By Denise Richardson
(As told to MMC Editor Jeff Westover, September 2011)
Carla was the strongest woman I had ever known.
I once saw her take on a snarling mechanic who attempted to force a brake job on her that she didn’t need. Carla wasn’t a big lady but when she got her back up you didn’t want to cross her. That mechanic learned that the hard way.
So as we sat there in the doctor’s office it came as no surprise to me that she took the news with her chin out and her shoulders squared. Any other person would have withered in the face of such devastating news. The doctor was giving her less than three months.
Cancer is terrible and Carla had been fighting it in one form or another for nearly a decade. It began with a lump in her breast back in 2000 that rocked her world tremendously. She experienced the whole thing: the shock, the surgery, the chemo and the radiation. And she emerged triumphant.
Before long she was running in the “Race for the Cure” as a survivor, enlisting all her family and friends to join with her. I was there for that and it was a moment I would never forget.
So when the new pains began just a mere 9 months after being declared yet again “cancer free” I knew I had to be there — again. It started as as stomach ache like anyone would get but it led, thanks to her cancer-riddled medical history, to a battery of tests that revealed really bad news: stage four pancreatic cancer.
Carla and I worked together. We drove school buses for years, alternating shifts, her in the morning and me in the afternoon. We became friends one cold winter day when nothing could move in a storm and we had to hunker down with the kids at school to wait out a storm.
From then on we would meet occasionally between morning and afternoon shifts for lunch. That led to dinner together occasionally and before we knew it we were doing things together like sisters often do: we shopped, we swapped recipes, we talked family gossip and we celebrated holidays together.
There are too many memories to count. Her good sense of humor and energy never failed to raise my subdued spirits. She was an extrovert and I’m terminally shy — a match made in heaven, it seems, that led to periodic episodes of laughter and tears.
Carla was there for me for some big events. When my husband left me for another woman, Carla saw me through it and gave me the fight I needed for the divorce. When I remarried she was right beside me. As my kids graduated high school and suffered from their teen drama Carla was a voice of reason that kept me from going insane. And when I suffered my own medical emergency she took charge in nearly every respect — and I’m certain she saved my life.
I wish to God I could have saved hers. Instead I was the one who fell apart and it was Carla once again scraping me up off the floor, a big puddle of goo gone limp at the terrible news.
But that was her way — so very strong, so very much in charge and so very possessed of vision that nobody else seemed to have.
Her greatest wish — her 90-day bucket list — included spending as much time with her grandkids as she could in the time that remained. And she didn’t want to die at Christmas. She received the word in late June — how could she possibly make it until after Christmas?
If I were in her shoes I would make an hour-by-hour plan for the full 90 days and then make my bed and crawl in it. But not Carla. Her list seemed endless.
The first thing she did was take her grandkids and their families to Disneyland. They had done it before but Carla didn’t want to do it at the last minute. She didn’t want to do Disneyland in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank. She took on Disneyland under her own power — two whole days that drained and delighted her.
She came home and slept for three days. Then got out of bed and came back into work.
I couldn’t believe it. Why work anymore?
But work for Carla was medicine. She figured as long as she could do it she would because work was ultimately living.
As the summer days turned to fall, and in my mind the clock ticking ever faster, we started doing what we usually did: getting ready for the holidays.
Carla’s greatest love was Christmas but she also knew how to really celebrate Halloween. Her costumes were legendary. She once wore a witch’s costume with a giant wart on her nose she made from silly putty and oatmeal. With her green make-up and changed voice she scared the kids plenty trying to get onto her bus. Not a one of them recognized her and she delighted in giving them a hard time, especially a pesky 11-year old boy who was usually very rowdy. She gave him a swat on the behind with her broom and warned him she’d give him a ride on it if he so much as talked to another person on her bus. She called it the greatest bus ride of her life.
Halloween came and went and the blustery days of fall led to Thanksgiving at my house. Carla didn’t eat much and was getting weaker, we could tell. But she stood there in the kitchen with me mixing gravy like only she could and putting too much brown sugar on the yams, which she knew drives me crazy.
The first week of December things seemed to progress rapidly. Carla became dehydrated and went into the hospital. She was thin as a rail and looking frail but the sparkle in her eye told me she wasn’t yet ready to go. From her hospital bed she filled out her Christmas cards, taking care to write to her daughter living 2000 miles away to let her know she was not dying.
Sure enough, after 12 days in the hospital Carla came home and we celebrated a wonderful Christmas together, as we always do.
I have to admit that the pressure of it all got to me. I was just waiting for Carla to die. But Carla just kept on going, defying the odds and making me feel guilty for thinking each week would bring about the end.
We went Christmas caroling, something we had only done once before, and on a whim we visited the home of Carla’s old neighbor, a man I found especially grating. In my mind, Carla was seeking forgiveness and redemption because she never spoke well of the man and, in fact, had exchanged testy words with him over the years. But as we walked with the group up to this man’s front porch Carla hung back.
The man came out and gave a grumpy “Merry Christmas” then he turned his back to walk into his house. Then out of the blue, over the heads of everyone standing in front of her, Carla launched a snowball that hit the man squarely on the shoulder. I heard a gasp from the group before I heard an enthusiastic “Got him!” from Carla, who was jumping aruond like she had just won the Super Bowl.
Christmas came and went. I left town to visit family over New Year’s weekend and when I came back for work there was Carla, behind the wheel, grinning from ear to ear. We caught up, munching on carrots as I started my new diet, and I finally asked her; “What in the world are you doing here?”
“I’m not done living,” Carla said. “Dying is for wimps.”
In late January I had a tragic surprise: my mother died unexpectedly. I was unprepared for this event and Carla did everything, despite her own pain or weakness. As we looked upon my dead mother at her viewing she put her arm around me and she said, “That’s not her, you know.” Smiling, I knew what she meant. And, oh, how I loved her for saying that to me.
The weeks and months ahead flew by. Carla, though it was clear she wasn’t 100 percent every day, soldiered on. Summer began and so too did our talk of vacation. This year Carla wanted to take the grandkids camping.
Two days before we were to go I received a call from Carla’s husband from the hospital. Carla was passing blood. I rushed over there expecting to see a weakened friend and maybe a frightened spirit but such was not the case. Such was never the case. Carla was barking orders and insisting on “being done here” so that she could get on with vacation.
We went. Carla hiked, helped pitch the tent and slept on the ground. If she was in pain nobody ever knew it.
From the 4th of July through Labor Day we did everything and then some. Night and day my phone would ring. “Whatcha doing?” Carla would ask — as if nothing was wrong.
School began again and once again Carla was there behind the wheel. Nothing could keep her down.
She asked me to go to the doctor again at the end of September, afraid that the news would be worse this time. The doctor performed a series of tests, ordered an MRI and evaluated everything thoroughly. The news was worse than ever.
Before long Carla had trouble eating and keeping food down. I finally started to see her weaken and one day she told me to “tell the boss to call a sub” for her. She couldn’t make herself quit her job.
By the end of October Carla was in a wheelchair, handing out treats to ghosts and goblins on Halloween. One insensitive little boy, seeing Carla only in a wheelchair and not wearing a Halloween costume as she usually did, asked: “What are you supposed to be? A dead person?” Carla winced just a little and said “If I were dead I’d haunt you every day for the rest of your natural life.”
Over Thanksgiving weekend Carla was back in the hospital. She had, after all, beaten her three-month deadline by well over a year. What more in miracles could we ask for?
i went to visit Carla on Thanksgiving night and she had to speak to me through a mask. Her breathing was difficult and talking was possible but not easy. I fell apart right in front of her and I saw her ball up her fist and slam it down on the bed in anger.
I did all I could to stifle my tears and grief. Such suffering for a beloved friend was simply more than I could endure.
I reached down to give her a hug and she grabbed at my blouse, catching the collar and pulling me close. “Take off this mask,” she asked me. I did and she pulled me down again and gave me a kiss. “Don’t you dare let them kill me before Christmas.” she told me. That was all she had energy to say and her eyes pleaded with me to promise.
I searched silently for an answer to what she was talking about. And then it hit me. I couldn’t stop the forward progression of her disease. It was relentless. But I could make Christmas happen. And I could make it right now.
I called her daughter at home and told her to pack up every bit of Christmas decorations that Carla had in the house. At my own home, where we were decorated for Christmas already, I called my husband and told him to take everything down and to pack it up — including the tree. I told him it was an emergency and to bring it all to the hospital.
They had moved Carla into a hospice care room, with subdued lighting and more room than usual to allow families of terminally ill patients space to be with their loved ones.
Within a few hours we had everyone there — Carla’s husband, children and grandchildren, her sister and another neighbor as well as my kids and my husband. Within short order we had the room sparkling with Christmas, with Carla’s favorite Nativity placed on the table closest to her head.
Carla asked for the bed to be adjusted so she could see the room. She managed a feeble smile with tears in her eyes. “You did it, baby” she said to me. “You did it.”
For hours we sat together — all of us, more than 15 people in the room — and we talked about Christmas. There were tears aplenty but not tears of grief. They were tears of Christmas memory cherished and of love shared.
It was the purest feeling of Christmas I have ever experienced, though not a gift was opened and not a song was sung.
It grew very late and the little ones were starting to fuss. One by one Carla took them into her arms and kissed them goodbye. They didn’t know but the rest of us knew what it meant. It was a sacred moment to behold.
As others prepared to say their last goodbyes I started to panic. Just as I had experienced in losing my mother I feared I was unprepared for these last moments with Carla. I thought she would like some private time with her husband so I took her hand one last time. She turned her head to me and said, “Don’t say goodbye…just say Merry Christmas.”
So there I sat with her, her left hand clasped in mine, her right hand clasped by her husband’s. We sat with her for a long time amidst the glow of the Christmas lights she loved so much. She drifted away at some point, unable to speak any further. Within hours, she breathed her last and was gone.
The nurses told us we could take all the time we wanted. But our time was well spent. Max, Carla’s husband, said it was enough and they came and took Carla’s body away after a while. He hugged me tight and thanked me, telling me how much I meant to Carla. And then he left and I was alone with my husband.
And that was when I finally lost it. I mean I really lost it, crying a well of tears that had built up for nearly a year and half over the loss of Carla, my dear friend. My husband, ever my best friend, stayed with me, and held me — saying nothing but saying everything at the same time. The sun was just starting to lighten the sky outside of the windows but I did not have the heart to turn off the lights and start taking down the decorations.
So there I sat. We were quiet for some time when I felt it — a sweet, peaceful reassurance that all was well. I couldn’t see anything but I could feel Carla’s presence near by. It was as powerful as any breeze I have ever felt and a rush of love came over me as I heard the words again in my mind…don’t say goodbye, just say Merry Christmas.