My friend Lori is dying. It’s no secret. Lori tells everyone that up front. She has ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was diagnosed two and a half years ago and is now heading into the final stretch. In the beginning, her doctor gave her a rough time estimate of three years. Her response was, “I don’t think so, Doc. I’m going on the twenty-year plan.” Lori still has the attitude, if not the time.
I debated long and hard about posting this piece, but in the end, I really didn’t have a choice. Lori’s church held a celebration of life for her several months ago so she could attend. I thought that was one of the coolest things ever. People say the nicest things about you at your funeral. Wouldn’t you actually like to be around to hear them? I figured there was no sense in waiting to write the eulogy that I would give if I were going to attend her funeral. I want her to know what I would say.
So, here’s your (living) eulogy, Smiley.
I’ve known Lori for forty-three years. I’m not sure how that’s possible since neither of us is that old. Physically, we may have accrued those years, but mentally, we’re the same kids we were when we first met. I’m surprised the geologists didn’t register the Earth trembling on that first day of ninth grade at Colin Kelly Junior High in September 1969. My family had just moved to Eugene, Oregon, and I didn’t know a soul. It all started with, “Hi. I’m Lori. You look lost.” I explained that I wasn’t lost, my classroom was. She pointed to the door and giggled. We were friends. At our thirty-year class reunion, Lori gave me a huge hug and told me that I hadn’t changed a bit. I still looked lost.
Lori was one of my father’s favorite people. She was so small that my dad began to tease her about looking like she was in seventh grade instead of ninth. I wasn’t all that big, but Lori was tiny, and my dad referred to her as Tinkerbell tiny. She had this giant smile, granny glasses, and blonde hair that was a bit shaggy. Okay, it was a lot shaggy! My dad was on her constantly about getting the hair out of her eyes. He frequently asked who had let the scrawny blonde sheepdog in followed by an order to my mother, “For God’s sake, don’t feed her, Shirl. We’ll never get rid of the damn thing once you feed her.” Lori would giggle, my dad would try to look stern, and my mother would actually smile. Deep down in that secret place in my heart, I always knew that I was really the stray, and I’d been the lucky one who’d been found by Lori.
She and I spent a lot of time hanging out on the front steps of our houses or in each other’s bedrooms scheming and dreaming. We didn’t want to go to college, and I don’t think either of us was really aware in those days of just how freaking brilliant we actually were. Contrary to what our fathers occasionally told us, we did have enough brains between the two of us to get in out of the rain. Think about it—we wound up in Texas and Arizona. Don’t think we’re so dumb now, do ya?
I always knew Lori was going to join the military. We didn’t talk a lot about that for some reason, but I remember telling her that I thought she’d be good at it. She wanted to go somewhere and learn something practical that she could use all of her life. I clearly remember trying to talk her into going into the Air Force instead of the Army, but Lori always knew what she wanted. She’d verbally hem and haw, but Lori was never the one who was lost.
The only real problem Lori had in travelling her path was that she was going to have to take the bus to travel it. She’d never get there if she was behind the wheel of a car. You see, Lori was the worst driver known to man. She’s nodding and saying, “It’s true!” right now. Lori couldn’t drive to save her life in high school. I’m pretty sure the driver’s ed teacher started smoking weed prior to getting into the car with Lori because drinking that much alcohol just wasn’t practical. I only rode with her a few times before I realized I didn’t have a death wish and refused her offers of a ride. She wrecked her parents’ car at least twice before she graduated from high school. We can’t even begin to count the number of near misses she had. The second accident wasn’t very far from her house, and her father showed up. Once Mr. Armstrong was sure she wasn’t hurt, the fireworks began. The politest way to say this is–Mr. Armstrong was not happy with his daughter. The poor officer almost had a heart attack when Mr. Armstrong snatched her license from his hand and tore it up, telling both the cop and Lori that she was never driving again. The cop actually felt sorry for her by the time Mr. Armstrong was finished with her. I didn’t. She was a known mailbox killer, and they needed to get her off the damn street! While Lori may have developed a few more driving skills later in life, paying attention to the speed limit sign was never one of those. “Lead Foot Lori” remains a legend to more than one law enforcement agency.
Lori and I have managed to stay in touch despite all the moves and name changes. One or the other of us dials the phone every so often, and the conversation just picks up where we left off. There’s the update about the family and work, and then, we just wander off on whatever subject takes our fancy. Two hours later, one of us realizes that we’re supposed to cook dinner or be somewhere and we disconnect. We aren’t much for goodbyes. It’s usually an “I love you,” followed by a “See ya later” or “Talk to you soon” type of ending.
I went to visit Lori recently and discovered that nothing between us has really changed. As soon as I got in the door, the giggling began. I’m not really much of a giggler, but I seem unable to control myself when I’m around her. The smiling doesn’t stop either – her smile is positively infectious. This trip was the first time we’d met each other’s husbands. Our guys aren’t big on being arm candy at reunions and such. We shouldn’t have been surprised that they hit it off and disappeared to the man cave to look at tools and machines. They were content to leave us girls to our memories and conversation.
We talked about the past, and we talked about the present and, as always, the future. I’ve watched Lori face her disease head on and with an openness that frightens many people. While some of the people we know have avoided facing the facts of ALS, Lori never has. She has researched and studied everything she could find, and then, she did what few others have been able to do. She skipped through the five steps of grief and moved on. She won’t try to bullshit you and tell you that she hasn’t had days when the knowledge of her coming death hasn’t gotten to her, but she refuses to let those times dictate her life. They are hours of discontent, not days or weeks.
Lori is one of the few ALS patients who have never been on anti-depressants. You see, Lori has done what we’d all like to do—she has made her peace with herself. She doesn’t want her family and friends to remember a woman who spent the last bit of her precious time mired in depression about the life she wouldn’t get to lead. She figures the people who do that are missing out on all the joy in the life they currently have, and Lori has never been a gal to miss out on a good party. That reminds me of a great story about this party at… ummm, never mind.
She recently posted on Facebook that she had her funeral planned and everything was ready. Tie-dyed tees and blue jeans are the uniform of the day for her and her family. She’s got her pair of knitted socks, and she’s even got some Rollos to bribe St. Peter with. I couldn’t help but laugh as I suddenly remembered a few less than stellar moments from our past. I gleefully pointed out that one little sleeve of Rollos wasn’t going to cut it. She needed to lay in a couple fifths of decent booze, a few cartons of Winstons and several pairs of high-quality silk stockings if she was going to bribe her way past those gates. She isn’t trying to slip a little white lie past someone. This is St. Pete! That ole boy knows more than Santa about who’s been naughty or nice. Once reminded of a few of our indiscretions, Lori became concerned that she might not have purchased a large enough casket to hold the necessary amount of bribe material. She’s worried about the size of the casket, but I’m worried about the poor pallbearers needing trusses when this is over with. With that much stuff, they may need to just be honorary pallbearers and walk beside the forklift we’re going to need to move this behemoth.
We have many things in common besides our love of Rollos though. Lori and I both believe that Heaven exists but that it’s not necessarily the standard image that some people have. It’s not like a permanent address, and as a singular location, it’s not that big. It’s a stopping place on the way to a bigger excursion. Sort of like a boot camp for eternity. You check in, do your paperwork, figure out the rules, and then, once you have an interview with whoever’s in charge of the duty roster, you move on to whatever it is you move on to. I know Lori is sort of hoping for a role as a guardian angel, but I think a lot will depend on that interview process and when it occurs. You see, Lori and I also believe that the Marine’s Hymn has it right and the streets of Heaven are indeed guarded by United States Marines. And where there are Marines, there’s bound to be a good party. I’ve always had bail money for her before, but I’m not sure how this one is going to work out. If the interview occurs after the party, she might need a mulligan. And if there’s tequila at the party… she may need more than one mulligan.
Lori and I have remained friends for many reasons. We don’t like a lot of weeping and wailing. We aren’t big on drama or drama queens. We’ve worked since we were old enough to babysit, and we’ve both taken whatever job we needed to in order to put clothes on our backs and food on our tables. We crept through the mud picking strawberries and sweated in the August heat picking green beans because we knew that if you wanted something, you had to work to get it. We are the type of women who hope and pray for better, prepare for the worst, but deal with the facts as they are presented. We remain close because we are the realists.
One of the strongest bonds we have is our respect for each other. We’ve always stood behind each other’s choices in life and honored the tough decisions we had to make. I respect her choice to not have a feeding tube or a ventilator. I respect her family for having the strength of character to honor her wishes. I respect her refusal to surrender who she is as a person to a disease that is robbing her of her body.
Her ability to face every day with a positive attitude and laughter along with her dignity, passion, and courage are incredible. Lori didn’t choose to become the example of the life lesson we all swear we’re going to follow, but she is. She has chosen to live every day to the fullest, and in the process, she inspires all of us to be better people than we are.
I know that if I were there with her, I would take on the role of her bouncer. I’d run off the whiners and criers, and I’d be the strength she needs me to be. I’d offer her my shoulder to lean on and my hand to hold if she needed it. Mostly, I’d just be the Barney to her Andy and give her one more reason to laugh at life. It’s what we’ve always done for each other. I’ll have to do it from afar, but she knows I’m with her in spirit. I’ll honor her wishes and respect her decision, and I’ll do my level best to make her smile every damn day.
But I won’t lie. I do not have Lori’s strength and composure when no one is looking. I want nothing more than to rage that this bright light is being taken from my life. I want to sit in the corner and pull the blanket over my head while I cry and berate God for what is happening to this wonderful person. And, more than anything else, I want to bask in the beauty of my friend’s smile for just a little longer.
But I know what Lori will say when she reads this last little bit. I can hear her in my head. “Bite me. Quit whining and get off your butt and write a book for me. I’m not gone yet. I still have time to read one more.”
That’s my girl. Still working on that twenty-year plan and looking towards the future. There’s just no quit in Tinkerbell.
So, I’m in it with you until the end, Smiley. I’ll type the words and tell you a story about two girls who dreamed together about all the wonderful places they would go and the wonderful things they would do. Two girls who even though separated by great distance never stopped being a part of each other’s lives. Two girls who even today just pick up where they left off. And two girls who have never, and will never, say the word goodbye.
I’ll do my part, Lori. But you have to do yours once you bribe your way past St. Pete and make it to that final interview. When you get asked for the list of people you would like to be a guardian angel for, you have to include me. Because without you sharing my path—I’ll not only look lost, I will be lost.
Talk to you soon, kiddo.