82: Owed to Joy

82: Owed to Joy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just Us Girls

Owed to Joy

Humor does not diminish the pain — it makes the space around it get bigger.

~Allen Klein

I slid the argyle sock over Mary’s delicate toes and worked it over her heel. Her husband poked his head into the bedroom. “Thanks for doing that. I can finish dressing her just as soon as I put away breakfast.”

Mary rolled her eyes. “That man! He simply can’t keep his hands off me.”

“With a looker like you, who can blame me?” He pursed his lips into a low wolf whistle, winked, and tossed the kitchen towel over his shoulder.

I grinned into my lap as I knelt at Mary’s feet and started on the other sock. That was simply another in an ever-growing list of things that I admired about my friend. Her sense of humor. Her determination to always choose joy.

Rheumatoid arthritis had struck Mary nine years into her marriage. Over time, the dreadful disease ravaged her body until she now relied on others for nearly everything. Dressing. Bathing. Meals. Yet she maintained a positive outlook, full of love and laughter and life.

I’d once accused my quick-witted friend of having a prepared arsenal of one-liners. “What do you do, Mary, stay awake at night to think up these quirky quips?”

“You know,” she admitted, “I’m awake anyway.” She avoided talking about the pain that caused her restless nights. “And I decided years ago that no one wanted to be around a person who complained all the time.”

“Complain? You? Why I’ve never heard you complain at all!”

Mary looked out the window. “Let’s hope you never do.”

When it came to the complaint department, we both knew she qualified for more than her share. Twenty-four surgeries in forty-five years of marriage. And the last hip replacement came at a high price: a permanently oozing infection that added a new element to her daily routine.

Mary and I had met over two decades earlier, me a new mother, her with a brood of teenagers and a married daughter. We’d quickly found common ground — church, writing, hobbies — and forged an easy friendship. Already using crutches, Mary knew what was coming; even so, I watched as she opted to wring all the pleasure she could out of life — and she swept her friends along with her.

For me, personally, she filled whatever role was most pressing at the moment: friend, confidante, sister, mother. She sanded my life’s rough edges and I loved her for it.

No wonder I was upset when she and her husband decided to move to another state, where their oldest daughter would oversee their health during their declining years.

“You will call, won’t you?” Mary’s frail hand found mine. “And come west to visit us? Utah or bust!” Her smile was watery and weak.

I could only nod.

Thank goodness for phone calls. They were our lifeline as her health declined further. Even when she could no longer move and her daughter had to hold the phone to Mary’s ear.

“You’ll be glad to know I’ve decided to face death with humor,” she immediately quipped. “Then it’s less of a grave matter.”

I groaned into the phone. “And hello to you, too. How are you today?”

“I’m skinny, weak, as helpless as a baby — and not nearly as cute,” Mary admitted.

“Are you looking for excuses?” I tossed back at her. I swear I could hear her grin.

“No.” Her tone sobered. “But I am looking for wings.”

“Wings?” I blinked in confusion, still waiting for a comic comeback.

“Wings,” she half-whispered. After a short pause, her humor returned. “After all these years, I figure I’ve probably forgotten how to walk. And, anyway, I’d rather fly. So I’m thinking God better have a spare pair of wings waiting for me.”

Mary died one week later.

When you lose someone you love with all your heart — even when you know it’s time — it is still possible to feel selfish in your own need. Your private loss. Your penetrating pain. The day passed in a fog as I tried to process life without Mary. I remembered that last phone call with regret. Did I tell her I loved her? My thoughts spiraled. Why hadn’t I made an effort to visit last month? Did she know how much she meant to me? Why hadn’t I told her goodbye? Had I ever really thanked her for her counsel, her friendship, her grace, her example? Her very presence? What would I do without her?

Exhausted with grief, I tumbled into bed. But even in the dark of night, I couldn’t put my heart and mind at ease. I lay on my back, staring at the moon shadows on the ceiling. The tears dammed up in me wouldn’t wait anymore.

“I miss you already,” I whispered. “I love you so much.”

And that’s when I felt it: a quiver. No, no. A kind of tickle. A ticklish flutter somewhere in my chest. Light. Airy. Ethereal. Like a silent, gossamer giggle or like… like…

Wings!

“Oh, Mary,” I breathed. “You did it. You found your wings!”

At that very moment I knew that — like Mary — I, too, could choose joy. That’s what I would do with her — and without her. I would choose joy.

What a legacy!

~Carol McAdoo Rehme

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