It’s not an easy thing knowing you are going to die, but Kathleen knew that would soon be her fate. Her illness had progressed to the point that the final outcome was now a certainty.
She had enjoyed a satisfying career as a nurse. In fact, in 1952, she was one of the first black nurses in the state. And it was because of her medical background that she knew what was coming, probably within three or four weeks. However, after being privileged to live more than eight decades, she did not feel cheated. She had lived and loved fully, and she believed she had made a difference in the world. To her way of thinking that was the definition of a successful life.
Across the street, Madison Andrews, Kathleen’s neighbor for more than twenty-five years, could hardly wait to come and see her. It had been a month since she had gotten to talk to her, and that was longest they had gone without speaking in all the time they had known each other.
But they were far more than just neighbors, they were actually dear friends. Kathleen Hazelton had known many people during her life, but she had never met anyone quite like Maddie. Over the years, their lives became intertwined in meaningful ways, as their relationship grew and deepened. But the inevitable had finally arrived, and now they had run out of time.
Although Kathleen had enjoyed her long life, she did have one heartbreaking regret, and that was the fact that she couldn’t have children. It was a disappointment that had diminished over time, but still remained a part of her. She and her husband Henry had tried for years, but she was not able to conceive. For a long time they talked about adopting, but in the early 1960s that option was not always available to black families. Eventually, they decided to just share their lives as a couple. But through the years, she had always wished that she could’ve adopted at least one child and given them the life they deserved.
That was one reason why she had fallen in love with Madison when her family moved in across the street. At the time, the little girl was only three years old. But already she was experiencing developmental delays. All the important milestones were a struggle and before long the official diagnosis of a developmental disability was made. It was not a surprise. At her birth, the delivery had gone horribly wrong. The obstructed labor resulted in a loss of oxygen that caused the brain damage that would alter Madison’s life, but, even worse, was the immediate postpartum hemorrhage that claimed the life of her mother.
Kathleen knew that, as Maddie was growing up, she often looked to her to take the place of her mom. It was a role that she was happy to fill, and it was a responsibility that she took seriously. It had not been easy for Maddie. Her disability caused her to face challenges and obstacles that others were spared, but Kathleen always tried to be there for her. And although it was going to be difficult, Kathleen believed her responsibility ultimately included finding an appropriate way to tell Madison goodbye for the last time.
That is why she had decided to see her friend now – before her sickness became more debilitating. She wanted to be able to enjoy their last conversation, and she wanted Madison to remember her like she was today instead of how it might be at the end. She did not want their final visit to be shrouded in sadness.
Across the street Madison waited anxiously, staring intently at the clock. Her father had told her that she could spend thirty minutes with Kathleen, but then she needed to leave. He’d explained that her friend was ill and would get tired easily. He told his daughter to take her phone, and he would text her when it was time to come home. Finally, the clock struck the appointed hour, and they headed across the street.
Kathleen’s younger sister, Janet, had recently moved in to help take care of her. At 1:00 PM the doorbell rang, and her sister went to answer it. Kathleen could hear Janet talking to Madison’s father. After a brief conversation, she heard the door close and then her sister led Madison into the room.
Kathleen smiled warmly at her friend. “Maddie! I am so happy to see you. Please come in.”
Janet nodded at her sister and then left them alone.
Madison was surprised by how weak her friend looked, but Kathleen’s smile was still the same. She walked over to the frail woman who was sitting on the couch propped up with pillows. “I brought you a present!” She produced a beautifully wrapped package from behind her back.
“How thoughtful, child. You didn’t have to do that.”
Madison handed her the gift. “Please, open it right now!”
Kathleen was amused by her friend’s enthusiasm. “I certainly will. Let’s see what this is.” Although her hands were now shaky, she slowly tore off the paper and opened the box. She was so stunned when she saw what it was, that for a moment it took her breath away.
“Oh, Maddie! What a wonderful thing to do.” She reached in, carefully picked up the beautiful picture frame and held it up in the light. But it was not the frame that touched her heart. It was the picture from a quarter-century before. It was the first photo ever taken of the two of them together. They were holding hands, standing in Kathleen’s front yard, posing by her rose bushes.
Henry had taken the photo of his “two girls” as he called them one Sunday afternoon. As Kathleen looked lovingly at the photo she was amazed at how young she looked and how tiny Maddie was.
Madison could hardly contain her excitement. “Do you like it?”
Kathleen nodded as she fought against the emotion that was creeping up on her. “I absolutely love it! This was such a considerate thing to do.”
Maddison was thrilled by her friend’s reaction. “I had two of them made. One for each of us.”
“Thank you so much, Maddie. It is truly the perfect gift.” Kathleen looked around the room. “I think I’m going to set it right here so I can look at it whenever I want.” She stood it up on the table by the end of the couch.
“Please sit down.”
Madison picked out the closest chair. “We really looked different back then.”
Kathleen laughed. “That is for sure. I can remember the first time I laid eyes on you. Three years old and you probably didn’t weigh twenty-five pounds. I’d never seen a child so tiny. The first time I ever picked you up it was like holding a doll.”
“You always had the prettiest roses in the neighborhood. Nobody else was even close.”
“Thank you, but Henry had as much to do with that as I did. So tell me, what have you been up to?”
“Not too much. The last few days I’ve just been waiting to come and see you. I didn’t think this afternoon was ever going to get here.”
“Yes, I’ve been looking forward to it too.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling good enough to talk. My dad said it has been really rough for you.”
“Well, somedays that’s true, but today I can’t think of anything I would rather do than to spend time chatting with you.”
There was a pause as Madison thought about the question she wanted to ask. “Does the sickness hurt? I hope not.”
“No. It’s not too bad. Mostly I’m just a little tired. But seeing that picture of us makes me feel happy and helps me forget about being sick.”
Madison smiled. “I’m glad! How old were we back then?”
“Let’s see. That was taken the summer after you moved in so you would have been four and I would’ve been fifty-five.”
“It seems like a lifetime ago. But we have shared a lot of good times since then.”
“When I was a little girl, one of my favorite places in the whole world was your kitchen.”
Kathleen agreed. “We did do some cooking, didn’t we?”
Madison happily asked, “Remember the chocolate chip cookies and the brownies?”
“I sure do. You were a very good assistant.”
“I loved the way you would let me crack the eggs and mix all the ingredients together. It was always hard to wait for everything to get done baking, but it was worth it. Those warm chocolate chip cookies were the best.”
Kathleen said, “It was so much fun having you over. The house just came alive when you were here.”
Madison surprised Kathleen with her next question. “Did you know my dad almost got in a fight because I was always over here?”
Kathleen had no idea what she was talking about. “What do you mean?”
“I had just started school, so I was still little, when one day Mr. Winslow, two houses down, told my dad that he didn’t think it was right for a little white girl to spend so much time in a colored house.”
Kathleen instantly felt the familiar heartache that she always experienced when the issue of race intruded into her life.
“My dad told him to mind his own business and stay out of our lives. Mr. Winslow got mad and would never talk to us again, but Daddy said that was no great loss. I didn’t know what he meant when he said ‘colored’, but my father explained it was an old-time expression for a black person and that we shouldn’t say it.”
Kathleen nodded. “Your father is a wise man.”
Madison said, “You may not know this, but you were the first black person I can ever remember seeing.”
“Yes, I suppose I was. But it never seemed to bother you that I was black.”
Madison frowned. “Of course not. Why would it bother me?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Some people, like Mr. Winslow, just seem to have a problem with it. But you treated me just like everyone else. I always appreciated the fact that you were happy to be my friend, and you didn’t care what color my skin was.”
“And you didn’t care what color my skin was either!”
Kathleen smiled. “No, I did not. To me, you were just Maddie. The sweet little girl that lived across the street.”
Madison’s expression became serious. “It’s not right to hurt other people’s feelings. When I was in school people called me all kinds of names. They made fun of me because I sometimes had trouble in class. I didn’t know all the things they did. I remember when they found out I didn’t know how to tie my shoes without help, some of the kids said I was stupid and didn’t belong in their school.”
“I remember. It wasn’t easy for you.”
“I could do lots of things, but they only talked about the things I couldn’t do.”
Gently Kathleen said, “When people are unkind to us, it’s because they don’t really know us. The problem is, they think that finding out about us would take too much time and effort, so they just assume whatever they want about people like you and me whether it’s true or not – because it’s easier.”
“Well, then they’re just being lazy. They are the ones who are not smart.”
“That’s right, but you did not let them hold you back. You always surprised me with all you learned to do. It made me very happy to see that you were brave enough to try new things. I just wish……” Suddenly a deep rattling cough cut off the rest of her words. It took a few seconds for it to pass, and Madison could see how tired it made her friend.
She had recently heard a word used in regard to Kathleen, but she didn’t know what it meant, and nobody seemed willing to tell her. So cautiously she said, “Can I ask you a question?”
Still getting her breath she answered, “Of course, child.”
“I accidentally overheard my dad talking to someone, and he said that hos-pice was coming to see you. What does that word mean?”
Kathleen answered carefully. “Hospice is an organization that sends people to assist individuals like me. They are kind of like nurses – just like I was.”
“So they are your helpers?”
“Yes. That is the perfect word to describe what they do. They are helpers.”
“Does it hurt you to cough?”
“Sometimes, but not now.”
Slowly the conversation drifted to happier topics. They reminisced about funny moments that occurred through the years and they recalled some of the most important times they had shared together. But the situation they found themselves could only be ignored for so long. It was impossible to pretend like everything was fine.
Because of the grim circumstances surrounding her birth, Madison had grown up with firsthand knowledge of how death robs us of those we love.
“Can I ask you something else, something that might make you feel sad?’
“Of course you can.”
“Of all the people you’ve known that have died, who do you miss the most?”
“That is quite a question……But the answer is easy. I miss Henry the most. He was a compassionate man. He was kind and generous, and he would have been a wonderful father. But it turned out we couldn’t have children.”
“Well, some people can and some can’t. It’s just nature’s way.” She paused for a moment and then said, “What about you? Who do you miss the most?”
“I miss all my grandparents, but the person I miss the most is my mom. I never got to know her because she died while I was being born, but I know she would have liked you.”
“I bet she was a lovely person.”
Madison lowered her voice. “I don’t like to think about death. It scares me……but my dad warned me this could be the last time I get to see you.” She hesitated for a moment and then asked, “Are you afraid to die?”
Kathleen answered as honestly as she could. “No I’m not afraid to die – but I am tired of being sick. It keeps me from being able to spend my time the way I want. That’s why we haven’t gotten to see each other very much lately. So, in my own way, I suppose, I’m ready.”
At that moment, Madison’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She checked it, already knowing that her dad was texting her that it was time to come home.
Madison’s eyes began to fill with tears. “I’m sorry, but I have to go.”
“It’s okay, child. I’m getting a little tired anyway. But it has been so wonderful to see you! And I love the gift you brought me.”
Maddie said softly, “You were always like a mom to me.”
Kathleen smiled, “And you are the closest thing I’ve ever had to my own child.”
Madison could hardly say the words……“Is this really the last time we’ll get to be together?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Tears began to streak Madison’s face.
Kathleen understood completely. She would shed her tears once her friend left. “It’s okay to feel sad, Maddie – but you’ve got a long life ahead of you. You’ll be doing a lot of different things, and you are going to meet many wonderful people. Your life is just getting started.”
Madison tried not to cry, but she couldn’t help it. “Nothing will be the same without you. You’ve always been a part of my life. I don’t want to lose you.”
Kathleen smiled. “That is the beautiful thing. Once we’ve met someone and they become important to us, we can never truly lose them. They have played a part in our lives and that can never be taken away.”
Madison wasn’t sure. “But I don’t want to ever forget you.”
“You won’t. You just need something that will always remind you of our friendship.”
“What could that be?”
“Stop and think for a second. There is something that you and I both love that other people don’t seem to enjoy. It’s something we’ve always had in common, even when you were a little girl.”
Madison concentrated for a few moments and then through her tears her face lit up. “The rain!”
Kathleen smiled. “That’s right. We both love rainy days.”
Madison managed to giggle, “It was our secret. We loved the rain and nobody else did. But you told me that people couldn’t see the truth. They thought that rainy days were gloomy and sad, but you said it was the rain that made the roses grow. You said that the rain made the world beautiful.”
Kathleen was pleased that Maddie understood. “We saw something that other people didn’t see. So, as you go through the rest of your life, each time it begins to rain I want you to take just a moment and remember our friendship and how much I loved you.”
Kathleen was growing weaker but she wanted to stress the point. “I want you to think about all the times we cooked together and how we would sit and make latch hook rugs, and I want you to remember……”
“How we would sing and dance around the front room?”
“That’s right. Unfortunately, some folks don’t always realize that those are the truly important moments in life because you’re spending them with someone you care about. So each time it rains, just think of us in a happy way, and you’ll see that I’m still with you.”
Madison brushed away the tears and said, “I will. I promise.” And then with great certainty, she said, “You know what? I think we are two lucky people because in this whole wide world we were able to find each other.”
“Yes, we are very fortunate. That is why, before you leave, I want you to know what an important person you have been in my life. I would not have enjoyed my time on earth nearly so much if we hadn’t gotten to be together.”
Maddie said, “I think we were always perfect for each other.”
“I agree completely. It has been one of the great joys of my life having you for a friend. Thank you, Maddie, for all the happiness you have brought me.”
Madison stood up. “Would it hurt you if I gave you a hug?”
Kathleen shook her head no and held out her arms. Madison leaned down and hugged the friend she would never forget.
They embraced for a time and then Madison turned to leave. “I love you, Kathleen.”
“I love you too, Maddie.”
Madison slowly walked through the door and just like that she disappeared from Kathleen’s life. They had spent twenty-five years together, and it was difficult to believe it was really over. Kathleen turned and looked at the photo of them taken so long ago and broke down. She couldn’t help but think that the worst part of dying was leaving behind those you love.
A few weeks later, Kathleen Hazleton’s life peacefully drew to a close one night as she slept on her couch surrounded by keepsakes. The memories in the room included a recent addition that had become particularly important to her. It was the simple photo of two people who cared deeply about each other, as they stood beside roses in full bloom on a Sunday afternoon.
During her lifetime, she’d had a positive effect on countless lives, and she’d earned the respect of her friends and colleagues. She had been devoted to her family and her community, but it was the little girl across the street whose life she had touched most.
Maddison and Kathleen willingly accepted each other exactly as they were. Their relationship was real and honest, filled with genuine affection. The issues of race and disability, which are so often used to hold people back and keep them apart, were transcended by the far more powerful force of love.