Gratitude for Ghosts
My best friend, Andrea, died fifteen days after her 38th birthday. She’d lived with cancer for six years, and she lived vibrantly, honestly, too. In those six years, we traveled together, ate marvelous food, celebrated weddings, planned adventures. Sometimes I forgot cancer was part of that life.
One day, about a year before she died, I made a joke about creaky joints and gray hair and dentures and wrinkles and the climbing tally of our years (late 30s…eee gads!). I said it all in the tones and cadences that usually elicited our synergy of humor – silly turns of phrase, back-of-the-throat laughter, and over-dramatic gestures – the kind of cues someone you’ve grown up with always picks up on. This time she didn’t pick them up. She looked uncharacteristically serious.
“Promise me, you will never complain about growing old. Some of us don’t get to.” I stopped in my silly-pants tracks. She stared at me. “Every day is a gift, and if you get to count enough days to grow old, that’s an incredible privilege,” she said.
I must have mumbled something about how right she was and that, of course, I would promise. “Good. You better keep that promise.” Then, with a flip of her tone and mischievous laughter in her eyes, she said, “Besides, I’ll haunt you if you don’t.”
In a way that only Andrea could engineer, she’d told me she was dying, taught me one of the most profound life lessons, and had me laughing so hard at the image of her as a ghost that my sides hurt.
In the days that have morphed into years since, I have yet to see her wispy apparition appear. Our common friends and I have since turned 40 and kept counting. My hair stylist told me I would “need” to start dying my hair someday soon lest I look too old. My family points out the wrinkles around my eyes and play-mocks my passing youth. My Facebook ads tell me what I should wear to miraculously shave years off my appearance.
Most of the world around me seems to want me to pine for youth and reject aging. And each time I entertain the idea that they might be right, I hear Andrea’s voice. “Some of us don’t get to.” Oh, how grateful I am for those words! They have freed me from buying into a world where I would miss the gift of each day by mourning its passing before it even began.
While I am not grateful that Andrea’s count stopped at 38 years and fifteen days, I am grateful for the freedom to keep counting my own days, unapologetically and with passion. I’ve kept my promise to Andrea. She has not kept hers, though. Every day I get to count, she comes along with me.
–Katherine A. Shaner
Winston-Salem, North Carolina