Saturday, January 22, 2011

Remembering Paula

My life-long friend Paula died on Christmas Eve. I’ve lost friends to death before, but none hit me quite like this.

At first, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. She was supposed to get better; she was supposed to survive.

She had collapsed at her daughter’s Girl Scout Christmas party. Her heart just stopped beating—no warning, no signs of illness or weakness; she hadn’t even complained of so much as a headache that day.

Paramedics managed to get her heart started again, and although she was in intensive care and on 24-hour dialysis, the doctors saw hope in her relative young age—48—and her otherwise good health. She was responding to commands and showed signs of recognition when shown a picture of her kids. They said it was likely a viral infection had attacked her heart, and that she had a good chance of fighting it off over time.

I remember telling a friend who asked about her that it would be a long, difficult road to recovery. But I was absolutely certain recovery would come, eventually. After all, I had made it through a remarkably similar health crisis two years earlier.

Just before Christmas, 2008, I was living on the east coast and came down with what I thought was the flu. It turned out to be an antibiotic-resistant infection that attacked my mitral heart valve. Pieces of the infection broke off and floated to my brain, causing a series of mini strokes.

I had to have the valve replaced and was in ICU for two solid months, followed by physical, speech and occupational therapy for nearly the rest of 2009. I had to endure a feeding tube, a tracheotomy, hallucinations…I had to relearn to walk, think coherently, even write my own signature.

It was an excruciatingly long, arduous and, at times, tedious journey, and I continue to have serious health issues, but I’m alive.

I survived. Why didn’t she?

My friend, Elaine, called me with the news. I could tell she had been crying. The family had made the difficult decision to take Paula off the machines keeping her alive. Her organs had begun shutting down. Tests found no brain waves. She’d only been in the hospital two weeks.

Why didn’t she survive? Why couldn’t her body fight the infection like mine had? It didn’t make sense.

She had kids—two boys, 14 and 7, and a girl, 10. She had a husband. She had four sisters, a brother, several nieces and nephews and a mother who loved her.

She had a career as a pharmacist and did volunteer work. She had compassion, wisdom beyond her years, and a keen sense of observation, along with a dry sense of humor. She was a loyal and good friend to many, many people, including me.

In 1991, I wrote a Frankly Speaking column about her as she was about to get married—on Valentine’s Day, no less. In it, I wrote, “I was there when her father died. She was with me at my brother’s funeral. We saw each other graduate from college and attended each other’s family functions. When I go home, my family asks, ‘How’s Paula?’ And I feel as much at home in her house as in mine. Some of my family will be at her wedding today.”

Much of my family attended her visitation, too. It felt like losing a family member. Even Paula’s family acknowledged her unique relationship with her friends—they counted us as family, because Paula counted us as family.

In that column long ago, I also wrote, “…with all the people who have come and gone in my life, there is one constant: Paula.”

Now that one constant is gone, swept abruptly from this life and the family and friends who loved her. And I am left with the profoundly desolate feeling that life does not make sense.

Paula believed in God. I believe in God. I believe in eternal life, and that it is infinitely better than this worldly life. However, I don’t believe that God ‘takes’ people when God wants them. I do, on the other hand, believe God accepts all who come in love, including Paula.

But I am not ready to accept that this was Paula’s ‘time.’ I guess I’m still in the denial stage of grief, mixed with a little anger. It will take some time to come to acceptance.

In the meantime, I will continue to keep Paula’s family and friends in my prayers. I will do my best to keep her memory alive for her children, who only caught a glimpse of the extraordinary person their mother was.

And I will continue to work through my own grief until I get to the other side of it—acceptance and even joy at having known Paula as one of my dearest life-long friends.