She died a week ago yesterday.
We were not friends, but we were both “friends of Bill.” I will call her L.
On May 10th, I visited L. on the oncology ward at Cedars-Sinai. When I entered her room, the sight of her was heartbreaking. Gone were her wigs, any trace of makeup. The shell of her encompassed every horrible cliché of the Stage 4 cancer patient: thin, hunched, and bald. Plastic worms wiggled from her arms and nose into the machines that perennially beeped and blinked.
But these were not the first sounds to grace my ears. As I slipped into the group of sober women surrounding her bed, L. was talking.
“When I came into Alcoholics Anonymous, I signed up for the whole enchilada.” And, despite expressed anger and resentment toward her God,
“I still believe that God is.”
Tears sprung to my eyes. My heart cracked. I had been looking for L. my whole sobriety.
After we dropped hands and the final strains of “It works if you work it…” were absorbed into the stale air of her sealed hospital room, I broke from the circle and approached her bed.
“Can I hug you?”
Through her thick-framed glasses and oxygen mask that had been returned to her face, she blinked, then replied,
I leaned over and pressed my lips against the tufts of white hair sprouting from the top of her skull. Warm. She was so warm. Comforting. Why? Why did I feel so connected to this woman?
L. was encouraged to take a walk before she got too tired. Five of us, including her nurse, completed one lap of the floor. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the number of times I had been an inpatient at Cedars and found such joy in the simple act of hitting the tiled ground—if not running—shuffling. Pre-dialysis, post-kidney transplant, mid-Ecoli poisoning, or mid-barbiturate overdose, I would stubbornly drag my free-wheelin’ IV pole beside me as an unwilling child.
“C’mon! A walk’ll do you good!”
Later, my welling eyes would blink as they followed Kevin down the hall toward the elevator. Then blink again as he turned the corner and disappeared. The hallway lights would flicker off, and in the darkness my resentment would rise. Alongside the opiates or benzodiazepines or hypnotics that swam through my bloodstream, self-pity and justified anger would froth hot, churning, fighting against the drugs that were meant to bring me relief from pain.
But I would always succumb.
Back then, I knew no other way to deal with pain. I had no other medicine than drugs and anger. And I certainly had no God.
Pushing my sleeves up, I watched as L. folded herself into a mathematical shape—all angles—back into her hospital bed, and sighed. Hugging my burning arms to myself, I was very aware that today, I was the one who got to leave.
When she would leave Cedars-Sinai a week later, it would be in an ambulance home to hospice.
For much of 2016, inside the 12-Step rooms we attended, I would watch as she entered and took her seat. I knew the posture. Rigid. Resistant. Holding a body against itself, against pain that threatens to consume if you breathe the wrong way. What you really want to do is shuffle off your mortal coil and whip it across the room, watch it smack against the wall, then slowly, agonizingly slide to the floor, as you relish the satisfying thud of its death.
I listened when she shared. We chatted on the phone a few times, about how meditation gave her relief from resentment and pain. And I would agree to speak on her monthly panel. (Panels consist of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts like myself who go into hospitals and institutions—jails, treatment centers, sober livings—and share the message of how they got sober with The 12 Steps.)
Jan 31st was a beautiful Southern California evening. We met at the corner of San Pedro and 6th in a guarded parking lot. Four separate cars. Four sober women. Skid Row.
The air was rank with urine, body odor, and desperation. The sidewalks that bordered the parking lot were littered with dark and bloated bodies, tattered towels cluttered with everything, anything that might fetch these broken souls a dollar or a dime.
L. looked beautiful. She emerged from her car elegant and tall through her disappearing frame. Her bony shoulders sported a black bolero jacket, subtly embroidered with sparkles. They twinkled, catching the light of headlights that zipped through the crowded downtown intersection. I knew what she was doing—at least, I like to think I do—for I was doing the same thing. She was showing up in style, honoring the program that has freed us from the bondage to drink, to drug, to Self, even as the air around us was thick with it.
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.
“Yes.” she replied. Then coughed.
Up on the 9th floor, the four of us assembled in a small room, ready to share our stories with homeless and low-income women struggling to get sober. Assuredly, L. laid out our 12-Step literature. She coughed again. The three of us would each speak for 15 minutes.
“You’re not going to speak?” I asked.
"No.” L. replied. But, oh, I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to hearing more of her story—her “drunkalogue” as we call our drinking histories. Her cough continued. The force of it scratched my throat.
“Do you want one of these?” It was a generic Rite Aid Eucalyptus-flavored cough drop.
“Yes. My mouth sores from the chemo are really painful.”
My heart squeezed. I turned to the group of eight women and shared my story, ever aware that although it hurt L. to even speak, she had still shown up.
Post-meeting, the four of us stood in the parking lot, saying our goodbyes. The night air soothed my skin, warm, rife with hope. None of us will ever know if those women got sober, but it changed us. It always does: One alcoholic talking to another. Different races, transgender, homeless. It doesn’t matter. This disease transcends every possible boundary society can construct. As does recovery.
“I really related to your story…”
That night, we all spoke the language of the heart. Even L. who had barely said a word.
I would purchase a bag of those Rite Aid cough drops and leave it inside my car for the next time I saw her, but they would melt inside the coffin all California cars become in the light of day. L. would begin chemo again, and I never gave her its replacement.
On Tuesday May 30th, I would visit L. at her home for the third and last time.
My heart was pounding as I left two bags of groceries for her family in the kitchen. The apartment was still. No music. No television. Just her brother tap-tap tapping away on his laptop. Her mother welcomed me inside, as L.’s beloved dog circled around me suspiciously. No sister. No sponsors. No sober women. Just L. asleep on a hospital bed, her pale body vanishing against the white sheet. I scanned her face, wrinkle-less, soft, her skin looked so soft, her lips drawn into a thin line of peace. Oxygen tubes tucked gently around her ears. I stroked her arm. Her eyes flickered open.
“I want to thank you. You changed my sobriety.”
It took a few seconds, to make her lips come together, bend and form the words,
“I’m glad.” Her lips struggled again.
“You don’t have to talk.”
“Okay,” she smiled.
She closed her lips. I would go home. L. would die 4 days later.
In the end, we did not fulfill the traditional definition of friends, but we share this:
We love our dogs as children. We are both swimmers. We love makeup. She wanted to be Kevyn Aucoin. I worked as a makeup artist for a brief minute. We suffer with chronic illness and pain. We are sober women. And we have a God.
Even as we struggle with resentment and pain, we have a God.
I will miss her. I will see her in meetings. I will think of her every time I have one of those silly Eucalyptus cough drops I now carry in my purse all the time.
And it will remind me that none of us need do pain alone.