguish he is going through. Les, are you OK?? What can I do? And how terrified both he and Barbara must be. Unbidden, my own fears and concerns have crept into my mind, what would we do, how would I cope, what if? And I feel ashamed of these thoughts, when my concerns should all be for you both.
I think of Barbara, and how much alike we are, and yet how dissimilar too. Both born in the month of November, three years apart. I did a small survey on Facebook recently, and it revealed that Barbara and I were "Soul Mates" and more alike than any other of my friends. Barbara is kinder then I am, calmer than I am, gentler than I am, and a diplomat. Reserved and quite 'English' in nature, I am in your face and out there. She is able to walk a mile in another's shoes, her empathy knows no bounds. I am inclined to the 'just get on with it' mode of thinking. She is happy to work behind the scenes, whilst I enjoy centre stage. We met when we worked at S.C. Johnson in Lane Cove for only a couple of years, she did the morning shift and I did the afternoon shift, so we weren't even in the same space very much. But a friendship developed, which has stood the test of time. Our respect for each other deepened at a work function when I was part of the Dancing Making a Fool of Myself, Macarena Team, and she was a champion on the sidelines. Both devoted (and at times complaining) wives to our husbands. We are 'family first' people, and have become a kind of family to each other. The older sister I would love to have. We share a passion for animals of all kinds, and dogs in particular, and have helped each other through the deaths of our dogs and cats. We have cried buckets together, often over the phone. We share a love for cleanliness and order in our homes and in our lives. Both of us are sticklers for times, I could count on Barbara being there ten minutes or more before she was expected. A weakness for anything small and vulnerable, puppies, kittens, birds, babies, elephants, possums. An abiding respect for the elderly, and a strong social conscience which works for community. Both committed to our health and well being, exercise and taking care of our skin and nails and appearance. Some of our clothes even look similar. We share a love of good books, good music, good television, good films, good theatre, and good food. She is an excellent cook and loves a good bottle of wine. I introduced her to Face Book, and WhatsApp, something we share on a daily basis. She laughs easily, and tends to see the very best in people, she is an optimist, grateful for her life and family and friends. Whilst not a birth mother herself, she embodies everyting that is maternal, everything that is female, and rejoices in her family in England and their offspring, sharing photos and stories of their exploits with great pride. Her home is a safe haven for neighbours, their children, their animals and their extended families. Rather like ours. Barbara and Les are people you can count on, especially when things get tough.
We know a great deal more than we should of the intimate details of each other's friends and family, and speak their names as if we know them personally, we are so familiar with their lives - although in truth, we have only met a handful of them. They may be shocked to realise just how much we do know about them. Barbara and Les were extraordinarily kind and generous friends to my parents, who adored them. Barbara was my mother's last visitor before she died. She was a source of great comfort and strength for me on their deaths, six months apart, seven years ago. She has supported me in all my travels with World Youth International and many fund raising events, always the first to contribute and to buy tickets to whatever I happened to be selling. She and Les have puppy sat our Cino with the same devotion as if they were her parents during most of our travels. We have been there for each other when family members and friends died, and when she lost her best friend in England three years ago, and deeply mourned her loss. We have celebrated the weddings of our nieces and nephews and the births of their children, she has listened to me dissect Joshua's love life for over twenty years. They have rejoiced with us in our son's many successes, listened to the saga of the disintegrating relationship with my siblings, and the end of my time with World Youth International. We have flattened a few bottles of wine together when we have shared weekends at each other's homes, and we have never been short of something to say or something to laugh about.
When Barbara had the first stroke 18 months ago, she didn't tell me until she was back home from hospital a few days later, saying she didn't want to 'worry me'. I was cross with her, and made her promise to never do such a thing again, and she agreed. She worked hard to get herself well and strong, attending rehab and doing her exercises, walking every day, eventually getting back to kick boxing and running, and when we saw her two weeks ago, she was the picture of health.
So whilst we have not really had a great deal of time together, face to face, one on one, in the same room, this is a strong and important relationship. It has always been a wonderful delight when we did get together., something that has occurred more frequently since my parents died, seven years ago. Our friendship has continued to grow steadily, oddly deepened by many deaths. The deaths of my parents, her mother and best friend, mutual friends and colleagues, and strengthened through the deaths of our beloved animals, with many hours spent loving and crying together.
So after a good cry, I am writing this. And I am holding you in my heart and my soul and my arms, darling Barbara. And Les, dear man, we are here for you.
FOOTNOTE: Les just telephoned and gave us a comprehensive update on your progress and the testers they have done. Your speech has begun to improve, you can now move your arm, and even kick your left leg, and kind of walked/shuffled down the corridor about fifteen steps. Two cat scans and an ultra sound will happen on Monday. He says you are frightened and crying, and he is coping as best he can. He hasn't called England yet as he doesn't want the family to start panicking or get on a plane, and we discuss the ethics of when and how to tell them. I think he should call now. Gerald thinks like Les does, wait until tomorrow, and then give them a lot more good news, as Barbara's progress is excellent. He promises to keep in touch, he is now at home, and ready for a steadying Whisky.
Then, unexpectedly, another phone call. I cannot believe what just happened. You telephone me from your bed, from which Les has just told us you are not allowed to move, for 24 hours. You are weepy and your speech is somewhat slurred, but you say "I wanted to let you know that I am OK, and you are not to worry too much."
A moment. Oh, what a moment.
FOUR DAYS LATER: I drove up to Sydney to see you after Mass on Sunday morning, and got there around 11.30 am. I could not believe how much progress you have made, your speech is almost completely normal, you have use of your left hand and leg, you are walking to the loo with assistance. I returned home at 6pm, so happy I had made the effort to drive there and back.
We have spoken on the phone and via texts several times, I have sent you photos of Cino, the river, and the beach. Despite fasting for hours, whilst waiting to go for tests, you sound strong. The doctor says you are A MIRACLE.