It was my spunky friend, Audrey, on the phone.
“I have a craving,” she blurted out.
“But I’m not pregnant,” she said, giggling.
She always saw the lighter side of things.
“Celery. I have to have celery,” said Audrey, who was in her mid-80s. “I miss the crunch of it. I have to have some and I’m all out. Can you go to the store and get some for me? Please? Do you mind?”
In no time, she was holding a fresh stalk of celery in her hand — we lived on the same block and I dashed out for her quickly. And after that, she and I wound up talking for about 30 minutes that Saturday morning.
That’s how it was with her. She had so much to say and was so much fun to be around.
We could’ve talked longer, too, but we both had things to do.
My dear friend Audrey Jones (not her real name) was no longer driving at that point. The oxygen tank she was hooked up to didn’t allow it — but she had people to call, places to think about. Even while fighting lung cancer, she was always in touch with her sons, her grandchildren, her many friends and acquaintances.
She loved people. Long Island-born, she enjoyed going on cruises all over the world when she was well. She always saw the latest movies. Went out to lunch and dinner with friends and family on a regular basis. Traveled into Manhattan by train or by car for shows, museums, films, talks.
And on our little block, she knew all the happenings and kept an eye out for everyone.
If she hadn’t seen a neighbor in awhile, she’d ask about that person: Is she OK? Is she traveling? Is his family all right? Did he or she take a new job? What’s going on there?
Funny, bright, tickled by the oddest things and for most of her life full of vim and vigor, she was a complete joy. She was the friend I never expected.
More than three decades separated us. That didn’t matter. I adored her. We often picked up the phone at night to chat about almost anything.
But I couldn’t call her when “Jeopardy” was on. She couldn’t miss “Jeopardy.” That was her time.
Appearances deceive. Young families who move into new homes aren’t thinking of the widows or widowers who might live alone near them. Life is busy, children need caring for, jobs need doing, and homes need time and care and (endless) repairs, it seems.
But that elderly person living alone — the one you might never see, the one you might have never known existed — could be your next best friend.
“Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (Psalms 71:9).
This amazing woman and I became friendly just as my first son was about to be born, and then, quickly after that, my second. “Your belly was out to here when I first met you!” she often declared.
She walked her dog, Pepper, a schnauzer, past our house all the time, and we would talk. She bought gifts for the babies and we bought gifts for Pepper. Even after her husband passed away, she was out and about on a regular basis, often dropping by with treats for the kids — and all through our boys’ growing-up years, she asked about them.
She saw them play. She watched them grow. She asked about their progress in school, year after year. And when they went off to college, she asked me every time we talked, “How are they? What’s new? Do they like school? When are they coming home again? And how are you with all of this?”
She never said, “I understand.” But I knew she did. She’d been through it all herself.
When people on the block were sick, she called, brought food, went to visit.
She made a point of attending every neighborhood get-together. She never missed any. Once the new people on the block saw how genuinely caring she was, they invited her to more and more events — their kids’ plays, dance recitals, games. Off she went. When people on the block were sick, she called, brought food, and went to visit.
It wasn’t until the very end that she truly needed other people — not that she liked being needy. She was as self-sufficient and independent as they come. But I was determined not to let her down.
Last visit. Near the end, we were in her hospice room, and I was stroking her arm.
“No more,” she said. “That shot hurt.”
A nurse had given her medication for nausea and she was not happy. “I didn’t know she was going to give me a shot. I didn’t like that,” she said.
She was nothing if not outspoken. “No more of that. No more.”
My heart broke for her. I knew what she meant and wished I could do more.
She was in an excellent hospice facility. Her sons had worked tirelessly to get her here; I knew she was getting great care.
“It’s done,” I told her. “It’s over. Does it still hurt?”
She said yes, so I rubbed her shoulder gently.
After a few minutes, I told her, “I brought you some apple cider donuts from the farmers market. And some fresh cherries.”
“Is that OK?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, nodding her head. “I’ll be having all of that later.”
Then the phone rang. It was another friend of hers, calling to see how she felt.
She chatted for a while, and soon some of her family arrived.
“You are a very popular lady,” I said.
She flashed a proud smile. She knew. “And after this, I’ll be ready for a nap,” she said in her spunky style.
Look up at that quiet house or apartment near you — or two of them, or three. Maybe it seems like little or nothing is going on inside that home. Maybe people are retired, or sick, or traveling — or happy being alone. Either way, chances are they have a lot to offer and incredible stories to tell — and might be waiting for an invitation.
In my case, I know that if I had stuck to a finite circle of friends, I never would have known this woman’s spunk, humor or vitality. Sometimes a little thought, a little care, is all a neighbor needs from us. A glance, a gift, a gesture — no matter how busy we get, I know God is wishing and hoping we all reach out to one another when we can. That we think of other people, even if they are strangers. That we take a stab at it. That we try for a connection.
I’m forever grateful this person was in my life for the past 21 years — and always will be.
Shortly after that visit to her at the hospice, I found out she had passed. The sobs came fast. I hugged her sons and am forever grateful they stopped over to tell me personally — and hadn’t left it to an email, a text or a phone call to tell me. (Like mother, like sons?)
I still think of Audrey. How can I not? The best friends in your life leave a mark. And when I look today at the house where she used to live — and where a nice new family is starting their life together — I think, I wish you knew the lady who used to live here. And she would’ve liked you, too.
This article has been updated.