My Dear Friend Gay

Monday, January 08, 2018
My dear friend Gay, her husband David, and Adam and I raising a toast for my 41st birthday, January, 2018
I first experienced loss early in my twenties, when the feeling of invincibility was still running strong through my veins.  My friends and I felt we could do anything, that the sky was the limit, and that we would live forever.  Then Josh was killed in a fiery car crash, and our lives were forever changed.

Josh, Summer of 1995
Fast forward another decade and I lost my Dad to complications from pancreatic cancer.  Five years prior, one of my best friends, Tim, lost his father to the same disease.  We never got over those losses, starting with our beloved Josh.  We just moved on with a greater sense of the fleeting nature of life.  We said things like, "life is short, so let's make the most of it", all the while knowing that we could never make life as good as it had been when our loved ones were still living.

My Dad and I, 1998
This post is about a woman who has been like a mother to me, and her name is Gay.  I love Gay dearly, and she has been in my life for nearly twenty years.  Her mother's handmade Christmas ornaments hang on our tree each year, and one of her many paintings hangs on a wall in our house.  Gay has lived a rich life, and has always been curious with a wide array of hobbies and interests.  She has traveled the world, worked on the pipeline in Alaska when she was a young woman, and has a masters degree in social work.  She was a musician, gardener, painter, and a true free spirit. 

Gay, on our wedding day, January 4, 2016
A few years ago, Gay was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive and terminal lung disease.  As it turns out, one of her hobbies was the involvement with a local canary club.  She kept many of them, as well as an African parrot.  Unfortunately, over time, her lungs developed an allergic reaction to the avian proteins, and she ended up with only 1/3 of her lung capacity, which has continued to deteriorate over time.  This is also known as bird fancier's lung (BFL).  All of her birds had to go, but the disease hasn't gone anywhere--only worsened with time.

Raising a Toast on our Wedding day, January, 2016
If this was not enough, Gay is now in cognitive decline with dementia.  This evening I pushed back the tears as I helped her order dinner, reminding her countless times that she had already picked out green curry when she didn't remember ever looking at the menu in the first place.  I realized in one heartbreaking moment during conversation with her husband that she is no longer able to watch movies or TV shows, read books, or engage in our book club discussions, as her memory will no longer allow it. It was a relief when the waitress finally took her order, but then when the green curry was served, Gay did not remember ever ordering it.  She said with frustration, "This is not what I ordered."

Gay's Deck Party, Summer of 2010

After Gay left tonight, I couldn't hold the tears back anymore, as I was overwhelmed with the realization that parts of Gay are no longer with us.  I have not experienced the slow, progressive memory loss with a close friend or family member, though I observe first-hand the pain it causes my patients and their families.  It is harder than I could have imagined.

Gay with Samuel, Summer of 2005
It is painful to watch the slow unraveling of the memories of a life.  I remember the stories she has told me about her life, and I won't let those memories die.  I often tell the stories to my kids, and they have their own memories of times spent at her house, with her dogs, her garden . . . and always her laughter. 

Gay with Floradora, Summer of 2001 (Floradora is now 17 years old and still lives with Gay)
 As I prepare myself for the inevitable loss of Gay, I look for moments of lucidity.   She does better when she can tell me about something she remembers, as conversation is difficult when she cannot remember details of a topic brought up by another.  Her short-term memory is almost completely gone.  She remembers more from the long-term.  She still knows who we are, but even a dinner from two months ago are not moments she is able to retain.

Book-Club Christmas Party, 2017
I will always love Gay.  It feels so sad to miss her so much when she is still with us.  I miss her even when she is sitting right next to me.  I know our time with Gay is short, and shorter than I would have dreamed possible given how healthy and active she was even five years ago.  Even with her memory loss and lung disease, however, she still shines through every once in awhile.  Those are the moments I treasure the most, like this one: 

In Gay's classic style, with something as simple as a rum label, she elicits connection with Amelia.  She has always seen the extraordinary in the ordinary.  She is a true lover of garden spiders, for example, and taught me to love backyard birds.  There are moments where Gay is able to emerge from the fog, the Gay we have all grown to love dearly.  Then there are all the other moments, where she appears lost, confused, and simply cannot engage.  She shakes her head in those moments, looking down with sadness. 

Gay and David, on my 36th birthday 5 years ago, January, 2013, prior to her diagnosis
Loss is what makes life difficult, and I don't want to lose my dear friend.  I will continue to love Gay through the end of her days, standing right by her side.  Though we are slowly losing Gay, the wonderful memories we have shared will live on for eternity.  It will be those memories that give me strength in the years to come.   


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