What I Learned about Myself from Delle Chatman
Five years ago today was election night. I’d talked to Delle’s brother Gregory earlier: “I’m writing my sister’s obituary,” he said quietly. I turned off my computer about 7:00, to watch the election results: just about the time that my friend, Delle, left us.
I was sorting through the research for my book when I came upon a folder simply marked Delle. Inside were a variety of things: the tribute DVD created by “30 Good Minutes”, the PBS program she appeared on; another of her play, The Answer; her obituary from the Chicago Tribune. Stuck inside, though, was a piece of paper I’d forgotten about for five years that brought more than one tear to my eyes.
I had the fortune - or misfortune - to walk into her hospital room after her doctor walked out, five years ago Labor Day weekend. I knew immediately that something was very wrong. Her doctor had told her the cancer was back again. She’d had recurrences over almost 4 years of fighting ovarian cancer. This felt different, very different.
One of my talents is making lists (though not necessarily keeping to them). I sat on her bed and we made lists: who to call, what she needed taken care of until she was released, details revolving around her daughter. She assigned me the duty of notifying her Yahoo groups of what was happening. But she controlled the message:
“Oh, my good friends -
All of a sudden, a crisis has arisen all because The Old Squatter has bushwhacked me again. Do the details really matter?
Please suffice it to say we hope a surgical procedure will make breathing easier. Won’t know for sure for a few days. There are risks from bleeding and infection.
All is in God’s hands.
All and everyone.
My brother Gregory is coming to stay with Ramona. They’ll need freezable meals. Maybe someone can organize that for them.
I feel your love and prayers.
I have to tell you, Delle was not a person to whom you were likely to say “no”. But I didn’t want to do this. I thought she should do it herself, and probably said so, but she disagreed. Maybe I just didn’t want to type the words, see them in print, because that would make them real and true.
I already knew from going through my Dad’s illness and death that I was, in the words of A.A. Milne “stronger than you think”. Now I had to stifle my tears and be strong again. It helped that I was mad as hell, more angry than sad that day. It helped me do what I needed to do.
But damn it, what I wanted to do was scream and cry and rage at God for doing this to her. I didn’t want to sit there calmly and compose lists of things that needed to be done for herself and her daughter.
Delle meant more to me than I meant to her. I always knew that, and that’s okay. Those who knew her knew they had to share her with many, many people: other moms, parishioners at St. Gertrude, actors and directors, writers, family, baristas, really anyone she met. No one “vaguely” remembers Delle: they will tell you that they have strong, clear, vibrant memories of her and miss her every day.
But the question I posed on this blog last week was “what did you learn about yourself when your friend died?” I’m afraid it will take a couple posts for me to answer that, at least in the context of my friendship with Delle.
I learned that I can be there for a friend who’s dying. I already knew how to visit people in the hospital, but I also learned how to really focus on normal stuff: meeting at Metropolis for green tea after dropping off our daughters at school; insisting that she buy more comfortable shoes for walking around Paris; taking a road trip to Milwaukee for the Call to Action conference; saving a seat at Prize Day so we had a clear view to take pictures of the girls.
No one wants to see “the look” from their friends: that painful expression that proves how scared they are. I’m sure I probably gave her that look the last time I saw her. I tried not to, but I’m pretty sure I failed. But I’m also pretty sure I succeeded most of the rest of the time (it helped to be in denial).
So, yeah, I proved to myself I can be a friend in the face of a devastating diagnosis. On Wednesday, I’ll tell you an even more important lesson I learned from Delle.
Grief, grieving styles, Delle Chatman, friendship