love and sorrow in a lifelong friendship
We grew up in the same part of Wellington, New Zealand, though Heather was born in Australia and considered herself an Aussie. I knew her by sight before we met. She attended a private girls’ school downtown while I went to a public co-ed school on raw windswept hills at the edge of the city. Waiting for my bus in the morning, I sometimes saw her go by in her father’s chauffeur-driven Jaguar — a flash of royal blue school uniform and glossy dark hair. Her portrait was displayed on the wall of an upscale department store which had recognized her and other outstanding young people for their accomplishments and model behavior. I was never going to be framed on that wall. I was out in the streets protesting the Vietnam War and singing folk songs in dingy cafes.
Heather was a little older than me but when I left my school a year early we both became students at the university. Taking the same bus and cable car every day, sitting in the same classes, we quickly became friends. To my surprise I found her unaffected and ingenuous. We made each other laugh. She knew nothing of politics and seemed oblivious to her class background. I visited her family’s grand house and she visited my more modest one.
Passionate about theatre, Heather moved to France in her twenties to study with the legendary Jacques Lecoq, while I moved to the US with my American husband. When one of her letters arrived — a satisfyingly thick envelope with six or ten pages of her distinctive writing — I would savor it like a feast. I was proud of my beautiful friend and her glamorous life as a theatre artist in Paris, in contrast to my own life, raising children in a small upstate New York town.
When my younger child was four I flew to France, leaving my husband in charge so that for a couple of weeks Heather and I could be two free-spirited adventurers. By then she had awoken to the realm of politics that was so important to me, adopting her brother’s severe Trotskyist beliefs. I stayed with her in her “chambre de bonne”, a tiny fourth-floor maid’s room with a sloping ceiling and a minuscule bathroom — no bath or shower, but a clever device for washing one’s body over the toilet. She told me about being shamed by a teacher at her posh high school: “You can’t ride in your father’s Jaguar for the rest of your life.”
I watched Heather onstage, awed by her brilliance. We drank wine late at night with her theatre friends. We rented a little Renault and explored Provence. I played my violin outside amongst the lavender and thyme. We rode white horses on the Camargue. My domestic existence seemed distant and unreal, until in a restaurant I saw a mother and father cuddling their small children and I burst into tears.
Romantic relationships came and went in Heather’s life. She stayed tender and open despite disappointments. Late in her thirties she fell in love with a French theatre director and had a baby girl. Our trajectories switched — Heather at home with a small child needing her every minute, while I, my own children older, was out in the world performing and teaching, now involved in theatre myself. On our birthdays we treated ourselves to long, nourishing phone conversations, ending always with our tearful yearning to see each other.
When Heather and her husband Jean-Pierre moved to the south of France she planted a huge garden. She’d always been a superb cook, and now she began to grow much of the food that they served under their wisteria-covered pergola to people who came from far afield for theatre training at their vast old villa. Each summer she and Jean-Pierre mounted an open-air production in the fields and woods around their house. Hundreds of local people came and Heather fed them all
In her early fifties she began to complain about forgetfulness. “It must be the dreaded Alzie’s,” she would say with rueful Aussie humor. I reassured her. She was one of the most energetic and alive people I’d ever known — darting from one activity to another all day long, gardening, cooking, acting, directing, reading in two languages, writing. She was the last person I could imagine being felled by Alzheimer’s disease.
But her lapses grew worse. One evening when my husband and I were visiting, the four of us had an animated discussion about a movie we’d all seen. As always, Heather’s comments were informed and astute. She pivoted seamlessly between French and English when one of us needed translation. Early the next morning we drove to the Niaux Caves in the nearby Pyrenees. Heather had no recollection of either the conversation or the film. I was sitting behind her in the back seat as she shook her head slowly. “I don’t remember at all,” she said, sounding puzzled. Fear chilled me. This was not the kind of memory lapse that we could joke about. It was not a “senior moment.” None of us were seniors.
When she was diagnosed the news came as a sort of relief to her, an affirmation of her fears. Our conversations — by phone and letters, now email rather than paper — continued as they had. She seemed unchanged, though she now often recounted poignant little stories: forgetting how to use her checkbook, or being scolded for repeating herself.
I saw Heather a couple of years after our trip to the caves. This time her deterioration shocked me. The continuity of conversation, the flow that instills meaning into our discourse with others, was nearly gone. She could not remember anything I told her. Brief, precious exchanges remained, like small clear pools in a drying riverbed. Mercifully, she herself felt she was doing very well with her “Alzie’s”: “I don’t think anyone could tell there was something wrong, if they didn’t know,” she said. She shrugged off oddities that happened: a bowl of just-picked tomatoes that disappeared, to be found two days later inside the oven; a meal planned in detail and then entirely forgotten.
I tried hard to adjust, to be cheerful and companionable, as though there was not a horrible tragedy unfolding. At night, alone in the high-ceilinged bedroom, I mourned the eager, open, penetrating mind that was being snatched away. I mourned the lost sharing of our lives.
For a long time Heather remained full of laughter, still energetic and athletic, still warm and loving. But her world slowly shrank to a small sphere of what was familiar and comfortable — her home, her husband, her daughter, a few friends whose names she could not recall, her two remaining chickens. Her words abandoned her and phone calls became difficult. “Oh! I wanted to tell you — we’re getting a new — um, thing, for — for the thing!” she might say with excitement, but I had no idea what the things were.
The last time I saw Heather when she was still herself was in 2018. My husband and I rented a car in Toulouse since neither she nor Jean-Pierre were able by then to drive to the airport. We got lost repeatedly, arriving late and stressed. Heather came running outside to greet us. She held me tight, weeping with happiness, a long, long hug. Tired after the plane trip and our frustrating drive, I suggested a cup of tea — which in other times she’d have offered the minute we arrived. In her capacious kitchen, where she had prepared meal after splendid meal for more than 20 years, often for large groups of people, Heather could not make a cup of tea. She stood uncertainly by the butcher block island, picked up a couple of things, put them down again. She did not know what to do.
The next afternoon Heather wanted to talk to me alone. We sat in deck chairs behind the house. The air was exquisite, dry, warm, fragrant. Birds were singing but there was no other sound. The ebullience of the previous day was gone. Heather talked to me about her terrible sadness, her knowledge that she had lost so much of her mind and would lose more; her awareness that the future held no hope or comfort. I could do nothing but listen and praise her resilience and the good humor that she managed most of the time.
We went for a walk along the little ridgetop road. Hilly farmland dotted with old estates spread out for miles on either side. Heather talked about Jean-Pierre, “but not this Jean-Pierre, I mean the other one.” She thought of him as a series of different people at different stages of their life together, which did make some sense to me.
At lunch Heather got up from the table and said she wanted to take a shower. After a few minutes she called from upstairs: “Can someone tell me where the bathroom is?”
At dinner Heather refused the food that we had prepared. She wanted a salad. Jean-Pierre, worried about her increasing weight loss, urged her to eat the potato gratin. “I want salad!” she insisted. I got up and quickly prepared one, thinking we’d all share it. But Heather kept the bowl in front of her and ate it all.
She was eager to harvest the grapes that grew outside the front door. I filmed her as she climbed up the ladder and picked them, handing bunches of perfect green fruit down to me. We brought them inside and she arranged some of them on a blue plate, chatting to me and the camera as she did so. “It’s so wonderful to have you,” she says. “Because we know each other and we love each other.”
At her tennis lesson Heather volleyed with the coach for an hour. Her stamina seemed limitless. She looked like a vigorous 40-year-old, not someone over 70. I noticed her awkwardly rigid shoulder as she raised the tennis racquet — so familiar to me, that square shoulder, expressive of her perennial physical tension and the anxiety that prompted it.
Barely six months later, her daughter Chacha wrote to say that Heather had sharply deteriorated, becoming paranoid and violent. Jean-Pierre was unable to keep her — or himself — safe. He made the grievous decision to admit her to an institution.
In this apparently comfortable and well-run residence, Heather refused to eat or shower. The staff could not manage her anger. By the autumn she was dangerously thin. The nursing home sent her to a locked ward in a Toulouse hospital. It seemed that she might not survive long. Chacha suggested I come soon. “I think you have to do it quickly,” she wrote. “You never know.”
I went straight to the hospital from the airport. The memory of our recent time together was vivid and, despite the sad circumstances, I looked forward to our happiness in seeing each other again.
But what I found was a shell. Heather was emaciated, passive, vacant. She recognized me but there was no joy, no delighted embrace. She was emptied of the Heather I had loved since I was 16. Glimpses remained, with moments of sweetness as Chacha worked on her grooming.
She was bent almost double and unsteady on her feet, afraid of falling. The effort of walking from the bed to the window left her out of breath. Her legs and feet were swollen with edema.
I had brought her a pale pink shawl, soft and fluffy. She wrapped herself in it and spent a long time stroking it, trying to fold it, squeezing it, and then stretching the fibers as though she wanted to break them.
I knew, we all knew, that Heather would not want to live like this, wearing a diaper, blank and unkempt in a comfortless hospital room, unable to express herself or comprehend. She had sometimes spoken of “going to Switzerland” — code for ending her life — but she had never said, “OK, it’s time to go.” And now here she was, a prisoner of Alzheimer’s, sallow, gaunt, silent, alone.
The next day I brought books of poetry from her bookshelf at home. So many of her books were familiar to me — books that we studied at university, or that I’d given her over the years, or her copies of favorite books she’d given me. I read aloud to her from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
She looked up in recognition. For a moment the old Heather shone through.
The day before I left I sat beside her for hours, sometimes singing or reading, or just holding her hand. I read the Hopkins poems again, then looked for a story from my Kindle collection. Helen Garner’s “The Spare Room” seemed promising. Heather perked up at the Australian author’s name and agreed that she’d introduced me to her. But as I read, I remembered that this story was about the writer’s dear friend now ravaged by cancer and facing imminent death. I stopped.
Towards the end of the afternoon I said “Heather” and she looked up at me, at something in my tone. I told her what an important friend she had always been for me, what a special person in my life. I talked about how long we’ve known each other, all the chapters in our lives that we’ve shared — our university days, our travels, our marriages, our children, our gardens, our cooking, our work. She held my eyes the whole time and seemed to register what I was saying. She thanked me.
In the house that seemed so empty without her presence, Jean-Pierre said: “The person that we knew, my wife, Chacha’s mother, your friend — she is gone. What is left is humanity.” I added, “And love.”
That was two years ago, just before the pandemic. Heather is now in a wheelchair and more docile. She rarely, if ever, hears her native language. She has lost even her own name, the blunt, short, Scottish surname that links her to her family and her forebears. The staff call her by her husband’s last name instead. He visits often; her daughter, who lives far away, comes when she can. They bring her a measure of happiness.
Visiting is the only way to have any shred of connection. But Covid has so far prevented travel. Writing or calling are impossible: she can neither read nor talk. For me, my dear friend now exists only in my heart and my memory, as though she had died. Though if she had died I would not be haunted by her day-to-day plight.
I picture Heather as I saw her when I arrived at the airport just a few years ago: tall, slim, youthful, stylish in a white sweater and the signature chunky silver jewelry she wears every day even when there’s no one to see but her husband and the chickens. “Jo!” she cries, running to me, half laughing, half crying. “I found you!”