One of my life’s treasures is friendships that span decades — women (mostly) who’ve shared the ups, downs, and in-betweens, who can burst into laughter at the mere mention of a childhood memory and whose knowing glance and touch at long-ago or present pain is a balm. Trusting these friendships will last into our old age brings me hope and comfort.
As Mom’s mind continues to decline, her world shrinks. While she has many dear friends and one remaining sister, her speech, memory, and processing abilities are so diminished that she’s unable to stay connected with most.
Joe and Betty are the exception. Friends for more than 60 years, back in their medical and nursing school days, they’ve stayed close and have a comfort and ease with each other like no others.
So a couple of weeks ago, we drove north to their home in Maine for a visit and sleepover. Of course, we brought our knitting. Mom’s latest garter stitch scarf is made with some beautiful Malabrigo (or maybe Manos del Uruguay), a Christmas gift from beloved granddaughter Nora.
Joe is mostly home bound, his Parkinson’s-like disorder has stolen his movement and slowed his speech. Strong of body and mind, Betty is his main caregiver, assisted lovingly by their son and daughter-in-law who live nearby. She’s a talented knitter, too, working on several hat and scarf sets for Special Olympics Maine.
As Betty and Mom got supper ready, I pulled my chair close to Joe’s and settled in with our wine (me) and whiskey (him) for a chat. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, he shared his perspective on medical training — how he became a pediatrician during his Navy service and later a pathologist — and memories, many of my father, who was one of Joe’s closest friends and a trusted colleague.
Joe was my and my brothers’ pediatrician until I was about 6 or 7. I told him that one of my earliest memories was me lying on our kitchen table at age 3 or so and having a doctor — was it Joe? — lance my close-to-bursting ear drum lest it burst itself. He didn’t recall that procedure and suggested it was another doctor. But he did recall clearly performing his very first lumbar puncture (spinal tap) on me when I was an infant and suffered a febrile convulsion.
Slowly and haltingly, he shared an intense conversation with my father, who had asked him to do the tap, telling him that he’d never performed the procedure and explaining the risk of infection and complications. Despite his current limitations, he clearly conveyed the urgency and intimacy of that long-ago conversation. I can only imagine the fear they both felt at the time and the utmost trust they had for each other.
As Mom dozed on the drive home the next day, I went over our visit — the warmth and ease of being with people who know you so well and love you so profoundly — and my conversation with Joe in particular.
Tomorrow is the 35th anniversary of my father’s death, and while I think of him — and even talk to him — often, I realize that I rarely talk with his friends, those who knew him as an adult, a colleague, a too-short-but-still-lifelong friend. Joe’s memories gave specificity to the general “he was a great man” view of my father. Our visit with Betty and Joe wasn’t just a fun overnight; it was a gift I’ll treasure forever.