I have a friend--I'll call her Serena--who I've known for 15 years. We met under unusual circumstances: I was working for the Washington Post, and following some paramedics around for a series of feature stories one hot summer, and her teenage son got shot one night while I was hanging out with the paramedics. I still remember the reaction of the driver I was with when the call came over the radio: "How the hell did somebody manage to get himself shot in Foggy Bottom?" As a matter of fact, Serena's son lay on the sidewalk on the same block as the Four Seasons Hotel when we got there. It was about 1 a.m. and I remember being grateful for a chance to peel off from the driver I'd been hanging out with, because (like many people in that high-stress line of work) he had come to work drunk. It had been nerve-wracking, tearing around the city, running red lights and breaking the speed limit, in the company of a driver who reeked of liquor.
So I went to the hospital with this young boy, thinking he was probably some young punk who had gotten in a fight or something, and it turns out: no. Not at all. He was the product of a middle-class family in an upscale suburban neighborhood, who had been hanging out in Georgetown with two of his friends, there to see a movie and maybe pick up some girls, as teenage boys from the Washington suburbs have always done. To this day his shooting remains unsolved.
I don't remember meeting Serena, exactly; in my memory, the next thing that happens is that we are friends. We spent a lot of time hanging out together at George Washington University Hospital, where Serena's son clung to life for a week or so. The shooting left him paralyzed from the waist down, and my plan was to write about the shooting and its aftermath--to cover the story of a young black kid from a perspective the Post didn't get to often enough, i.e., as victim, not perpetrator. Serena was a small woman, feisty, a chain smoker with a raucous laugh who impressed me with her resilience. A blow that would have staggered almost any parent knocked her over, too, but only for a day or so; after that, she focused intently on what needed to be done. They had to remodel a bathroom, so that her son's wheelchair could manuver there. They'd have to build a ramp into the house. Therapy appointments had to be lined up. Schoolwork needed to be kept up. The daily, tedious work of recovery went on; the devastating psychological blow to her son's self-image had to be dealt with. At one point there was a medical crisis and her son needed a blood transfusion. She was the same blood type and went to donate her own blood to give to him; like many people, and a great many people in the black community, Serena did not trust the general blood supply. The trouble was, she didn't weigh enough to fit the donation guidelines. Before the doctors could discover this, she went outside and picked up some rocks and put them in her pockets, then came back inside and stood on the scales. "Just made it!" she cackled later. She was a tough broad, no doubt about it.
One night I was cooking dinner in my tiny little condo kitchen when the phone rang.
"He's dead," Serena said flatly. I felt my knees give way. I slid down and sat on the floor against the refrigerator. There had been a blood clot--a common complication of paralysis victims, where the lack of motion in the extremities can cause blood to pool. This clot had broken loose and made its way to her son's heart. He'd been talking to a friend on the phone one minute; the next minute, he was dead.
I was not a parent then--I hadn't even met my husband--but even then I could not understand how a person could live through something like that. A random crime, an indifferent police investigation, and then, just when the vague outlines of a New Normal could be glimpsed through the fog--utter disaster. It took everything out of Serena, as you may imagine. For a while, I wasn't sure she was going to make it.
As it happened, that summer I was having problems of my own--a major episode of depression, a boyfriend who had treated me badly, money troubles, problems at work. Serena and I forged our relationship over many a late-night telephone call over many a glass of wine. We talked about anything and everything--shoe sizes, the best place to buy groceries--except our respective grief. That was a subject too big for either of us, and besides, we knew too much about it already. So we talked about other things. It helped that Serena was black and I was white, because I was a Southerner, because white Southerners--some of us, anyway--have always been able to have frank conversations about race. We do not suffer from the illusion, shared by so many, that blatant race discrimination is a thing of the past, or something best left out of "nice" conversations. We've been there; we've seen it; it's shaped our lives. Serena and I were not that far apart in age; both of us could remember vestiges of the Jim Crow era, albeit from opposite sides of the fence. I told her about the dentist I went to as a child, who had two waiting rooms, one marked "Colored;" she told me about how buying shoes meant gambling that what you saw would fit, because if you were black you weren't allowed to try on shoes and then put them back on the rack.
Years passed. Serena slowly--and I do mean slowly--emerged from her grief, and my life changed, too. I met my husband, and ended up moving to the suburbs not far from where Serena and her husband lived. We stayed in touch, although truth be told, I was not always a good friend to Serena: my life got busy, kids entered the picture, and Serena's penchant for long, late-night phone conversations increasingly didn't fit into my life very well. But there was always a bond. One Christmas, after a year in which I don't think I had called her more than once, I got a Christmas card from her that said simply, "I will always love you." And I thought: I don't deserve this.
Now Serena is dying. She has cancer, and it is inoperable, and I don't know what to do. The last time we spoke her voice sounded weak, and she told me she was in hospice treatment. Every time I've called her house since then, I get a voice mail machine that says it is full and cannot take more messages. I worry about just dropping by and disrupting her rest by pounding on the door when she can't get out of bed; I worry about not dropping by, and not getting to see her. I want to do something but I don't know what. Mostly, I just want to sit beside her bed and hold her hand and laugh at one of those long, funny stories she tells so well. Time is short. I have to go.
So tomorrow, I will. I'll just get in the car and go, and hope that somehow somebody inside that house will hear me, and that Serena will be able to see a visitor. It's what you do when there is nothing else to do, because I have to tell her what she has meant to me. And if this is the only place where I get to do that--well, it's better than nothing.