My small pond has been going through freeze thaw cycles for the past two weeks. November weather turns freezing one day and rises to 60 the next. In this shoulder season, things creep up on a person.
Spring is different. Spring is full of conspicuous firsts. One night, you open the window to listen for wood frogs and hear nothing. The next night, they’re raising a cacophony of quacking. You never notice the last night they sing though. One night, some days or weeks later, you remember that you haven’t heard the wood frogs in a few days.
The first phoebe of spring swoops in and lands on the clothesline outside the window one day and holds itself bolt upright, abrupt and jarring after a phoebe-less winter. When they go in fall, I couldn’t say which day I last saw one teetering on the top of the dogwood shrub.
In early fall, I’m susceptible to a kind of sentimental farewell to these creatures. I watch the old snake with his scarred tail wind himself under the rock by the pond and think, “This might be the last time I see this snake until spring.” But then a warm day follows a few cold ones and I see the snake again, and don’t bother to mark it much at all. “You again,” I take to muttering. But the snake’s out of sight for good now, and he’s an old snake, so it may be, truly, that I have seen him for the last time and I don’t even remember the day.
A month or so ago, I ran into a friend of mine at a coffee shop. He’s had an indolent, waxing and waning cancer for years now, but his kind of cancer generally does end in a terminal crisis. When I hugged him, I laid my cheek against his cheek and it felt cool. His hair was gone. We had only a moment to speak, and he murmured that he was undergoing a new treatment, and with a jolt, I felt certain that he was dying now. I meant to write him a note right after, and kept moving the reminder to do so from week to week in my calendar without ever doing it. Waiting to find the right stationery, I told myself. I could search my whole life long and never find the right stationery for this purpose.
Today, I found out that he’s gone home for hospice, and I dashed off a different version of the letter I meant to write, my hands trembling in a sudden panic that it would not get to him in time.
I hope to see him at least one more time, though I wrestle with the cowardice most of us feel, facing the death of a friend. Balancing his privacy, and his family’s need for time with him, with the knowledge that he would want to see his friends too. Not knowing, of course, what to say, but knowing at the same time that that doesn’t matter all that much. I don’t have any grand farewell speech planned, of course, and I won’t be with him right at the last either. But I won’t lose track of whatever time there is left the way I do the phoebes, the wood frogs, or the snake. If I am fortunate enough to see him again, once or twice, maybe, I know that when I rise to take my leave, each leavetaking will be freighted with the knowledge that it will likely be the last.
We see things differently when we think it’s for the last time, though we may not say things differently. A meeting in a coffee shop, a meeting by a bedside, either way, “It was good to see you, goodbye,” I say. It’s a mercy and a burden to know that this time, it’s for keeps.