Amsterdam, June 2013

Amsterdam, June 2013

My friend Miriam died today, on Christmas Day. She was 46. The cancer finally won.

I went to see her this summer, nearly certain that it would be the last time. This photo was taken near her apartment in the Jordaan. Wasn’t she beautiful? It’s hard to believe that the cancer devoured her. I am glad the last time I saw Miriam’s face, she was as lovely as she ever was.

You may recall that I wrote about an eerie event from this past summer, from that visit, involving Miriam and a white moth. It comforted me that she reacted so calmly when I told her it was about her. She really seemed to be at peace with the possibility that she wouldn’t make it. Early this month, the final chemotherapy intervention failed, and her doctors told her they couldn’t do anything other than make her comfortable and wait until the end. She fought hard, her sister Beatrice told me today. She wanted to live. Beatrice and I agreed that it was a mercy that Miriam is finally at rest, because she suffered so greatly at the end.

Just last night, at our parish’s vespers service, I prayed to the Virgin Mary, for whom Miriam was named, to be present with her during these final days, and to help her home. I had no idea that my sweet friend had only a few hours to live.

We have known each other, Miriam and I, since we were 15. We had written separately to a pen pal service, asking for a penfriend overseas. We were matched, and began writing to each other. A couple of years later, I went to meet her in person, and her family. They welcomed me as if I were one of their own — and continued doing so over the years. She came to the US to visit me and my family too, more than once. When I took my mom and dad to the Netherlands for their first-ever European trip, Miriam and her family were our hosts for much of the holiday. Lately, when I would update my folks on Miriam’s condition, my dad would get tears in his eyes, his heart breaking for her and her father Arthur (Miriam’s mother died from cancer a few years ago).

Even though we had drifted from each other over the last decade, Miriam’s was one of the most important friendships of my life. When we began our correspondence, I was a sad kid, lonely and bored and eager to see the world. I never did anything much on Friday and Saturday nights. But I did write to my friend Miriam, and tell her all about my life, my thoughts, my dreams. Though she had a much livelier life than I did, she was a terrific letter-writer, and kept them coming, usually enclosing photos and other fun things, especially mix tapes. Years later, we both surprised each other by admitting that to a certain extent, we lived vicariously through each other; we each imagined the other living a much more exciting life in their country than we were living in our own. For the first few years, ours was an epistolary adventure, though never a romantic one.

Still, there was a great deal of love. Miriam had a tender heart. Through her I made other friends who became dear to me, and who are now like family. We’ve gone to each other’s weddings. Our kids know each other. If I set down here how much, and in how many ways, my life has been enriched by the friendships that began with my correspondence with Miriam, I would be up half the night. So much love, so much to cherish across the generations, all because two curious teenagers halfway around the world from each other became correspondents by the luck of the pen-pal agency’s draw.

In 2004, when Miriam was first diagnosed with breast cancer, she withdrew from almost all of her friends, and even from family members, for a long period. It was a terrible shock to her. I stayed in close touch with her sister Beatrice, but didn’t hear from Miriam for years, even after she went into remission. When Julie and I saw Bea and her husband and kids in Paris in the fall of 2012, she revealed to us that Miriam’s cancer had returned. And this past spring, when Bea said the chemo was beginning to fail, I knew it was time to cash in my frequent flyer miles and go to Amsterdam to renew our friendship, and say goodbye.

Can I tell you how grateful I am tonight that I didn’t put it off? There was a part of me that wanted to wait, out of a superstitious hope that not making the goodbye trip would keep Miriam from dying. But I remembered how I had planned to have a bedside farewell with my cancer-ridden sister Ruthie, whose sudden death from an embolism caused by the tumor lodged against her superior vena cava robbed all of us of our opportunity to say goodbye. I couldn’t let that happen again, so off I went. Miriam was weak, and her face was thinner than I had ever seen it, but she still had the same old light in her eyes.

I am glad I got to see it before she died. And I am glad I got to tell her how much I loved her, and how much she meant to me, while she was able to hear it. After the doctors sent her home with a hospice nurse weeks ago, the drugs she was on for pain made it difficult to communicate clearly with her. Had I waited until there was no hope, there would have been no hope of saying a meaningful goodbye.

Let this be a lesson to you, reader: go see the one you love, the one who is so very sick, right now. This week, do it. Don’t put it off. Don’t. Nobody likes to think that they’re saying goodbye, but it’s better to face it now than to face the terrible regret later.

So, once again: goodbye, dear friend. You made my life so much better than it would have been had your name and address on Karel Mollen Straat Noord never arrived in my family’s mailbox over 30 years ago. It was the start of a beautiful friendship, one that my faith gives me hope has not ended just because your life on this earth has.