Over a decade ago, I wrote this as a tribute to my dear friend. As we celebrate the Day of the Dead (which technically should be called Days of the Dead since it runs from October 31-November2) , I’d like to share it with you.
Her daughter Anita meets me in the lobby of an extended care facility that is subtly disguised as an upscale apartment building.
“This isn’t one of her best days,” Anita warns.
“It’s okay.” I’m prepared for anything.
We ride up the slow elevator to the third floor. The doors open to an elderly couple supported by aluminum walkers. They jockey for position, the woman elbowing the man to win entrance onto the elevator. Anita and I squeeze past them and hold the doors as they shuffle to get inside.
The apartment doors are actually hospital doors, the central lobby a nurses’ station. Mrs. Biklen’s door is open. She sits in a wheelchair in the center of the room, her back to the door, her shrunken body silhouetted by a large picture window.
I sit in a chair facing her and take her hand. Old age has been her bitter enemy, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. At nearly ninety-one, she’s more beautiful than ever. Gone is the apprehension that once plagued her eyes, and the excess weight she picked up after she quit smoking forty years ago. Her fine champagne hair wisps in silky curls about the delicate bones of her face.
She looks at me as if she’s just unwrapped the most cherished gift anyone has ever given her. Her smile lights up her face with a sweetness that breaks my heart.
From the windowsill, Anita pulls down a recent photo of me with my daughter. “This is the same Kate as in the picture.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Biklen says with an element of surprise, drawing out the word.
Anita leaves to search for refreshments.
Mrs. Biklen, her face serious, her voice barely above a whisper, asks, “When will I be one hundred?”
Still holding her hand, I lean close. “You’ll be ninety-one in a couple of weeks, so you have nine more years to go.”
“Oh.” Her brow furrows. She appears to struggle to grasp the concept of nine years, a complex mathematic formula that escapes her.
A smile slowly blossoms. “I’ve known you for a long time,” she says, her eyes expressing it as a question.
“Yes, you have.”
She looks delighted with my answer.
“Forty-five years.” The realization of such a large number brings tears to my eyes. “Since I was four years old.”
I try to believe she grasps the significance of what it means to have shared a forty-five-year history with someone who has touched me so deeply, so greatly influenced the path of my life. Throughout our long friendship, she taught me the meaning of graciousness and dignity, of kindness and hospitality. As a child, she opened her home to me, a treasured place where I could practice her teachings.
From the ages of three and four, my sister and I invaded the boundaries of the Biklen’s property and insisted that Mrs. Biklen become our friend. Once we entered grade school, we began making weekly appointments with her. In a shirt-waist dress and high heels, she led us into the beauty of her home where we often sat in her kitchen, practiced good manners, and told only those stories that shed us in a good light.
Mrs. Biklen served iced Cokes in leaded crystal glasses and store-bought cookies on china plates. She treated us with respect, listening to our stories and offering gentle advice. No one had ever paid such attention to me.
My sister and I would mark each pending visit on our mental calendars, and remind each other not to make any after school plans that day. After changing into play clothes, a careful surveillance of the neighborhood identified the positions of any kids, and influenced the strategy for leaving our house and going to Mrs. Biklen’s. Once inside the walled tree-lined Biklen compound, we safely avoided detection from our neighborhood peers—the poor saps who weren’t allowed entrance—and casually walked up the long brick driveway. To this day, I don’t know why we were allowed access when other children were not.
“Do you have the pictures?” Mrs. Biklen asks.
Years ago, I’d carelessly let my sister get away with the photo album filled with childhood memories as the surrogate grandchildren of the Biklens. “Yes, I have the pictures,” I lie.
“All of them?”
It occurs to me she’s speaking of memories. “Yes, all of them.”
I look at her feet, one of which is covered by a suede fur-lined slipper, something she would have never worn in her younger years. The other foot is bare, red and badly swollen. These are the same feet, perpetually clad in high heels, that once whisked her through her elegant home. They now rest immobile on the footrests of her wheelchair.
Anita returns with two glasses of ice water. We sit, facing my dear friend, and share the recent events in our lives. I can’t take my eyes off Mrs. Biklen, who appears to lazily drift down a river in the warm sunshine. Occasionally, she opens her eyes, her smile telling us she’s grateful we’re still here.
An hour into the visit, her granddaughter Jenny arrives with her two small boys. The room shifts from the slow, gentle rhythm of the end of life to the whirlwind of its beginnings as the boys capture the room with their high energy.
The time comes when I have to catch a ferry back to Seattle, to my vacation with my family. I reach out, take both of Mrs. Biklen’s hands, and kiss her goodbye. Unlike a few years ago when she clung to me and cried as we parted, she is gracious and sweet in her farewell. I know this is the last time I will ever see her. I struggle against a desire to cling, but cannot keep the tears at bay.
I’m grateful for the hour-long ferry ride. It allows me to be still, to think of the wonder that is Mrs. Biklen. For the first time in her long life, she appears to have finally accepted the inevitability of all things. It is easier this way. She doesn’t alternate between complaining about her circumstances and dissolving into tears. It’s also harder this way. She’s pared down to the essence of love, and I am overpowered by its presence. It swirls around me and throws me off balance before settling in my heart, leaving me in a new and better place.
A few days after my visit, Mrs. Biklen stopped eating, and after six weeks succumbed to the final inevitability of life. I find comfort in knowing that she lives on in every gesture of kindness I show, every spot of beauty I create, and every expression of gratitude I make to loved ones for being the most cherished gifts I will ever receive.