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The Lady of Shalott

I saw her in – what was it, late July? early August? She was fine.

It bothers me that I can’t remember exactly when it was. 

That day, my dear friend Kimberly – “the other Kimberly,” as friends would say – did what she always did. She called me on her way home and said, “Traffic is terrible. I’m right by your house. Have you eaten yet?” Kimberly couldn’t plan to save her life. I asked many times when she had a free evening or weekend, but the whole scheduling thing never worked for her. She just called out of the blue and if I had the evening free, we’d go get dinner somewhere. That day, she told me all about the apartment she had just secured. She’d been staying with her parents since getting out of a bad relationship, but now it was time to move on. Kimberly and her dogs would be moving into a place less than five miles from my condo. 

Two months later, I found myself in need of sympathy and texted her, “I miss you! Any free time coming up?” But the encouraging words with multiple emojis and exclamation points that I expected didn’t arrive. Instead, I got a message from her mother that Kimberly had seen my text but was on her way to the hospital and couldn’t answer. Call me, her mom said. And that phone call was my gateway into hell.

My friend had cancer. Stage 4. She was going into hospice care.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the details. Suffice to say it started out awful and got steadily worse. She passed away ten days after that phone call and now I have to live without her. I’m on Day 14 of not wearing eye makeup, and I don’t see my streak ending anytime soon. The constant crying makes it kind of pointless.

Kimberly and Kimberly, a few years back. We took selfies before it was cool.

Kimberly came into my life when I moved down to Southern California at the age of 15. She was my first real friend at the new high school. She was in one of my classes and found out I didn’t have anyone to eat lunch with. “Come eat with us!” she said. She ate regularly with a few other people, and I don’t think they shared her enthusiasm for my company, but she and I shared meals for the next thirty-five years. People thought it was hilarious that we had the same name. We both preferred Kimberly, but that didn’t stop people from referring to us as Kim 1 & Kim 2, or Kim squared, or the Kims.

She found out fairly quickly that I liked to write. She wasn’t a writer, but she made the best audience a writer could hope for. She loved listening to me read my stuff out loud and would laugh at anything close to a joke. She rooted for the characters and forced me to make them real. “Dassa wouldn’t take off eye makeup with a tissue and soap bubbles. Dassa uses makeup all the time. If she’d run out of eye makeup remover, she’d use a Q-tip and moisturizer.” (Kimberly was right. In a pinch, it works pretty well.)

Of course, her influence wasn’t limited to my writing. She loved to shop and helped me pick out clothes that were just a little outside my comfort zone. (She did this by suggesting things that were several time zones outside my comfort zone. Then we’d negotiate until we found something I could live with.) She nagged me to drink less soda and eat more brown rice and take some herbal supplement that she’d just discovered online. “You’re a melancholic. The cowslip and blessed thistle in this will balance out your humors.” 

I didn’t always love these suggestions, of course. I got tired of hearing what I should do, sometimes. She was one of those friends who is like a sister, and like most sisters, we argued. As her other close friend Tischia pointed out, she used the phrase, “You should” an awful lot – as in, “You should read this book!” or “You should cut out refined sugar!” or “You should take black cohosh!” I didn’t always appreciate this loving advice, considering how hard I was biting my tongue so that I wouldn’t tell her I thought she should save more money, drive more carefully and maybe go to a doctor now and again in addition to looking up herbs on websites. She talked a lot in general, whether doling out advice or just commenting on life, and she had a tendency to blurt out responses before I had stopped talking. On more than one occasion I actually said, “Can I finish my sentence, please?”

My house is so quiet now and I hate it. 

When I needed encouragement, I went to her because she had it in spades. She always believed the next amazing thing lay just around the corner, especially for me. “You just have to keep putting your writing out there. Someone will realize how good it is. Or publish it yourself! You can sell it and keep the profits!” If I liked someone and he didn’t like me back, she’d tell me that I could do better. When a guy I was seeing broke it off, everyone else said he was a jerk, but Kimberly said, “He must be in a really bad emotional place or he wouldn’t have left. I mean, he has to miss you. How could he not? You’re so much fun!”

Most people don’t tell me I’m fun. I hear nice, or good, or smart, occasionally witty, but only she thought I was fun. It makes sense. Kimberly knew all my secrets – all the best things I’d done, all the worst things, the men who left me behind, the men that I ran away from. I didn’t have anything to hide from her. She’d lived it with me. She knew. And she still loved me. I could be silly with her. There was no point in putting on a mask that she could usually see through anyway. 

More lay behind her comment that someone “has to miss you,” though, than just a salve to me. Kimberly knew more than most how broken people are. She saw people through a different lens than I did. The more irritable and hard to deal with someone was, the more compassion she had for them. She knew that pain lay behind those rough edges. It was part of why she went into massage therapy, why she tried to talk people into taking herbs, why she always had a new book or meditation practice to try. Life had dealt her some tough blows. She understood emotional scar tissue, and she wanted to help people heal.

I wonder if she knew how many times she helped me to heal. Not with massages or herbs or books. Just by sitting on the floor with me, her arm around me while I cried. She was one of the few people in my life that I was willing to cry in front of. Kind of funny that her leaving this world has made me cry in front of many people. It’s not that I’ve stopped being proud or private – the pain is just too much to contain.

After I found out about the diagnosis, I spent as much time with her as I could. “I’m a different person because of you,” I told her. I think she heard me. I read her chapters out of the book I’m working on. I kept hoping maybe she’d laugh or at least smile, but by then it took all her energy to deal with her own body. At last, I thought of Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott.” It was one of her favorites, something she read in its entirety after the novel Anne of Green Gables introduced her to snippets of it. I pulled out my phone – see, cell phones aren’t completely evil – and read it to her.

Lancelot mused a little space; 
He said, “She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”

She did have a lovely face, though she never believed it. I hope wherever she is now, she feels completely beautiful.

My world feels small and lonely right now. I have some other really wonderful friends. More than my fair share, really, and they’re taking good care of me. Intellectually, I know I won’t always feel so lost. But right now, my heart is having a hard time imagining a better future. 

Grief is a timeless emotion, but it does have some modern quirks, like the memorial Facebook post. When I put up a (very) old picture of the two of us, many of our old high school friends responded. “She was so sweet! She was so kind!” She was. I don’t know if she realized how many people thought so.

As I type, my cat has reached out a paw and placed it gently on my hand. No claws rip into my skin. She isn’t reaching past me to the laptop keyboard. She just has a paw on top of my knuckles. I think Kimberly is whispering to her, “Help her, Zoe. She needs you.” Even from her place in the next world, she is still making my life a better place.

I love you, my dear Kimberly of Shalott. You will be in every book that I write, in every step I take outside my comfort zone, in every compassionate thought I spare for the difficult among us. Thank you for being you, and for making me a better me.

Kimberly misses Kimberly. And no, that sentence isn’t weird at all.

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