Harriet is my best friend. She and I met last year when we both volunteered at our children's school. We found soulmates in each other: two women with the same sick sense of humor, the same politics, the same basic beliefs. She and I often joke that we should be married to each other, we are THAT much on the same page.
She is 43, roughly six years younger than me, give or take a month. She is 6'2, tall for a woman. I am 5'1, small for a woman. She is thin as a rail. I'm not as fat as a pig but a few more bowls of stuffin' and I would be on my way. She has chin length red hair, a smile that is wide and generous and a laugh that is truly wicked. She reminds me of Carly Simon.
Harriet and her husband, Cash, have two children. Pete is 6 and Greta is 5. Harriet has a sister, Glyn. Glyn is 44. They are kind of close, kind of not. Glyn is conservative republican to Harriet's liberal democrat. They both hate each other's husbands. Both taught 4th grade until they had children. Glyn went back to teaching when her two children, now aged 7 and 10, started school full time.
Glyn is currently in a hospice, dying of stomach and liver cancer. Her tumors were found in July, after she spent a month thinking she had the stomach flu. She didn't even try chemo, it was too late for that.
Harriet has spent nearly every waking second with her sister for the last week. Glyn sleeps most of the time, wakes intermittently to ask why someone hasn't cleaned all the cobwebs out of the room (there are none) and sometimes she talks to her father who died before she was married.
I saw Cash at school this morning, dropping their kids off. I hadn't talked to Harriet in over a week, asked how she was. His face was sad.
"She's just...quiet. She is afraid to leave the hospice, afraid that Glyn will die alone. That worthless husband of hers is never there and her kids have been with their grandmother for over a month now. I'm sure she'd love to see you, Maria," he finished, checking his watch and then running for the car.
So I called her.
We talked about Glyn for awhile. I found out that she and Cash are preparing to adopt Glyn's kids after she dies. Glyn's husband said he couldn't deal with single fatherhood.
"Fucking asshole," she muttered. "Guess what he said when he found out that Glyn's life insurance policy was 200 thousand bucks? He said that he would finally be able to get that cherry red monster truck that he's always wanted. He has been NO help at ALL, he doesn't even come to the hospice very much and he hasn't seen his kids in weeks. He says that he can't do the Dad thing alone Like he EVER did?"
I agreed that he was absolutely an asshole.
I asked her if I could come see her, if she thought she wanted company. She very quickly said yes. And um...could I do her a favor?
Anything, I told her. Anything.
"Could you bring me one of your sweaters?"
I thought she was kidding or misspoke or something. I asked her if she wanted me to go by her house and pick up a sweater. She said no. In a quiet, quavery voice she said, "I want one of yours. I know that sounds crazy. I just...want one of yours to wear. Do you understand?"
No, I thought.
"Yes," I said. "I understand. I'll find something...."
I went through my drawers and closet. What would fit her? I mean, what fits a 5'1 woman does not usually fit a 6'2 one...
I pulled out my longest, roomiest sweaters. I finally found the perfect one. It was a black cashmere one that hung past my hips and just might work. I called to ask her if the color black was going to freak her out. She said no, just....come.
I pulled up to the hospice with the sweater still in it's dry cleaner plastic. I found Glyn's room, peeked in. Harriet was swabbing out her sister's mouth with what looked like a popsicle stick with cotton in it.
"She can't swallow anymore," Harriet said.
We hugged. We sat down together, holding hands. Her thumb gently played over mine, her eyes so tired and ringed with black that they look bruised.
We talked about easy things. I told her that Liv's favorite Christmas present so far was the cigar box filled with all kinds of colored pencils that Harriet had given her.
"Kids always like colored pencils more than crayons when they get to be about 7 or 8," Harriet mused. "I knew she would get good use out of them. They were from my college days and just sitting around the house. Neither of my kids is artistic that way, they are math lab rats like their dad. I'm so glad she liked them..."
And Harriet had remembered to sharpen them each to a sharp point. Liv loved that the most.
I told Harriet that we had taken Liv to hear Obama and Clinton speeches in Iowa. We discussed the caucus. Harriet, a total Clinton supporter wondered what Liv thought.
I laughed. "You aren't interested in the adult opinions, just the eight year olds?"
"Liv sees things that others miss."
I smiled, loved her for knowing Liv so well and for saying something that I knew, but I didn't know if others did.
I told her that Liv thought that Hillary was smarter than Obama, but that Obama seemed friendlier.
"She said that Hillary comes off like a strict teacher while Obama seemed more like someone who would be really fun to have dinner with. She liked the young hipness of the Obama crowd, she fed off it really. Hillary had impeccably dressed aides who escorted us to seats. Obama had what looked to be a bunch of college kids all dancing to the music and looking like they just LOVED it that we had come. Liv commented that Hillary's eyes looked scared but she hid it well and that Obama was more relaxed, looked like he wanted us all to order a pizza and sit around and talk. But, she also said that if she was in trouble, like a bully at school was being mean to her, she would trust that Hillary could handle it better than Obama."
"See? Your little girl already has it figured out. Clinton is the smarter of the two, but she comes across as snotty. Obama is less seasoned, but more charismatic."
Yes, I agreed, she did have them figured out. We talked some more, mostly Harriet trying to get me to commit to Clinton. I believe she called me a "fence sitter" at one time....
I handed her the sweater. Harriet went into the bathroom and came out wearing it.
Holy shit. It worked. She looked gorgeous in it, far better than I ever did. It was not tight, but fit snugly, accenting her slenderness. The arms didn't quite reach her wrists and so she rolled them up a bit.
"You look beautiful," I told her.
"No," she said. "I will never be anywhere near as pretty as you...."
We both went silent. This is so not the way we talk to each other. We don't get all sweetie. Ever. We are more the casual insult type, the arm punching duo.
"It smells like you," she told me.
"It fucking better not smell like me!" I said. "I just got that back from the cleaners!"
"It does. And that is what I needed," she said simply.
Her eyes filled with tears and she plopped down next to me and cried on my shoulder until the hospice nurse came in to rub some lotion on Glyn's legs. Glyn hadn't moved or showed any sign of life, except for her steady breathing the whole time we had talked.
I went out while the nurse and Harriet rubbed lotion into Glyn's legs. I went into the hospice kitchen and made Harriet some cinnamon toast and poured her some orange juice. When I came back in, the nurse had left and Harriet was sitting in the chair looking vacantly out the window.
I handed her the plate. "Eat," I ordered her.
She ate. She took a long slurp of her juice and some spilled out on my sweater.
"Oh, great, klutzy bitch..." I said. "Way to go, dude."
She smiled. This was more like it.
"Well," she said, "I thought to myself, what would Maria do? And then, it came to me...that's right. That bitch can't eat without wearing her food, so I had to do it....Oh, and hey, hag. Just because I said you were pretty, don't get some lesbo idea about kissing me..."
I snorted. "You just keep dreaming your little dreams, Harriet..."
We were back on track, more comfortable now. We talked some more. Harriet talked about how weird it was going to be to raise Glyn's kids.
"Cash is a little freaked. I mean, he didn't even want to have two kids and I had to talk him into it and now we will have four. And you know how fat Glyn's kids are. I am not kidding. I need to start them both in some sort of sports. She and that asshole husband let them sit in front of the TV and eat caramel corn all the time."
I looked guiltily over at Glyn, who hadn't moved a muscle. Harriet sighed.
"I don't know if she can hear me or not. But, if she can, she knows I love her kids and will raise them right. And she knows that her husband is an asshole. I mean, good hell, he didn't even know how to run the dishwasher! I had to go over to their house and show him! And now he won't even man up and raise their own kids! He says it will be too hard without Glyn. I told him that I'm her fucking SISTER, for god sakes and this isn't easy for me either....but Jesus...you just have to step up, you know? He just turned the TV channel to some stupid wrestling thing. Useless. Useless..."
"Come here," I told her. "Let me brush your hair, it's all sticky uppy in the back."
I brushed and brushed until her hair gleamed over my hand like silky red ribbon. And then I gently kissed the top of her head. We looked at each other in the mirror over the dresser. And smiled.
I told her that I had to go. She walked me to the door. I asked her if she wanted me to pick up her kids at school today. She said no, that Cash was going to take off work early and pick them up and take them for an early dinner and then to see The Golden Compass.
We hugged, looking comical, I'm sure. She is more than a foot taller than me. But still. I felt her small bird bones sticking out of her back.
"You need to keep eating, Harriet," I said. "I know, I know, you want to be able to blow away in the wind...but you are needed here. You can't go."
"Neither can you," she said, not looking at me.
"I'm always here, bitch," I told her. "I'm like a bad date. I won't stop talking and I won't just say goodnight already."
"Bye, Maria..." she said.
"Bye, Harriet," I said and we waved as I walked out the door.
I pulled up my coat collar and practically ran to my car. Damn, it is fucking freezing out.
When I got to my car, I peered up for a second at Glyn's window. There was Harriet, standing at the window, giving me the bird and sticking her tongue out.
I shook my head and turned around and shook my ass hard, surprising a few people walking by.
I got into my car and drove away, knowing that Harriet had pulled the covers more snugly around her sister, probably put some vaseline on her lips and then quietly sat down in the chair next to her, waiting. Waiting to have to say goodbye.
Love you, bitch.