Survivors don’t need flowers. They need memories.
When my friend, living 900 miles away in another state, died, no one told me.
I knew that Renée was dying. Late in the winter of 2021/22, she’d been suffering from prolonged pneumonia, treated at the local urgent care clinic with antibiotics and steroids. But she hadn’t gotten better, and finally X-rays were taken. They revealed cancer. A lifelong smoker, she had stage 4 lung cancer.
Having lost another friend to this terrible disease, I knew there was no hope. Chemo and immunotherapy could give her only a bit more time, not a cure. Nevertheless, I pretended with her to hope.
We had been friends since the late 1980s, despite the fact that we had never met. Introduced by letter through a mutual friend who recognized our similarities in outlook and philosophy, we became pen pals when that meant writing letters and affixing postage. In an era when long-distance calls were costly, we rarely phoned one another, but nevertheless “talked” regularly, supporting each other through innumerable crises and congratulating one another on every life achievement: children’s graduations, marriages, family drug problems, the deaths of friends and family and pets, my uterine cancer, various jobs, a grandchild’s birth, retirement. We decided we had been sisters in a previous incarnation. Her pet ferret died, and I wept with her; my favorite cat died, and she sent me a condolence card.
Bekkahboo, my namesake cat
Renée herself adored cats and started breeding Sphinxes, even naming one in my honor. I began to call her Cat Lady. She nicknamed me Lady A for a long-running joke between us.
As e-mail developed, our friendship branched out first through that, and then text. We still rarely made phone calls except in the most stringent of circumstances, but now we were in touch several times a week or even a day. I started my blog, and she signed up immediately as a follower. My grandchild was born, and I learned to attach videos; I sent them to her, and she mailed my little one baby dolls and dollhouse toys.
And then she got sick. Hospitalized immediately, awaiting surgery, she texted me, “I’m so scared.” “I know,” I told her; “I know. I’m praying. I’ve got everyone I know praying for you. You can beat this,” I told her, knowing that I was lying, while I wept to my daughter, “I can’t lose another friend to cancer!”
She texted that she was alone at the hospital, hoping for a visit later of a close friend, but meanwhile, alone.
Not knowing what else I could do, I called, and then sent her flowers. The bouquet arrived, and she texted me a photo of it. It was spring-like, she told me. It was bright and beautiful.
She with cancer, I with lifelong asthma and a newly-diagnosed heart problem, we knew that flying in the era of Covid would not be wise. Nevertheless, I readied my guest room for her, describing all the redecorating, so that she could believe that she would be here.
I began texting her multiple times a day, about anything and everything. “It’s the only way I can let you know that I think of you, all day long, every day. That you’re constantly in my thoughts and prayers.” “Keep ‘em coming,” she answered. Her replies at first came every day or two, then every three or even four days, then hardly at all. I knew that she was growing weaker. But she still made an effort to respond, especially if I sent her videos or photos.
A day or two after my ranting post appeared, complaining about the medical profession, she texted me that she wanted to print it and send it to several friends. “Push the button to republish it,” I told her.
It was the last text I would ever have from her.
After a few days of hearing nothing, I said, “I wish I’d hear from you.” I suggested, “Maybe you could just text me the number of a friend, so I could chat with them about how you’re doing.” But she did not respond. Since I am a Facebook abstainer, my daughter offered to check Renée’s Facebook page and message her. But, again, we received no response.
Then on August 26 I woke from a worrisome dream. It can’t mean, I told myself. No, certainly not. But by noon I could bear the suspense no longer. I searched for “Obituary Renée Croteau Massachusetts”—and found it. NO! THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT! I gazed in horror at the screen. But I pressed the link, and there it was: the face of my beloved friend. She had died a week prior, on August 19. She had already been buried. And no one had contacted me. No one had reached out to me. No one had told me.
In the days since, shock, and then grief, and then anger, have been my constant companions. Was her phone locked? Did her husband and sons not know her passwords to it or her social media or e-mail, to find me in her contacts? Had they made no preparation for what we all knew was coming? Had they not asked her, “Who should we contact?”
Or had they looked at all of it and just not cared?
How did she die? Was she in a coma at the end? Could they have held the phone to her ear, so I could have said goodbye? Was it quick? Did she pass in her sleep? All the questions to which I need answers swirl about me, keeping me from sleep, gnawing at my brain.
But the one thought that stays with me in the end and gives me some small comfort is: I sent her flowers. Flowers that gave her joy in a dark hour.
Flowers are for the living, but survivors don’t need flowers. They need memories. And I have an abundance of those.
In Loving Memory of My Dear Friend, Cat Lady, Renée Croteau
1963 – 2022
The blog post about the medical profession which Renée liked so well was published on August 10. You may locate it in the Archives.