The angels of Shabbat were working overtime yesterday.
I came home from services to a message on my answering machine from Tom, V.'s son. "Alto," he said, "today would be a good day to visit. Come by anytime." Just a handful of people call me "alto" in real life; it was strange to hear that name from someone I didn't know. I met V. in the mid-90s on an online bulletin board, a group of random people once numbering in the thousands but now down to about a hundred die-hards. We're like regulars at the corner bar, reliable, crotchety, and--although we tend to recycle the same arguments over and over again--never boring, even after all these years. Most of us check in a few times a day, more than we speak to our own families (except for those who married each other, with a combined total of about a dozen kids). We meet occasionally at the real corner bar, an old-fashioned kind of community created from a very new medium.
V. is a retired teacher in her 70s. Her husband died of a long illness whose every battle we followed online. I never really got to know know V. much beyond the facts--European-born and bred, speaker of many languages, lover of literature, brilliant player of Trivial Pursuit, direct, funny, honest--although I could have; the door was always open. But I didn't know how to be friends with someone so much older than I, and who maybe reminded me a little of my own mother. V. had no such issues. She called to check up when I was sick, was a tireless cheerleader for my adventures in chanting, and once gave me the kindest, most generous gift I've ever received in my entire life. She demurred when I tried to return it: "It's a mitzvah to give, so you can't deny me that opportunity."
V. was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a few years ago. She fought back with the tenacity of a lioness protecting her young, enduring experimental treatments, pain and exhaustion in order to remain on earth for as long as possible. But eventually there were no more avenues to pursue. She resigned herself to round-the-clock nurses--"But I'm not going anywhere any time soon," she announced when I visited earlier this summer. It was starting to rain when I left; she insisted I borrow her favorite umbrella, bright green and emblazoned with the name of her alma mater. "Now you have to come back, in order to return it," she added.
I kept meaning to call. But I was afraid, because I didn't want to see what would surely come next. The umbrella sat on a shelf by my front door, chastising me whenever I went in or out. Next week, I promised myself at the end of each day.
Now I imagine that V. understood my silence and, ever the friend and teacher, again offered a generous gift. She must have given Tom a list of people who would want to say goodbye when the time was right. Yesterday afternoon V. lie in a fitful sleep, her breathing labored, but didn't seem to be in pain. I wanted my thoughts to be full of love and warmth, in case she could sense their presence, but felt instead like I was shouting across a chasm that couldn't be navigated, in a language I didn't speak. I thought of Moses on the mountain, unable to look at the face of God, and was grateful I couldn't see more of this awesome place. I thanked V. for giving me a glimpse, and for the gift her of herself all these years, and carefully placed the green umbrella on the table by the door before I left.