How to become part of a musical instrument

Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the picture at the top of this blog. If you don’t want to know what’s going on, stop reading.

I didn’t know Kit was taking the picture. I was busy scattering our friend Julie’s ashes. I’d never done anything like that before and was apprehensive. Then I got my handful. They were beautiful, a kind of grayish ivory dust. They were Julie and we were together, still. She was spilling through my fingers and sticking to my hands because it was raining and the wind was blowing. So I was finding pretty small plants and leaves and places she would like and making sure she got to be part of them.

Julie was 48 when she died on August 22nd, 2012. By then, we’d been pals for more than 20 years. We’d planned on being old together, and we were, just not in the way either one of us had imagined.

Julie had envisioned an old people farm, with all of us together in some sort of communal arrangement. We hadn’t worked out the logistics, but we had the broad-brush basics of the thing. Land, animals, and younger types who would do the heavy lifting while we venerable elders did whatever and bankrolled the operation.

She’d had breast cancer in her 30s, but had beaten it. So when she developed a cough that spring, the doctors told her it was allergies. By the time she went to the hospital in July, her blood oxygen was so low she ended up in the Intensive Care Unit with three tubes down her throat for nine days.

The tests came back and the news was grim. The cancer was everywhere. Julie could live one to two days without the tube, or two to three months with it. My friend, who had already filled up 12 yellow pads keeping up her end of conversations with medical staff, her husband Joel and visiting friends, didn’t hesitate.

She lived another month without the tube, most of it in hospice (except for the week she went home because she was worried about spending too much money being there). She was alive and we were going to lose her but we hadn’t yet and we were all so happy to be together. It was a glorious time. She ate pizza, drank wine, and held court during visiting hours. And, of course, she spent time with Joel. They’d been married for 14 years by then.

Sweetheart’s Aunt Betty had died there the year before. She was only there for a day; the first person I ever saw die, and the first time I’d ever been to a hospice. It was lovely. There were walking paths and a creek on the grounds and large, spacious public rooms. The patient rooms were comfortable and large enough to comfortably accommodate eight to 10 people.

Julie and her crew, hanging in the gazebo
Julie’s crew, hanging in the Gazebo.

The hospice staff was delighted that someone was finally using the gazebo – Julie was the first patient to ever really take advantage of that space. The four of us had dinner together there one night. I told Julie that the idea of her dying was less upsetting than the idea that she might be in pain while it was happening. She laughed and told me not to worry.

“It’s the pharmaceutical death factory!” she said. “I can have hallucinations! I can have bunnies or unicorns or anything I want!”

So I didn’t worry. I just promised her I’d make sure Joel got fed for the first year after she was gone and made arrangements for my then 12-year-old dog to have a post-life person until I get there.

I didn’t see bunnies or unicorns the night she died. But we were all gathered, and at one point JonAnne and I crawled up in bed, on either side of Julie, and just talked. We told stories about different adventures we’d had with her. I was on the left side and could hear her heart beating.

Eventually, it was just Joel and his father and Elaine, Julie’s best friend since fourth grade. Elaine said she’d give me a ride home at 10 and Sweetheart took off at about 9. Then it was just us. We were going to leave Joel and his dad at 10, shift change.

Julie died at 9:57.

On the drive home, we agreed that Julie hadn’t wanted those two alone when she Left. It was only later that Elaine realized that Julie had managed to die with a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim and a Pagan in the room.

There was a memorial service in summer. We scattered and buried her ashes in fall. I had my Yamaha guitalele (you can see its neck in the photo).  First, we scattered. Then we walked up the hill and buried. While people put things in the hole – rocks, or other things she would have liked – I put my fingers on the fretboard and tried to empty my mind and let whatever song came come. It was one I didn’t know I knew, and afterward Joel told me that “Singin’ in the Rain” was one of Julie’s favorite movies.

It wasn’t until the next time I took it out that I discovered ashes had blown back on my instrument.

I thought about what to do for months. Then I asked Joel if he would be okay with my having the guitalele varnished. He was.

Julie probably would have preferred a drum. But none of us have the slightest doubt that she would be delighted at being part of a musical instrument.

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