When I ring the bell Denise has to pull her three dogs away from the door to let me in. We’re at an awkward juncture. She’s actually my husband’s friend but I’m here alone. I come bearing gifts although she is more comfortable giving.
“I’m glad you called,” she says over the barking. “It gave me the first reason to get dressed in a week.”
“I hear PJs are a fashion statement,” I say.
She pulls the largest dog off my leg. Her face is puffy and she’s breathing heavily from the exertion.
“He’s not bothering me at all,” I protest. “Maybe he’s trying to protect you from my cooking. Let me just put this stuff away.”
She follows me to the kitchen. She is older and taller, yet around her I feel as if I lead. Her counter is full of supplements with names that sound like a bottled meadow —sorrel, motherwort, red clover. When I put down the dishes she pulls back lids and sniffs the contents deeply. She wants to hear about each one.
“Everything smells so good,” she says. “Mark tells me your recipes are never the same twice. What’s in this pan?”
“Oh, it’s just some curry. Brown basmati rice with cauliflower, peas, paneer, onions, spinach, raisins, almonds—you want me to go on? I just keep adding things till it seems done,” I laugh. “Drives the kids nuts. They long for boxed macaroni and cheese like everyone else makes.”
She scoops up a fingerful and slides it in her mouth. Her eyes briefly fill with tears. “This tastes like love.”
I’ve never heard Denise speak this way. Her shtick is sharp humor and witty complaints. She and her husband Greg have a somewhat difficult relationship, but they both find pleasure in spending. Greg lavishes money on cars. Denise adores buying riding tack, clothes, and gifts. We have been the recipients of her largess many times. She not only gives lavishly, she also offers her time. The week we moved to our new home, she and Greg helped with the last U-haul load, took the truck back, and surprised us by cleaning our empty house so we wouldn’t have to return the next day. It must have taken them hours.
No matter how kind her actions, Denise is uncomfortable being thanked. Brusque even. Usually she goes right on complaining about her job, her expenses, her marriage, even her beloved horse. With four kids and precarious finances, I’m perpetually behind when it comes to reciprocating. Sometimes I send along produce from our garden or homemade goods when my husband Mark meets Denise and Greg for their weekly breakfast.
Today she shows me things she has ordered online, some still unopened. At least a dozen hats, several specially made for cancer patients. When her dogs start to play with the boxes, she ushers them out to the back yard.
“Let’s go sit outside,” I venture. “It’s a beautiful day.”
“The landscaping is a mess,” she says, “I don’t even want to look at it.”
“Have you been out much at all since you started treatment? There’s something to be said for the restorative power of nature.”
“Not in this yard.”
Birdsong, sunshine, growing things, and fresh air all wait right beyond her patio doors. It is difficult to imagine healing in her house. The curtains are closed. Every surface is congested. Couches and chairs are crowded with pillows. The walls are jammed with prints, tables are laden with objects, bags with new purchases are stacked against the walls. But she wants to stay inside.
I notice piles of new books. I tell her they are the same things I like to read; spiritual examinations across many cultures and faiths. Denise says she has read a few and is drawn to their open-hearted messages, but she is afraid.
I’m not sure what she means.
“I hope there’s some kind of eternity,” she says with sudden candor, “but how do I know which religion will get me there? I can’t just suddenly decide to be a Baptist or a Buddhist and … believe.”
“I think there are truths bigger than anything religions squabble over.” I say.
“True, but now isn’t the time for me to piss off God,” she says dryly. Then adds, “If there is a God.”
I nod, “I’ve gotten hung up on the ‘G’ word too.”
“Well I started going to a church. I just picked one. I figure it’s like an insurance policy,” she says. “That way if there’s life after death, maybe I’m in.”
We sit on the couch crossed-legged and talk about approaching faith as a stranger might visit a new land, eyes open for wonders. Denise keeps the tone light but her anxiety hangs right on the surface until she finds a familiar groove and gets back to complaining about her husband. Greg only cares about his cars, Greg wants her to go back to work, Greg doesn’t understand.
Soon she looks tired. We say our goodbyes and I give her an awkward hug. My intention was to be fully in that room with her, sending love from my heart to hers like a soothing balm, yet as I walk out to my car I feel an ache somewhere in my chest. I realize her quandaries with religion grieve her almost much as her cancer does.
A few months after that visit, complications from her final round of chemo leave Denise in a hospital room too sick return home. The doctor tells her she needs to go directly to hospice care. Mark and I sit near her bed.
Greg says from farther back in the room, “Yeah, but how expensive is that?”
“You and your wife both have health insurance.” the doctor replies. “There shouldn’t be significant extra costs.”
“There have been a lot of costs with this whole thing,” he says, waving his hand at the hospital bed, intravenous lines, and monitors. Mark stands and walks Greg out of the room so Denise can talk to the doctor. A month later she waits until Greg goes on an errand, then dies with Mark at the side of her bed.
Greg has a beautiful photograph of Denise posing with her horse and dogs printed for the funeral program. I see he does understand what was important to her. When the new minister she chose gives the eulogy it’s clear he didn’t know her at all. As a bagpiper walks over the hills at the close of her memorial service, I pray that Denise has found a more loving Beyond than she ever imagined.
A few nights later I have a dream that seems to go on and on. In it I am surrounded by doorknobs. I examine them with fascination. Faceted crystal doorknobs cut in geometric perfection, each reflecting different shapes and colors. Polished wooden doorknobs darkened with age. Intricately patterned cloisonné knobs rich in lapis, green, and violet. Simple white porcelain doorknobs mapped with tiny cracks.
I understand, while still asleep, that I’m dreaming. It occurs to me to look up from this vast field of doorknobs. There I see a door. It’s huge and gleams with holy light.
Denise is nearby, more vibrant and confident than I’ve ever seen her in life. She’s looking with amusement at the array of doorknobs.
“The doorknob we choose doesn’t matter,” she says. “Each. One. Opens. The. Door.”
This is her final gift. Once again, I can’t reciprocate. Unless, I realize, I share her story with others.
Originally published by First Day Press.