OCTOBER IS BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH, SO I WRITE THIS IN HONOR OF MY FRIEND SHIRLEY HUDGENS WHO DIED FROM BREAST CANCER ON 3/10/99. SHE WAS 59 YEARS OLD.
Death has been a big part of my life, beginning with my own mother’s death in 1986, which was the first time I’d ever been with anyone at the moment of transition from this life to the next. After that came my friend Lou who died in 1998, then my friend Shirley in 1999, and my friend CarolAnn whose very last heartbeat I felt against my palm in 2006. Of course, there have been several other deaths – relatives and friends I’ve lost in the past few years – but these four are the ones where I got to be present and to help with their crossing in that holy moment when the door to the next life swings open and their soul departs for brighter days, shedding the shell we call our body and moving on to matters of Light.
Shirley Hudgens was like the big sister I never wanted, always bossing me around, telling me what to do, but her heart was huge and kind, which is probably why I never punched her in the nose. She was from San Angelo, Texas, a self-made woman in the world of information technology, having begun so when computers were as big as Studebakers and you had to kick start ’em. She made her way up in the hierarchy at Dallas Federal Savings and Loan, then started her own company handling on-line data processing services for smaller savings and loan organizations. She was successful, proud of all she had accomplished, and rightfully so, with only a high school diploma and strong intellect which took her far in her life.
Shirley drove a big, floaty Lincoln Town Car, wore custom-made Leddy Bros. cowboy boots, a full-length mink coat in the winter and a gold nugget Rolex watch as heavy as a box of rocks. She was everything we think of when we picture successful Texas women – larger than life, almost obnoxiously proud of her Texas heritage, too flashy to be tasteful. Or ignored. I always expected to see a set of longhorns strapped to the hood of her Lincoln and hear the car horn blasting out THE EYES OF TEXAS when she came driving up.
In the 15 years since Shirley’s death, I have never written about it, how profound it was. It is finally time to do that now. I had finished a rolfing trip to Dallas and Tulsa, then spent several days with Shirley at her place out at the lake, east of Dallas. I was finishing up the editing of my first book, so we quickly fell into a routine. We would drink coffee in the morning, then Shirley would work on her computer stuff while I slogged through yet another rewrite of my manuscript. At noon, we’d get in the car and go up to the Chinese buffet joint for lunch, come back and watch GOLDEN GIRL reruns for a couple of hours so we could laugh and laugh before Shirley fell asleep in her recliner. She was quite ill at that point and on lots of pain meds, but still functional. Besides, whenever her doctor said, “Shirley, I’m sorry, but you’ve only got 3 months,” Shirley would say, “Okay, I’ve got 9 months.” And, usually, she was right, as she kept tacking on an extra 6 months to whatever amount of time her doctor had given her. Shirley always thought she could figure out a way to last longer and live better than everybody else because she always did. We called it TAKING THE LIBRARY BOOK BACK AND CHECKING IT OUT AGAIN.
It was hard to leave Shirley that last time; I wasn’t sure I’d see her alive again. Even as she drove me all the way to DFW Airport, I kept glancing over at her, wondering how much longer she’d be able to stretch out this diminishing life of hers. She looked frail and drawn, a little jaundiced, but I thought that might have been the overdose of Chinese food. Still, she seemed okay. Two days after I arrived back in Portland, Randy Toups, a Dallas friend and hospice nurse, called and said, “You need to get back down here. Shirley’s starting to crash.” I said, “That can’t be. I just talked to her yesterday and she was fine.” Randy replied, “Well, she’s not fine today. Get on a plane.” So, I flew back to Dallas, borrowed a car and drove back out to the lake. Randy was right; Death was close, peeking at us through the blinds, waiting, just waiting, for us to turn our backs. Randy had gotten a hospital bed delivered and I called our friends Judith and Tina who arrived within an hour.
Departing the body is not an easy thing, like being born is not an easy thing, and that’s how I’ve come to view Death, as a birth into the next life. It’s often a painful and smelly and scary process, but the four of us were all determined not to run from it and to stay with it right up until the last horse bucked. Due to the pain meds she was on, Shirley’s bowel had become impacted and it was quite uncomfortable for her so Randy, ever the hospice nurse, gloved up to remedy the situation. It was late at night. We were all in our pajamas, standing around Shirley’s hospital bed in the middle of her living room. We gloved up, too, however, like comrades-in-arms, like we were all just gonna get right in there at the same time and get the job done. We had all pulled our pajama tops up over our noses and I remember I was crying, just thinking about how humiliating this must be for the woman who ran her own company she had created from nothing more than an idea, her own steely determination, and some wickedly superior computer skills. When we got Shirley all cleaned up, she began acting agitated and I was certain she was going to die right then. “Oh, Shirley, oh, Shirley,” I said, “Can you see the Light? Can you see the Light?” Shirley opened her eyes and looked right up at the ceiling. “Uh-huh,” she said. Well. We exploded into laughter. Tina said, “Maybe you should ask her if she can see the ceiling fan so we’ll know which light she’s talking about.”
The next day, Shirley slipped even further away, becoming non-verbal and mostly sleeping. I had a ring I used to wear, a Hopi design, which represented the kiva, a place of prayer and meditation. For some reason, I took it off and placed it on Shirley’s heart. All day, friends arrived from all over Texas to say good-bye to her. They would sit beside her bed, hold her hand, and tell her what a good friend she had been to them. I watched in awe as each of these visitors would take off a ring and place it on Shirley’s heart, too. Nobody – NOT ONE PERSON – looked at that pile of jewelry resting on Shirley’s sternum and said, “What the hell??” Nobody questioned it at all; they just chose to participate in whatever wonderful thing was happening. There were 8 rings at one point, all just sitting there, a sign of something magical and true. When the people left, they would each walk over, pick up their ring and put it back on, kiss Shirley’s forehead and then leave. I won’t ever forget how moved I was by that. Deep in my own chest, I felt my heart crack open and gratitude for the life my friend had lived spilled out, running like honey down a tree trunk, golden and pure. Oh. It was so, so grand.
Late that night, everyone was exhausted. Randy was in the front bedroom, snoring; Tina was on the couch, snoring; Judith was in the recliner, snoring. And, Shirley’s breathing had sliced into that death rattle phase, so, the sound was like 6 percolators going all at once. I was sitting at Shirley’s desk with her cat in my lap, writing letters to my cousins who had just lost their mother when I got this feeling that something big was about to happen, like the feeling you get just before a big storm blows in. The air changed in the room and I felt my heart shake off the exhaustion and stand up straight, ready to look Death in the eyeballs. I took Shirley’s cat over to her hospital bed and placed him beside her, then I held up her hand so he could rub his head against it one last time. I went around and woke everyone up. “I think this is it,” was all I said.
Still sleepy, but determined, we gathered around Shirley’s bed and thanked her for being our friend, for intertwining her life with ours. We lit white candles; we said prayers. We paved the path as carefully and with as much love as we could, laying warm stones for our friend to follow. I felt like we should be singing a hymn, but I couldn’t think of a hymn all four of us knew the words to all at once, so, slowly – very slowly, I began singing THE EYES OF TEXAS and the others joined in. We turned it into a hymn, as sweet and as solemn as we could. Then Shirley lifted her upper body off the bed, arching her back, and took 3 short gasps of breath before falling back, totally depleted. She was gone. Her soul had found its boots and she was moving on. And I remember thinking, “That’s not a bad way for a Texas girl to make her exit.”
In the 15 years since her death, I have told this story many times, but have never written it, which seems to be something I do to let go. Finally. Let. Go. This is the hardest thing of all, finally letting go, especially since I’ve been dragging her around with me for so long, and my tears, which flow so easily, don’t disappoint me as I write this, streaming down my cheeks in great rivers, dripping off my jaw and gathering in puddles above my collar bones. It is sad. But, it is cleansing, and I am grateful for the tears I still shed for Shirley. They are my touchstone, the mark of a true friendship.
I miss my friend Shirley, the big sister I never wanted. I’ve no doubt she’s bossing the others around wherever she is now, keeping them in line, showing them the ropes, being a good friend. That’s who she was in this life and I can’t imagine she’d be any different in the next one. She taught me how to tell, at the end of your life, if a good friend is what you’ve been to others. It’s easier than you might think, rather like guessing the age of a tree. I learned this about Shirley’s life by witnessing her death: Just have somebody count the rings around your heart.