Earlier this month, I lost a dear friend, one of those for whom the term “friend” is truly inadequate, one who feels like family, but with whom we share no blood or family ties. It was a friendship that built over time, and some people might be surprised at its depth. Elizabeth was 30 years my senior and we had little in common, yet over time, we formed a close bond.
We met Elizabeth and her husband Mike, 20 years ago when we purchased the house next door to theirs. From the start, we got along well, Mike helped Steve with some house projects (he worked with masonry) and taught me when and how to prune some of the plants in our yard. Elizabeth was more reserved. She did not speak English quite as well (they were from Italy) and at the time worked full time, so we had less interaction with her.
When Mike had a fatal heart attack, we grieved his loss. He was a good, kind man, with a ready smile. Despite not knowing how to drive, Elizabeth managed quite well for years, sometimes accepting a ride home from the grocery store if I ran into her there. She asked for the occasional ride to visit her family who lived nearby, and sometimes needed help filling out forms in English, but she was very independent. We were the happy recipients of baked goods at holidays, or when the whim struck her, and we had occasional chats over the fence if we both happened to be outside at the same time.
I don’t remember at what point it happened, but we became frequent “shopping buddies.” After the grocery store in town closed, she needed a ride to get food, so we would go together. She was also starting to have a difficult time walking distances, especially when the weather was bad, so this expanded to other stores when necessary, and we became very familiar with each other’s habits.
I got to know her usual list. My daughter is still amused at one trip, a couple years ago, where Elizabeth picked up a box of cereal and I told her, “No, that’s not the one you like,” and picked up the correct box (flakes, not O’s). I helped read expiration dates and labels (she did not care for anything spiced and when given a choice, chose the low-salt version). I got items from the upper shelves and helped to translate at the deli counter: ham, sliced thin and provolone or Swiss cheese, “the reglar one.”
It was not unusual for people to make the assumption that I was her daughter. It seemed to amuse her. She would chuckle and explain who I was, or sometimes not. When people who knew us saw us out shopping, it would often result in a comment expressing how kind I was. Although I usually smiled and responded something to the effect that I was going shopping anyway, these comments irritated me. I was not making any great sacrifice, plus, I genuinely enjoyed her company. On some of the occasions I went alone, I actually missed her. (This irritation carried over to recent months, when I brought her list with me and asked the cashier to make two separate orders. I stopped explaining why.)
Over the years, she has had several health issues. On more than one occasion, she called me over to her house when she was not feeling well. Once, she asked me to call and make an appointment with a new doctor. I then accompanied her on this visit and helped her complete the necessary forms, which of course were in English. The trust she had in me was complete. I felt honored. Her being of a generation who usually is close-lipped about such things, I was caught off guard, but if anything, it made me even more protective of her.
I became much more aware of what it must be like to move to another place. She had lived in the U.S. for most of her life, but still had a thick accent, so there was a language barrier (the other neighbors didn’t understand most of what she said). Living in a small town, she had developed relationships with some local businesses, which helped, but there were still times that her frustration grew when she was not understood. Many people don’t even try, which angered me, sometimes more than it did her. I found myself increasingly worrying about her safety and about being taken advantage of.
We would talk in the car, about our families, what was going on in the world and I learned a great deal about her. She was the oldest child. She had a sister still in Italy whom she loved and missed dearly. She liked to visit her sister, but had no interest in moving back to Italy. I already knew she had two brothers who live nearby (I have driven her to visit them at their barber shop, which is where my husband goes to get his hair cut). I heard about her nieces and nephews and their kids and holiday gatherings and vacations. She was fond of my dog, but Mike didn’t like dogs, so she would never get one. She gave me some recipes (fortunately they were easy enough to remember as I could not write them down while driving).
On occasion, she would call, just to see if we were all okay. When we were waiting to see what Hurricane Sandy was going to do, she was nervous and asked to come over. She brought a recipe and ingredients and we made a delicious apple cake (this recipe I wrote down, as she carefully dictated). That night, the power went out, and stayed out, for several days. With no light, television, or heat, we all gathered in front of our fireplace the next couple days.
This past spring, health concerns stopped her from any shopping trips at all. This concerned me, and I worried that her days were passing faster than I was prepared for. For the latter half of the year, my weekly trip had two lists, mine and hers. All those earlier shopping trips together paid off. When she told me what she needed, I knew (mostly) what she wanted. There was occasionally some confusion. Over the summer, there was one item she wanted me to pick up which I could not decipher. It sounded like she wanted “airplanes” to slice thin and bake, like lasagna. It took me a couple weeks, then it hit me, she wanted eggplant! One two occasions, she asked for “cake paper.” I erroneously interpreted this as parchment paper, which is what she got the firs time. She never told me I had gotten it wrong (perhaps she didn’t know what I had bought) and the next time, after much talking through it, I realized she wanted cupcake liners. We continued this verbal “charades” on a weekly basis, with me sometimes having to ask not quite 20 questions (What color is it? Is it a fruit? How do you cook it?) to get the shopping list correct.
Around Thanksgiving, there was marked improvement in her health and she and I talked about how, in the not so distant future, we would be able to resume our weekly outings. We were away Thanksgiving week, so the week following was filled with laundry, catching up errands and Christmas prep. By the end of the week, I hadn’t heard from her and was getting concerned. When I noticed no lights on at her house, I contacted her niece to see if everything was okay. On occasion, she would go stay with her family, but something seemed off this time. The news I got back was not good. She was in the hospital, and Monday, I went to go visit. The prognosis was not good, but she was awake and aware and we were able to talk a little bit. I left with the promise to come back in a couple days. The next morning, her niece called to tell me she had taken a turn for the worse. My husband and I went to visit that night and she passed quietly several hours later.
I miss her. I have not yet gone into our local grocery store, mostly in fear that I will break down crying in the jelly aisle (where I would check to make sure the one she picked up was blueberry and not mixed berry) or at the sight of the eggplants in the produce section. I have been shopping in different stores (where we live there are a lot to choose from) and know I will be back to that one, just not yet.
A few days later, I woke from a dream. She and Mike were both there and she was telling me how she was going to miss me. It was one of those particularly vivid dreams and I awoke crying. It is some comfort knowing that she is once again with him. Each year, around the anniversary of his death, she would sit on her porch or on her back steps, looking sad. It was heartbreaking to see her this way and I felt helpless, wanting to comfort her, but knowing there was no way to take away her pain. She was in a great deal of pain when I last saw her. I am thankful that I made it to the hospital, to say goodbye and tell her I love her. I know that she is now in a better place and am honored to know that she called me family.