Falling better

It was the last Easter my friend Sue was ever going to have. So we celebrated with a ski trip.

Published April 11, 2003 11:14PM (EDT)

Last year, a few days after Easter, I asked my friend Sue Schuler to meet me in Park City, Utah. I was going there to give some lectures, and had scammed a ski week out of the deal. Sam had invited his friend Tony along, and I invited Sue. She was a great companion, younger than me, but already wise, cheeky, gentle, blond, jaundiced, emaciated, full of life, and dying of cancer.

She had always loved to ski, and was a graceful daredevil on the slopes. I only started skiing six years ago, and tend to have balance and steering issues. I fall fairly often, and can't get up, but enjoy the part between the spills, humiliations and abject despair -- sort of like real life.

No one, including Sue, was sure she'd even be able to ski, or if she would make the trip at all. Except for me. No one could know that she would die one month after my invitation. At any rate, I thought that if she saw those Wasatch Mountains, she'd want to try, at least. I invited her because otherwise I was never going to see her again -- she had cancer of the everything by then -- and because she was distraught on Easter when I called to say hello. I felt she ought to have one last great Easter before she died. I felt that that would make up for a great deal. Easter is so profound -- Christmas was an afterthought in the early church, the birth not observed for a couple of hundred years. But no one could help noticing the resurrection: Rumi said that spring was Christ, "martyred plants rising up from their shrouds." Easter says that love is more powerful than death; bigger than the dark, bigger than cancer, or airport security lines.

And so she said yes, she'd me meet in Park City.

I'd met her the previous Easter, over the phone, through her sister, an old friend of mine. Her sister was a kind of matchmaker, who recognized kindred souls in me and Sue, believers who loved to laugh. Her sister had known me when I walked my friend Pammy through her last year of life. Call me crazy, but I did not immediately want to be friends with another dying blond babe just then. But I felt God's hand in this, Her fingers on the great Rolodex, flipping through names until She could find a good match for Sue: a funny believer.

Spring of 2001 was so early that the wildflowers weren't in bloom yet; the bulbs hadn't opened, and during the worst of it, right before she called me for the first time, Sue had been told that her liver and lungs had developed tumors. She was in a deep depression. On top of bad test results, various people at her church kept saying that she should be happy because she was going home to be with Jesus, and Sue wanted to open fire on them all. I like that in a girl.

Also, the evangelicals had suggested that her nieces wouldn't get into heaven, since they were Jews, as was one of her sisters. So I said what I believe to be true -- that there was not once chance in a million that the nieces wouldn't go to Heaven, and if I was wrong, who would even want to go? I promised that if there was any problem, we'd refuse to go. We'd organize.

"God," she said, "what kind of shitty heaven would that be, anyway?"

"A Velveeta heaven," I said. "A Mallomar heaven."

That was the beginning of our friendship, which unfolded over a year and some change, a rich condensed broth of affection and loyalty, because there was no time to lose. She came to my house the following week, after a number of intimate phone calls about dying, and God, and how deeply we can heal ourselves, even if we go ahead and die. She was brilliant, and she cried a lot, and she was hilarious. I couldn't believe how beautiful she was when we met six days later: I hadn't expected that earthly, dark irreverence to belong to such a beauty. She started coming to my church soon after, and we talked on the phone every week. I had one thing to offer, which is that I would just listen. I did not try to convince her that she could mount one more offensive against the metastases. I could hear her, hear the fear, and also, her spirit. Sue had called on New Year's Day of 2002 in tears, to say she knew she was dying. She was defiant: "I have what everyone wants," she said. "But no one would be willing to pay."

"What do you have?"

"The two most important things. I got forced into loving myself. And I'm not afraid of dying anymore."

She got sicker and sicker. It was so unfair -- I know that fair is where the pony rides are, but there are a few tiny questions I'd like to ask God when we finally meet. That someone so lovely and smart and fabulous was going to die, and that horrible people I will not name were going to live forever -- it broke your heart. At the same time, she had so much joy. She loved her family, her friends, and eating. She ate like a horse. I have never known a woman who could put it away like Sue. Her body was stick thin, and the skin on one leg was completely replaced by 22 skin grafts that left it looking reptilian, from her knees, up past her hip, the result of flesh-eating disease she had contracted at a hospital after one of her countless cancer surgeries.

(This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing, another thing I'd like to bring up with God. They're so messy, and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says, "We think we're humans having spiritual experiences, but we're really spirits, having human experiences," I think A) it's true, and B) I want to bash in that car's bumper.)

So we met one last time on the Thursday after Easter of 2002 in Park City, to celebrate privately. We shared a king-size bed in the condominium. Sam and his friend Tony took the other room, reducing it to Pompei within an hour. Once we told them we were celebrating Easter week that night, they shook us down for sushi money, and headed out for the wild street life of Park City.

The thing about Easter is that Jesus comes back from the dead both resurrected and broken, with the wounds from the nails still visible. People needed to see that it really did happen, the brutality, the death. He came back with a body -- not like Casper, or Topper, he didn't come back as the vague idea of spirit returning. No, it was physical, a wounded body. You could touch Him, and He could eat -- which, I suppose, is a start

The first thing Sue and I did was locate a beautiful Easter Week service online, and we followed it to the book. Well -- sort of to the book, in the reform sense of "followed" and "book." The first night, we celebrated Maundy Thursday, when Jesus had Passover with his disciples before his arrest, and gave them all communion. We used Coca Colas for wine, and Pepperidge Farm goldfish for the bread, broken in remembrance of Him. Then we washed each other's feet. Jesus had washed his disciples' feet, to show that peace was not about power; it was about love and gentleness, it was to be of service. Washing her feet was incredibly scary. I did not feel like Jesus at first. I felt very nervous, like Ed Grimley Jr. I don't actually like to wash my own feet. But we put some soap in a Tupperware dish tub, and she sat on the couch, and I lifted her feet into the warm water and then cleaned them gently with a soapy washcloth. And then she washed mine.

I watched her sleep off and on all night. Sometimes she was so still that I was sure she was dead. She looked like a beautiful corpse, slightly yellow, ethereal. And then she'd snore softly, or open her eyes, and look like a sleepy child. "Hi, Annie," she'd say in a small voice.

In the morning after breakfast, the four of us took the ski lift to the summit. The boys disappeared. I think they were afraid we might start celebrating Easter some more, where people could see us. But Sue and I just looked at each other shyly. She was wearing a lavender ski jacket, and she weighed 110 pounds, on a 5-foot-9 frame, and she was wobbly and trembling. People turned to stare at her, because she was yellow and emaciated. She smiled; people smiled back. She had great teeth. "I used to be built," she said, as we got our bearings in the snow. "I used to have a rack on me." We stood together at the summit, staring at the mountain range and an endless blue sky, and then I suddenly fell over. She helped me up, and we laughed, and then headed down the mountain.

She hadn't been on the slopes for years, and she moved gingerly, at first; the air was thin and she had cancer in her lungs. Then she pushed down hard on her poles, and took off farther down the mountain. At some point she turned around and waited for me, and as soon as I saw her, I stopped, and fell over. There I was, sprawled in the snow, with my skis at an angle over my head, like Gregor Samsa in "The Metamorphosis." She waited for me to get up, and to ski down to where she stood, and then she taught me one of the most important things I'll ever learn -- how to fall better. She pointed out that when I fell, I usually didn't fall that hard. "Look, you're not exactly Rose Kennedy," she said, although I felt ancient, creaky, bruised. "You're so afraid of falling that it's keeping you from skiing as well as you could. It's keeping you from having fun." So each time I fell, I lay there a minute, convinced I had broken my hip, and that it was all hopeless, and then she would show me how to get back up. Each time, I'd dust the snow off my butt, look over at her, and head back down the mountain. Finally, after she saw that I could fall safely, she tore off down the slope.

We celebrated Good Friday the next night. It's such a sad day, all loss and cruelty, and all you have to go on is faith that the light shines in the darkness, and nothing, not death, not disease, not even the government, can overcome it. I hate that you can't prove it. If I were God, I'd have the answers at the end of the workbook, so you could check to see if you're on the right track, as you went. But nooooooo. Darkness is our context, and Easter's context: Without it, you couldn't see the light. Hope is not about proving anything. It's choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim bleak shit anyone can throw at us.

After the Good Friday service, she wanted to show me her legs, the effects of all that skin grafting. The skin was sort of shocking, wounded and alien as snakeskin.

"Wow." She let me study it awhile. "I have trouble with my cellulite," I said.

"Yeah," she answered, "but this is what me being alive looks like now."

She had fought so militantly for her body over time, but she was also tender and maternal with it. She took long, hot baths at night, and then smoothed on lotions, like she was her own baby that she was keeping clean and soft. We slept well.

The next morning was Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, when Jesus is dead and hidden away in the tomb, and nothing makes sense, and no one knows that He's going to be alive again. His disciples had left Galgotha on Good Friday even before he died -- only a few women remained at the cross. So the disciples skulked off like dogs in the Upper Room, to wait, depressed and drunk -- or at least, this is what I imagine. I certainly would have been, and I would have been thinking, "We are so fucked." My Jesuit friend Tom adds that there was a lot of cigarette smoke, and Monday morning quarterbacking going on.

One of the things Sue had wanted to do before she died was to get a massage, to be touched sensuously again, so we decided to get massages on Holy Saturday.

"I'll tell you," she said, as we walked to the salon. "You didn't see a lot of bodies like Sue Schuler's, here in Park City, Utah." She got a gorgeous male Indian masseuse. He looked like Siddhartha, while I got a crabby white German woman. Sue and the Indian man walked off together, and she looked over her shoulder with such pleasure that they might have been off to their bridal suite. When I saw her again, an hour later, she smelled of aromatic lemon oils. I asked, "Did you feel shy at all?"

"Nah," she said, joyously. "Not after I gave him a tour of the Body."

Sue got up early on Easter Sunday, the day we were leaving. The sun was pouring through the windows, bright blue sky. She no longer looked jaundiced. She was light brown, and rosy. She made us her special apricot scones for breakfast. I tried to discourage her at first because I didn't want her feelings to be hurt if the boys turned their noses up: "The boys won't eat apricot scones," I insisted. "They eat cereal, Pop-Tarts ... traiiff!"

"Oh, the boys'll eat my scones," she said. And they did. They ate all but four, which she packed up for us to take on the plane. Two actually made the drive to the airport in Salt Lake City. They were small, light yellow, flecked with orange apricots, gone by the time we arrived back home.

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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