by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
March 5, 2002
WHILE ALL THE BIRDS ARE SINGING IN THE SKY*
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- There are friends, and then there are other friends. How quickly we define someone, saying she's my friend, when, really, she's just another mother like myself dropping her children off at school at the same time.
Karen was one of those warm acquaintances I always loved meeting and I remember her now - 30 years later - as the one who prepared me by saying, "There will come a day, Connie, there will come a day." She meant that day when the last child starts school, and her mother would be free. No more tying shoes, wiping noses.
I always take one day at a time; I didn't think I'd be facing an emotional upheaval when I waved goodbye to the seventh child running for the bus that September morning. I closed the door, turned to face the living room as I had every day of the school year for the past 12.
Something was different. The television still blared with morning nonsense, Cheerios were still scattered on the table and floor, our big dog making her way from one little "O" of oats to the other, yet an eerie feeling came over me. Just as I was about to cry, I laughed out loud and called Karen.
"Today's the day, Karen. I'm free."
"I told you the day would come, so enjoy it," she replied.
That taught me to look for other milestones. They would graduate one day; they would fall in love; they would earn degrees, get married and have babies. I learned to see things coming through a friend who was really just a warm, loving, passing acquaintance.
The other friends are the ones whose heart strings entwine with ourown to make the music of life a more beautiful song. Such a friend was Erika, who died Saturday.
Visiting nurses and hospice volunteers attended her at the home of her youngest son and his family. They monitored her heart rate and breathing, saying it would be two or three days. She would reach up to be held by her daughter, her son or daughter-in-law. She would say, "I love you," and hug them tightly before resting again. She wasin no pain at all - surprising for pancreatic cancer.
Erika and I met as we signed up for conversational Russian, a course offered at our high school in Pittsburgh.
After a class or two, we started stopping for coffee at the local Hot Shoppe to talk about the class or news ofthe day. One night, she was obviously distressed. I prompted her to tell me what was wrong. She showed me a receipt for four tires bought on a credit card and signed with her name.
"I didn't buy any tires," she said.
That signature spelled the handwriting on the wall. Her husband, devoted for twenty-something years, obviously was having a mid-life crisis - so prevalent in the '70s - and falling for the charms of a divorced client.
A further giveaway was his sudden passion for dressing in crisp, striped shirts, and sporting sideburns. Oh, yes. Male menopause underlies Timothy Leary's philosophy: "If it feels good, do it."
It was a difficult time for this lovely, educated, intellectual woman who devoted her life to her husband and children. She was good at everything, and could outshine even Martha Stewart with her art, crafts, cooking and gardening abilities.
We would talk long into the evening about how these things happen. One minute you're a wife and mother, the next you're avoiding your friends at the Book Club or Women's Guild or church.
When the course ended, we continued to talk over coffee at her kitchen table. It was good. We were simpatico.
A month ago, I heard for the first time that she was terminally ill. I flew to Harrisburg, Pa., to visit with her and found her as intellectually tuned in as ever. We talked as we always had.
I would help her to stand to hold her cane so she could proudly make her way to the bathroom unassisted. She held me tightly then and said, "I love you, Connie."
Her eyes were not dim or dying, they were bright and telling, saying things we don't say often enough to these friends who are closer than kin.
"We've had some good times, Erika," I smiled, and added, "I love you, too."
"We've had some bad times, too," she said, eyes flashing now.
Ah, yes, the bad times. For me, it was the death of my son, a 14-year-old killed on a bicycle one bright summer day. Just when one would think a husband and wife would bond further sharing the grief, I discovered John grieved internally and deeply, as was his nature. I needed to recount every moment of the boy's life talking out loud so the world would hear of the wonder just lost.
Erika listened, dried my tears, helped me to grow through the experience and was always available to me. For her, the bad times were, ina way, even worse than mine. Two of her children fell prey to the persuasive David Moses Berg, a self-proclaimed prophet, and his cult, the Children of God. This was another social phenomenon of the '70, and these college students were just "gone."
"You don't understand, it's not what you think," they said when ascant message got through.
What we thought was what we heard David Moses Berg say: "I am God's man for this hour, and I am the prophet of God for you," he said."You had better believe it or you are in serious spiritual trouble.
"We have a sexy God and a sexy religion with a very sexy leader with an extremely sexy young following," Berg wrote.
This caused Erika's sleepless nights. Mine were less distressing. When I thought of my son, I knew where he was and just prayed I wouldn'tforget him in time. When Erika wrestled with sleeplessness, she didn't know where her children were, whom they were with, or whether they were safe.The children were out of her grasp, a grasp that once held them snugly as she uplifted their lives and spirits. How could they slip through it?
In time, her daughter saw the light and walked away from the cult. I don't believe they ever discussed it. Her son is still with them; it's now called The Family, and he and his own family are in some distant part of the world.
Erika's youngest son, her saving grace, has been her friend and confidante all his life, and it was to him she turned when the end was coming. All the children were with her Saturday, and the one so far away was reached in time to speak through a telephone held to her ear. They read a letter to her in which her husband, long out of her heart, but not totally out of their lives, wrote of having regrets and remorse. He wished her well.
I wish she were here because I know we'd talk all night over that line! "Would you believe it?" she'd say.
When goodbyes were said and she breathed no more, her children left the room. They wanted to remember her graceful countenance and not a body bag. Once on the upstairs back porch, they saw rain. There was a droughtand now rain started to fall softly.
Suddenly, a chirping, twittering, flock of birds a few hundred strong escaped the trees, darkened the skies in their number, and flew in scattering frenzy, not formation, to go wherever it is birds go.
Were they startled by the rain? Or was it the end of their vigil and now time to escort one beautiful soul upward?
Life will be different for me now with my dear friend no longer in my life. I feel myself starting to cry, yet I'm laughing as I once did long ago when I called Karen to tell her... .
I want to reach for the telephone now and say: "Hello, Erika? It's me, Connie. I know, I know just what you want to tell me: 'There will come a day.'"