The kids were fighting, the dog was barking, and the dryer was buzzing on that January morning when I got the phone call that would change my year. “This is Phoebe Williams. I’ve just found out I have advanced ovarian cancer. Things don’t look good for me.”
A cold chill ran through my body. I pictured the petite, retired teacher who had faithfully attended the same aerobic class as me for the past five years. While we weren’t especially close, being tortured three times a week by our perky drill sergeant gave us a special bond.
“I felt God leading me to call, ” she continued. “I hate to be a bother, but I know you’re a woman of faith and I could really use your support.”
I did the only thing I knew to do and prayed for Phoebe, right then, over the phone. Afterwards, she thanked me. “That’s exactly what I wanted,” she said. I hung up after promising to call again soon, then sat on my couch and cried for my friend.
I dreaded what lay ahead. I was already feeling overwhelmed just being mom to my three children ages five, six and eight. The sadness and responsibility of watching someone die in addition seemed more than I could handle.
But as the year progressed, daily calls to Phoebe became part of my routine. Every conversation included a prayer, but she also wanted to hear stories about my children. She’d never had any of her own and the things that frustrated me were amusing to her. I began watching for their funny or mischievous antics to share with Phoebe. I called these “Phoebe Moments”.
“So what are the kids up to?” she would eagerly ask.
“Today Emma asked her teacher, ‘Mrs. Foster, what’s your last name?’” Phoebe laughed. “And Joshua got sent to the Headmaster’s office for squeezing an orange onto a girl’s hair at lunch.”
More laughter from Phoebe. “Haven’t you heard of citrus shampoo?” She always defended Joshua.
During the spring months, I often sat on my patio when we talked and described the birds that were building nests in my birdhouses. She’d taught science for twenty-five years and enjoyed educating me and helping me identify the birds.
By summer, I depended on our time together.
In late October, she called to tell me the cancer was going to win. “I’m ready to go to Heaven,” she said. Though her call wasn’t a total surprise, silent tears ran down my face. “You’re a good mother and I want you to enjoy every second of every day with your children. They’re a blessing.” As she continued her encouragement and advice, there was a sense of urgency and an unusual frankness to what she said. When time is limited, you don’t waste words on unimportant subjects.
November was a busy month for Phoebe. With the strength she had left she ordered Christmas presents, comparison shopped cremation prices, wrote her obituary, and planned her memorial service.
“I’ll probably die around Christmas. Since that’s such a busy time we’ve set the memorial service for the end of January. I’ve lined up volunteers to bring cookies and punch. After the service I want everyone to stay and visit.” She went on to describe the color scheme she had chosen for the tablecloths and napkins.
It was too much for me. “I’ll be sad. I won’t feel like a party,” I whined.
“I’ll be having my own party in heaven, so enjoy yourself. People are in such a hurry these days. They never take time to sit and visit.”
When Phoebe died in early January, I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. Weeks later, her memorial service went just as she had planned. I didn’t dare leave without eating cookies and visiting with friends.
In April, I was sitting on my patio watching the birds flutter around my birdhouses when a slow, reluctant tear made it’s way down my cheek. My two girls joined me outside.
“Why are you crying?” Emma asked.
“I’m sad because I miss Mrs. Phoebe.”
Uncomfortable with my tears, my older daughter wanted to change the subject. “Did you know Clara Barton* was born on Christmas day and died on Good Friday?” She had just read Clara Barton’s biography in school.
Emma said incredulously, “Well, she sure didn’t live very long.”
I laughed through my sadness. Remembering Phoebe’s directive to enjoy every second with my children, I pulled both girls onto my lap and enjoyed a “Phoebe Moment”.
*Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross.
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