Alice chose to spend her last weeks in a hospice not far from her home. She responded to my knock on the door of her room with a hearty, “Come in, I don’t bite.” I sensed that this might be my last visit with Alice, as I’d soon be leaving for holidays.
No hospital gowns for Alice; she wore an ankle-length black and crimson nightgown, with a long, black cardigan, and her lips were glossy with balm. Her hair had thinned from the latest and final round of chemotherapy, and her skin emanated a pale glow that showed a bloodstream deprived of hemoglobin. Alice asked if we could walk outside for our visit, a last-ditch effort for independence, and for what would likely be one of her last puffs on a cigarette.
“Will you let me take your arm?” I asked.
“Alright, if it makes you feel better.”
I could feel the soft skin of her upper arm hang from its bone, without muscle to hold it in place. We ambled past mostly-closed doors, to the atrium, with its a cozy lounge for families to pass the time. I pushed open the heavy front door and felt the welcome waft of fresh air on my face. Alice wanted to show me the hospice garden, with its late summer asters and black-eyed Susans, in the wide perennial border around a square of grass. She hadn’t been well enough to tend her own garden that summer.
The September sunshine was low in the sky but warm enough for us to sit on a wooden bench tucked under a Japanese maple. Alice asked for updates about her retreat friends, and the staff team, and I gave her the news. She hadn’t lost interest in the people she cared about and I relaxed into what felt like a conversation we would continue to have, long after she was gone.
Eleven years had passed since we met when she pulled up into the parking lot of the retreat centre. I had noticed a whiff of cigarette smoke, as I lugged Alice’s large suitcase out of the trunk of her SUV, while she gathered up several smaller bags from the backseat. "No point quitting at this stage of my life," she said. "No fear of it causing cancer now." She laughed.
“You never know what you might need.” Alice glanced at the overstuffed luggage cart. “Never been to something like this before, not sure if it’s my thing.” Entrusting oneself to a group of strangers for a whole week takes courage, especially when feeling unwell. I have learned over many years though that the call to heal often takes precedence, over comfort.
Eleven years later, after six Callanish retreats, weekly meditation, art therapy, writing groups, and hundreds of volunteer hours, Alice would take her leave.
“Are you settled in yourself,” I asked. “Ready for the unknown?”
“You know Janie, I am ready to go. All my soul-searching has paid off. My unfinished business has been attended to....enough at least, for one life.” Alice reached for my hand and I felt my eyes fill up, her impending absence hovering at the edges of our conversation.
“I’ll miss you. I really will,” I said.
"I'll miss me too," she said.