Friday, April 20, 2007

A Friend Indeed

Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself,
How it's strange that some rooms are like cages,
Sonny's yearbook from high school is down from its shelf,
And he idly thumbs through the pages...

Ann lay on her back and let her mind wander. It was the only part of her that could. For ten years, she had lain in pretty much the same spot on pretty much the same bed, watching basketball or movies with her mother, unable to move under her own power or tend to herself.

She fought hard in the first years, when they still weren't sure what it was that was destroying her body; fought against the fog that would creep in with the medication. She fought to stay in the room in the house with her mother. Peggy was a retired school teacher, and while it wasn't easy to cover Ann's medical expenses on a teacher's pension, they at least owned the house. They got by. Ann and Peggy used to sit and talk about that; how grateful they were to just get by. There wasn't much need for talking any more, though.

Ann had stopped fighting the fog so much. She had a really bad spell in 1999, when she was already five years along. They had learned the name of the disease in 1994, so even though she had been growing more unstable on her feet for years before that, she counted 1994 as the year she "got" sick. And five years on, the fog had come for her. It had pressed inward until there was no way to avoid it.

It wasn't so bad. In fact, it made things easier. She could hear voices in that fog; familiar voices, whispering things to her. At first, she thought it meant she was dying. She thought she was hearing the dead, and that they were calling for her to come into the fog and become one of them. To leave her mother behind in the old house draped with long strands of memory.

But the voices didn't come from the dead. She recognized the voices of her friends from school; the ones who used to gather in her living room after choir practice, back when she was only "tired". Back when she believed she only needed to eat more and she would "snap out of it". They had been an odd bunch. No one would have figured them for close friends; the goofball boys with their disregard for appearance, the girls with their varied approaches to propriety. All of them with different backgrounds, similar influences, random permutations, bringing about wonderful combinations of viewpoints and outlooks.

They would go rent videos, arguing over what to get for hours, debating the merits of film vs. "flick", and then spend most of the night talking, videos unwatched, discussing God, reality, music and politics; exchanging dreams and tales of other friends who were just as odd like currency at an airport kiosk. They were all people who had never had a Group to belong to, and were as surprised to discover themselves in a group as they were eager to discover who else was in it.

Some of the talk grew heated; some of the more casual members slipped away, but no one was driven off. Through the fog, Ann could follow them if she wanted to, and see where they ended up. Sometimes she watched what they were doing. A few, though, burned brighter than the others. They were the ones who had given her the most to think about over the years.

Three of them had nearly shared a birthday. Born within 24 hours of each other, sharing the date with Shakespeare, Orbison, and Nabokov, there was a bond there which they treated lightly, but it held them, nonetheless. When she could find no one else in the fog, she could find the two of them.

One was a boy from overseas. He had grown up in Africa and Europe, and behaved in ways that were purposefully foreign. He had been the Atheist of the group; the nihilist who believed in Devil's Advocacy above all else. His arguments for cold logic and reason were always betrayed by the passion with which he argued, though, and when she sought him out in the fog, it was his heart that drew her to him.

A second boy, as native an Arizonan as Ann herself, had worked hard to be as surprising as the first. He was loud, brash, and full of ideas that would spill out and break apart on contact with the world. He had learned to temper his volume over the years, but it was still the sound of him that led her through the fog sometimes, seeming to shout while the other voices were hushed, beating a drum and secretly weeping that no one was listening.

The others were more distant, but no less important to her. Sweet Lorelai, who played piano and had no idea how much the others had loved her. Shy Sherry, who tried to pretend they didn't really know her, afraid they would drive her off if they did, and never understanding that they never would. David, who came and went like a cat, caring for them, but not belonging to them. Ron, whose gentleness could shame them all into behaving better when nothing else could.

She followed them all, listening and watching, tuning in for the important moments. A marriage here, a new child there; things she would never have on her own, she shared with her friends. And somehow, without words to express it, they knew. She could hear them whisper her name when they felt joy: "Ann, I hope you can feel this, too."

They often felt pity for her, but she avoided that. When they thought of her, and their minds turned to what she would have been without the disease, she fled back through the fog and stayed in her shell on the bed in that room. She fought harder against the self-pity than she had against the fog. There was no need to dwell on her intentions; her plans to do social work, and to volunteer to hold the crack babies in the orphan's ward. No need to grieve for the lost husband and children she had dreamt of. What was the point of that?

She knew better than to start asking that question. "What is the point?" someone would ask on those nights in the living room, and the debate would rage until dawn. They never found an answer they could put into words. They could never even agree that there was an answer. So when the fog left her lying starkly open on the bed, staring at the face of God in the stucco pattern on the ceiling, she would ride the question - "What is the point?" - like a cresting wave, and let the foam of the old conversations and the arguing voices of her friends carry her down the other side.

There was wisdom there, she knew. It was ancient and new; both Real and Ideal. It was the Tao; it was salvation. Everything that their group had been, that was life. There was no point to their spontaneous chatter in the wee hours, but it was thrilling and vibrant. Sometimes they had learned things, most times they didn't. Either way, it was life, and life needs no point. Life moves, even when your body can't, and only a fool throws what little they have away.

So Ann lay in the bed on her 35th birthday, and let her mind wander to those who loved her across years; she loved them back, and held on, knowing that whatever the reasons were, they didn't matter.

1 comment:

katd30 said...

I know I'm commenting a little late, but I just found everybody. That was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I knew Karen was sick, but I didn't know to what degree. I'm glad you kept in contact with her and your "group". I spent a lot of time trying to find everyone and when I did, I wasn't sure anyone would want to keep in contact with me.