Friendship, fear, death…and confessions

What do you say to a friend who is afraid to die? Even now, six months later, I still don’t know what to say.

VirgHer name was Virginia. She was 92. And she died this spring, a frail, withered shell of the woman she used to be. Her hearing was almost gone, and her memory was failing her. She could not walk without assistance and she had great difficulty swallowing (common in the elderly, I’m told). And even though her eyes were pale and rheumy, the fear was plain in them when she asked, “What’s going to happen to me?”

Other than some platitude about what good care the staff showed in their care of her (at her nursing home), I had nothing to offer. I don’t know the answer.

Her life was good, but not perfect. It was stereotypical in some ways in that her husband had passed away years before her, yet they had had a daughter who would continue their family line with her own son. But in other ways, Virginia took stereotypes and stomped them in the ground. Prior to World War II, she boarded a bus – alone – in her native Minnesota in order to join her older sister in California. She would live in various places, and she would serve as a Navy WAVE during the war and, later, as a Grey Lady at Letterman Hospital during the Korean War. She did not marry until the age of 31 – rare for women of her time and, not to mention, having a child at that age. Through it all, she worked at various jobs until I met her in the 1990s when we were both secretaries.

She taught me how to do cross-stitch. I took her to a Billy Joel concert for her…78th (I think) birthday. And…she entrusted me with her beloved tabby, Fluffy, when she felt she could no longer adequately care for the cat. To this day, I am undecided whether or not I betrayed that trust by lying to Virginia. For this is my confession: Fluffy died on December 17, 2004, not in December 2005. Some friends already know this and they tell me I did the right thing because, in December of 2004, Virginia was recovering from a hip replacement and subsequent pneumonia. She was in terrible shape, physically, emotionally, mentally. I could not tell her that Fluffy had cancer and was going to die soon. Fortunately, I had several pictures of the cat – so I could continue the lie – and gently worked my way up to Fluffy passing away the following December (I kept it the week before Christmas so I could keep the lie straight).

Fluffy

I took this picture of Fluffy with me to Virginia’s memorial service. I hope that Fluffy is with her now, and I hope Virginia forgives me. Most of all, I hope she is no longer afraid.

But instead of crying, I try to remember the laughter that Virginia could elicit with her sharp wit, even when it was aimed at me. She turned 80 just a few months after I turned 40. So when I called her to wish her happy birthday, I said “Hey, I’m half your age now!” Without missing a beat, she replied, “Well, thank God for that, I thought you’d never make it this far!”

 

Trusting Yourself

I’ve been asked on several occasions if I’m scared to travel alone. And the answer has always been no.

Sometimes I ask myself why.

After all, it can be a big, scary world out there, full of violence and greed.

I think it comes down to trust. Not trusting others necessarily, and certainly not blindly trusting, of course.  Clearly there are people out there who don’t deserve your trust and never will.

I’m talking about trusting yourself, your own instincts. Trusting that you’ll recognize when you need to alter your plans whether it’s something as simple as walking down a different street or politely excusing yourself from an invitation which makes you feel uncomfortable, or something more drastic like seeking help from your embassy.

waterfall

Such self-confidence may come naturally to some people, but for others it can take years to cultivate. People like me, who as a child were timid and socially awkward. In such cases, one must put on a pretense of bravery and step out into the world. Small steps, like traveling to foreign locales where you’ll be meeting up with friends or relatives, is a good start. Finding a reliable tour company which treats solo travelers as well as they do others is another. In the latter instance, there are always other solo travelers within the group to pal around with. Many of these will be fleeting friends, like-minded individuals in the moment, whom you’ll never see again. A few, however, you’ll form a closer bond with and become lasting friends.  Some, you will discover are just like you: taking their fear and shoving it deep inside because they refuse to allow it to keep them from following their dreams, from exploring the far corners of this beautiful planet.

I recently encountered a woman I had not seen in several years. We’d never been friends, but had known each other for some time before she moved elsewhere. She’s a few years older than myself, and she had always seemed to be much more confident and socially adept than me. While that may still be true in many settings, I found it quite surprising when she admitted she found it too scary to travel alone.

The conversation made me reflect upon the differences between us, and I couldn’t really find many. The only conclusion that I could come to was that I had finally grown into myself. I’m not saying that she hasn’t – in whatever ways matter to her. But I, in the last ten-fifteen years, have truly grown into my self-confidence and self-trust, especially when it comes to my desire to travel.

Which is why I felt no fear back in July while I stood at the edge of a 400-foot cliff in Bandelier National Monument taking photographs of a waterfall across Frijoles Canyon. I had hiked the 1.5 miles up to this vantage point, alone, on a trail that was technically closed. I had found places to jump across the creek where a flash flood just days earlier had wiped out the three footbridges. (Not an easy task for someone with short little legs like mine.) I had climbed over debris left behind by the flood and kept a watch out for wildlife.

Image

Admittedly, New Mexico is not so far away as the exotic locales that are my usual destinations. But when deep inside a canyon, with nary another soul in sight and not even the hint of a cell phone signal, it can feel further away than standing on the Antarctic Peninsula where a cruise ship awaits just offshore.

Anything could have happened to me: I could have fallen off the trail and died, or been seriously injured. I could even have been attacked by a mountain lion. Who knows when I would have been found? Being a closed trail, getting later in the afternoon, no one else was coming that way. Yes, the park rangers knew I was out there and knew my estimated return time, but when minutes may count: blood loss, shock, etc., I could have found myself in serious trouble.

But I knew I wouldn’t. I trusted my feet, trusted my balance, trusted my agility, and I trusted my reflexes. I was ready to grab whatever rocks or sticks needed to fight off a big angry feline. Heck, if other people can fight off a mountain lion by hitting it with their camera, so can I.

That’s what trust is. And learning to trust yourself so implicitly is perhaps, for some, as far as traveling to the ends of the earth.