The last waltz

A dying woman calls her community together to thank it, to say goodbye -- and to dance.

Published December 23, 1998 4:34PM (EST)

This is not a story about the best Christmas present I ever received, or thebest one I ever gave. It is about the best Christmas present I ever saw.

I have had a friend for over 20 years whom I don't know very well, but whom I have been fond of all that time, as I know she has been fond of me.Her name is Carol Wagner, and I would guess she is in her mid-50s. I first met her 20-some years ago when she used to pick me up hitchhiking outin West Marin, where we lived. She had unruly curly hair and was a great reader and a down-to-earth modest proleteriat type who worked at the post office in Stinson Beach. I was a little afraid of her at first because she was also on the school board, where she could be tough and crabby, but I always liked talking to her when she gave me rides, because she was wry and smart and abided no bullshit, all of which I have always loved in a girl.

There is a beautiful plainness to her, a sense of someone who is solid and true, who has had a lot of losses in life and reasons to be bitter, but who isn't. A beauty of intelligence and soul shows in her face, the kind thatpushes through and becomes visible when someone has handled their stuff and their suffering with tenderness and courtesy. Also, she has seen many peoplethrough their hardships over the years, and so she is loved and appreciated. People liked to see her at the post office when they'd pick up their mail, because she was just who she was. What you saw was what you got. And that is so rare, and so lovely, that it can be a little alchemical: Molly Fisk once wrote in a poem about the post office, "When I open Box 592, there was Carol's curly hair and one third of her forehead, like an Advent calender in springtime."

Several years ago, she got leukemia. She did all the standard medical treatments, including enough chemotherapy to last a literal lifetime. She shook and she baked and lost all those wayward curls, and she got very sick from the cures. But they seemed to be working for a time, and the people of Stinson Beach -- the town where she lived -- cooked and shopped and drove and kepther company and donated buckets of blood. She sloughed off all the nonessential aspects of her life, tossed them out of the airplane so she could fly a little higher, but the cancer stripped her way down, as it does, and when the chemo was over, she built her life back up. Then there were a numberof recurrences, and she would need more rounds of treatment, and life would get stripped back to surviving the disease and the cure, and then she'd build her life and health back up all over again. All the while, you would think that God or life would hold everything else back, like a traffic cop holding back the traffic so the baby ducks can cross, but this was not the case. Reallife reared its head: First, some of the people Carol loves the most also got sick, and Carol did what had to be done to help them even as she tried to get well again herself. But as the psalmist tells us, Joy comes in the morning, and it did. Her daughter gave birth to a big darling hunky chunky boy, and all that soft unarmored baby skin was very healing for Carol. But of course what the psalmist does not say is that at the end of the day, dusk will come again, too, and then night -- and I think for a lot of us, this is the one real fly in the ointment.

When I saw her last at a concert, she was doing whatever was essential andnot too much else. She was living with the "what if" that everyone shudders to consider, and doing pretty well with it. You had the sense that she was still a pretty tough customer in her private life, but she was visibly softer.I think it was partly due to that luscious succulent blue-eyed baby boy, of whom she spoke with great joy, but it may also have been that cancer can wedgea certain kind of person open, so that many new things can get in. My guess isthat what got into Carol was the knowledge of how loved she is, and therefore,how safe, and you could feel that she was very thankful that it had, even at its exorbitant cost.

But then she wasn't OK again. The cancer came back, and eventually, asa last-ditch effort, the doctors gave her a bone marrow transplant. And the people of Stinson Beach circled their wagons around her once more. Meals wereprepared and delivered, rides and more blood were given. But a few weeks ago, tests determined that the transplant hadn't worked.

- - - - - - - - - -

There was nothing left for the doctors to try, and everyone was very sad, especially Carol, who loves her daughter and that grand little grandson so much, but what are you going to do when there's nothing left for the doctors to do? If you're lucky, you get on with life. So when her friends started talking to her about the details of a memorial service, her main wish was to be there for it.

And so she was: A few Saturdays ago she gave a party at the Stinson BeachCommunity Center. She wanted to say thank you to the people of her town for all they had done, to let them know that she had lived as long and as well as she had because of their friendship -- all those meals they had cooked, all thatblood they had given, all those children they had baby-sat so their parents could cook or drive.

The big barnlike community center usually feels huge and impersonal, with rather unpleasant lighting. It's not fluorescent but close, bright enough so you feel exposed rather than illumined. This night, though, only a few house lights were on: There was a fire in the fireplace and Christmas lights on the tree in the corner and candles everywhere, and it all made for wonderful soupy light that cloaked everyone gently. People brought Carol a whole living room, too, couches, throw rugs, easy chairs. It was all made so ethereal and familiar that it felt as if we were all moving through one another's dream.I spotted her right away in the center of all those people. (There musthave been 200 or 300 people there, instead of the 50 she expected.) She was wearing a purple velvet dress, and she looked wonderful. Her hair is shorter now, the grayish curls cropped close to her head, and she doesn't look like the same old person because she isn't: Hard has become soft,tough has grown tenderer and, after all that chemo, all that dehydration, dry has grown lush again.

There was a bluegrass band playing in one corner, and people were talkingwith a great liveliness, as if to say, "Right this minute, we understand that this is all there is, so let's really be together." People milled around at their shiny best, under the fairy lights, as if moving loosely through the bignet that holds us all. Everyone dressed up and brought food and left their bad stuff outside on the step with their umbrellas. They took that big barny space and made it feel so warm and intimate and lively that I kept believing that everyone was dancing. It was disconcerting, because the truth was, or at least the visible reality was, that besides a melancholy hula early in the evening, almost no one danced while I was there. But there was a kind of Rumi dancing under way: "Dance when you're broken open/Dance if you've torn the bandage off ..." My friend Neshama said that in all that warmth and soft lightwe were like flecks in olive oil, or dust motes in a beam of sun, swirling anddipping and lifting and distributing ourselves all over that huge space, all the particles that were one community.

Neshama and I hid over by the tables of food waiting for our turn to see Carol. We ate everything that couldn't outrun us. Everyone eats so much at these events! Maybe it's because you have a body, and it's still here and wants your attention. Maybe you want a little extra weight so the wind won't blow you away. Mangia! There were dozens of dishes of food on the banquet tables, fancy and plain, hot and cold, meats and salads and dessert, but best of all were some tiny roasted potatoes in a huge covered dish, oily and crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, brownish red and striped with wilted rosemary. First they resisted, and then melted utterly into your mouth.

I sidled up to her daughter, who was holding that big baby boy. He is solid and jolly and mingly, and he threw himself into my arms without thinking, and I got to smell his clean baby soul and feel his wiggly toughnessfor a moment. Then he stopped, stared into my stranger's face, saw with horror that he had made a terrible error in judgment and cried out for Security. His mother reached for him, smiling, and back in her arms, he smiled at me again; he actually all but winked.

I finally got to spend a few minutes with Carol. She looked so happy in that warm light, with all her friends around. Some people seemed stricken, uncomfortable at having been invited to come say goodbye, as if this were very bad manners, or as though they had just found themselves on a ferry ride they'd never intended to take. But mostly people seemed to stretch enough to be able to open up to the fearful thought that Carol would probably die pretty soon. But in all of this shadow, Carol was glowing, giving off softness. The baby kept looking at her, flirting, and you could see how he keeps homing in on her. And you knew watching her that even though she did not want to be dying, she was going to do so with the same elegant ordinariness with which she has lived. She told me later, "I don't hate dying of cancer -- it's better than dying in other ways, because it's giving me time."

"Time for what?"

"Time to repair, time to tell everyone how much I love them." She also said, sardonically, "This purple is not going to look so great on me when the jaundice sets in," but in the meantime, in those moments, she looked luminous.That's when I realized that it was one of the most beautiful present tenses I had ever seen. She really looked like she might just start dancing momentarily, and a few minutes later, after I had said goodbye and wandered off, that is just what she did. When I first saw her moving around on the floor with her friend Richard, I thought it might be my mind playing tricks with me again; that it might be more of that Rumi dancing to "Dance music in a brilliant city inside the soul ..." But it really was Carol and Richard, dancing around the room to the old-timey bluegrass band.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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