I was thinking about scaffolding today. A piece of mine has fallen apart, and I’ve been struggling to make sense of it. If you’re very lucky, as I am, you have a core group of friends, and the community around you as external support–but the strength of that communal support often comes from the friends who aren’t the every-day contacts, but those you see with some regularity, more by happenstance, or by shared circumstance, than by design.
This morning, I learned that Debbie, a woman I’d become friendly with in the years I’ve been a mother, died of cancer. We’d spent many hours together—sitting on the sidelines at toddler soccer, mucking about at mommy-and-me gymnastics, dancing and singing with our kids in music class, chatting in the nursery of the church where the class met, bumping into each other at events and activities. I wasn’t part of her inner circle of friends—though I count many of them as my friends, too. But she and I were part of each other’s scaffolding—serving as part of each other’s extended support network, often acting as sounding boards as we wrestled with school choices, parenting dilemmas, vacation plans, family-of-origin dynamics, childhood stories. You can cover a lot of ground without ever going to the mall together, or attending each other’s birthday dinners.
When I learned she was ill, I offered up some concrete ways in which I might be helpful. “I know you have your close circle to meet a lot of your needs. But know, too, that I go to the supermarket nearly daily, and that if you run out of orange juice, I will pick it up for you,” I wrote in an email. “I’ve been on the receiving end of well-intentioned offers of general help, and couldn’t ever muster to figure out what I needed.” She’d asked me for prayers, and I said, yes, of course. I told her, too, that as much as I enjoyed hearing from her, I didn’t need a reply. Of course, she wrote back, with a matter-of-fact explanation of her treatment options, which had changed. “I’m looking for a doctor who will prescribe chemotherapy that will buy me time—anything more than a year.” Reading that broke my heart, even as I felt inspired by (and understood completely) her fierce determination to spend as much time as possible with her family.
I can promise you, the very least interesting piece of information about Debbie is that she died too young of a horrible, aggressive cancer. What I liked, admired and enjoyed about Debbie was the way she lived—interested in everything, reading, running, thinking. She lived well and fully, immersed herself in her daughters’ world, in the warmth of her church community. She was utterly devoted to her girls, her husband, her family life. There was a glow about her, a warmth that emanated from her heart (and, perhaps, explained the unseasonably warm, golden weather we have had the last couple of afternoons). She mothered with the kind of strength that we all hope for, the kind of faith and belief that we should all strive for.
Debbie amazed me—our conversations revealed a mix of pragmatism and spirit, centeredness, studiousness and spunk. Before she became ill, she and her husband took a trip to Paris. Grandparents flew in from out-of-state to stay with the girls. I remember feeling totally impressed by her plans, and, also, slightly mystified. I remember saying, “You’ll never regret a week in Paris with your husband,” while thinking that I could not even consider trying to pull off such an endeavor. It seemed (to me), that Paris could wait for some season, a long time from now, when my kids are older. Today, I was thinking, maybe, on some level, she felt a sense of urgency. Maybe people who are with us for less time than you’d expect them to be are gifted with the innate understanding that the time for Paris is now.
Today, before I learned that she’d passed away, I was out for a walk with a close friend whose daughter plays soccer with Debbie’s daughter. “I just feel silly getting wrapped up in my own problems,” she said to me. “Look at what Debbie has faced—it makes me feel silly for getting bogged down by daily life.”
I thought for a moment—I’d been wrestling with similar thoughts for weeks, and, yesterday, the inner struggle was so intense, but nameless, so that when someone remarked that I lacked my usual spunk, I couldn’t pinpoint why. I’d tried to chalk it up to being tired. It wasn’t until I heard from a friend that Debbie was struggling, that I understood my uneasiness. Still, I couldn’t settle my mind. Now, I could: “You know, I think it’s disrespectful to Debbie—and the life she has led—to think like that,” I ventured. “Don’t you think she’d give anything to be around for more months or years of fretting over her kids’ well-being, feeling frustrated by school, or messy rooms, or just plain being there for them?” I’d been up late the night before, talking through some fourth-grade angst with my son, even as I had a looming deadline. “I sat there with him and felt so honored that he wanted to talk to me about it all,” I explained. “And I felt so grateful that I could be there, that nothing else mattered.” Even in my frustration that I couldn’t solve the problems for him, that I doubted if I was getting through to him, I understood that what mattered was my being there. It goes further than the urgent entreaties to hug your loved ones, to savor every moment, that I was tempted to post on Facebook last night. They didn’t capture the meaning I was trying to divine from the details.
I can’t know what she would give for another day, how she felt, and what kind of peace she found in preparing herself and her family for the fact that they’ll need to find a new normal, without her.
But, today, it was clear to me that the best way to honor her life is to continue to be part of its scaffolding. I reached out to her closest friends, people who are also my friends, to offer condolences, support, hugs. The calls were equal parts instinct and thought. “I’m calling to check on you,” I said to one friend’s voicemail. “I’m here for you, and I am thinking of you and I will see you later today.” I assumed I would see her—we are usually at school pickup together. I bumped into that friend in the hall at school an hour later, both of us there to have lunch with our kids and take them to the book fair. We exchanged a look. I felt, in that moment, that we were, inadvertently, honoring Debbie by going to lunch at book fair week; it was, perhaps, something she might have liked to do, too. As we walked, my friend mouthed “Thank you,” above her daughter’s head. “I love you,” I mouthed back—which seemed not at all strange under the circumstances. We’re not that kind of friends, but we both understand love and how it lifts you up. I meant that. Love, I knew, might help. She broke away from her daughter’s class for a moment, crossed the hall and grabbed me in a hug. “That was such a surprise,” she said. “It meant a lot to get your message.”
“I had to call,” I explained. “I’m here for you.” Tears welled up for both of us; she reached for her sunglasses that had been pushed on top of her head. “Time for my glasses again.” I texted another friend, and I asked her to make time soon to share her favorite stories of Debbie. I shared the news with a few others. These connections meant a lot to me today—I’m feeling the loss, and I knew it would mean something to those who loved her best, to know that they were not alone, that her life meant a lot to many people, and that her relationships with them were worthy of condolences from every corner.
It’s part of what makes scaffolding so strong. I’m so grateful Debbie Cheng was part of mine. I hope she knew how many of us were truly grateful for her presence, her friendship. I know her husband and their daughters will be the beneficiaries of all this scaffolding, the support of the families who loved Debbie, and who love them. I hope, too, the girls will grow up to have the kind of central support she had, and the kind of scaffolding their mom shared with so many of us. I wish only peace and comfort to those who knew and loved her best.
Rest in peace, my friend. You are, already, missed.
(P.S. I welcome comments, below, from anyone who knew Debbie and wishes to share memories, here.)