A week ago from Sunday, my friend Charlene died of pancreatic cancer.
That’s a hard sentence to write.
It’s even harder when I think of hanging out with Charlene this summer. A retired librarian, she worked at the campground we were staying at while we rented our house. Charlene made my introverted self feel safe and happy even when surrounded by camping extroverts. Whenever I saw her, I would smile. Charlene was like that. She calmed me.
One day we whispered over the counter in the campground office about my new neighbor’s shenanigans of the porn-rated kind, which weren’t a big deal except the noise. I wasn’t super excited about having to explain to the ten-year-old what the noises coming from the next tent over were about.
“They’re gone tomorrow,” Charlene assured me. “I promise. You can make it one more day, right?”
One more day.
“Whenever I’m having a hard time,” she added, “I tell myself, ‘Look at this beautiful sunrise. Look at this person I get to talk to. I’m lucky. I can do anything for one more day.”
When Charlene told me about her diagnosis the summer was over and we were all out of the campground and I wasn’t getting my almost daily dose of Charlene. All my internal organs seemed to drop six inches as I read her message. There was this hole inside of me that was sudden and huge and real.
It was October and she wrote,
Thanks for your faith in me but I’m afraid I’ve been handed one that may be too tough for me. I have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the tumor seems to be growing quickly. I think I’m not beating this one. That’s ok too. Trying to stay ahead of the pain is hard.
I told her that she was amazing and strong and brilliant and how much I love her and she wrote:
I sure don’t feel strong right now.
And I thought, “Crap. Neither do I.”
But I wrote, “You are soul strong.”
That was true.
No matter what happened, Charlene was always soul strong.
This past summer at the campground, Charlene wanted me to share a story I wrote about death and a camper’s wife, and how the campground is this beautiful place that inspires community no matter what, how it endures even as ownership, staff and campers change, about how the connections we create matter. I didn’t want to share the story too widely because I didn’t want to exploit the woman’s pain. Charlene respected that. Charlene respected a lot of things.
Charlene was special because she understood that the needs of individual people are greater than the needs of a company or of marketing. She was special because she believed in empathy, in story, and in the power of goodness.
She knew all about the power of goodness because my detail-oriented friend spent her life devoted to doing good.
Charlene was part of Rotary International and was constantly giving back to her community (local and international) by volunteering. Charlene was a champion of books and writers. She made me feel special even as I started to write. I believed in myself partly because Charlene believed in me. I started being a writer when Charlene was the director of the Ellsworth Public Library. She took this scared, socially anxious writer under her wing and held me close, celebrating every thing I did like she was the mom I never had.
My dog Sparty is a great judge of character and he would get so excited if Charlene drove by in the campground golf cart. He’d hop into the cart and try to ride around with her. He looked proud to know her.
I know how that felt.
This summer we talked about how neither of us have any depth perception because we don’t see out of our left eyes. We had no idea that we shared this issue and laughed about parking cars, driving, bumping into door frames, being miserable at any sport where things fly at you (tennis, softball, volleyball).
“This must be one of the zillion reasons I love you,” I said as we stood under a blue-blue sky beneath the boughs of pines as squirrels chittered away above us, talking too.
“That’s a reason why you love me?” She laughed. “I hope the other reasons are better.”
Charlene told me about a long-lost love that she reconnected with. She went completely out of her comfort zone to do that, to even tell me about it, but she looked so proud of being vulnerable and being brave.
“Life is too short to be afraid. I’m done being afraid,” she said.
“I am so in awe of you,” I told her.
“Ha!” She laughed. “I’m in awe of you.”
Campground lady friends picked her up. They all wore white slacks and nice shirts and were heading out on one of their weekly adventures, which was usually to shop or to go to a restaurant for lunch.
They looked so happy, so in-the-moment, so alive.
And I vowed that next summer at the campground that I would make a massive effort to visit with Charlene every single day she worked and I’d bring my dogs that she loved so much and learn as much as I could about this woman, this magnificent Rotarian, librarian, human and white-slacks-wearing friend.
She died five months later. It was right before Christmas. This summer never happened. But other summers have and I am so lucky. We are all so lucky.
She had travelled to Houston for special treatment, but her body was already breaking and instead she had emergency surgeries, increasing bills, and a lot of pain. Her local Rotary club had a fundraiser and I made a basket for an auction (for my Rotary club), but couldn’t go because I was teaching a three-hour class that day at the same time.
Even though Charlene was still in Texas, I felt like the worst friend because I couldn’t be at that fundraiser because I had responsibilities. Charlene, a Rotary secretary, a library director, understood about responsibilities though. She understood about so many things.
I am in awe of Charlene, but I am also in awe of you – all my friends who read this, who I get to connect to, and I am in awe of all you do and how hard you try and how much you hope and work for good. Let’s lift each other up and do this together, okay? In honor of Charlene and all we’ve lost.
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