Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Incoming messages

A few weeks ago my sister wrote something on her blog about her talent. I don't know what else to call it. Judge for yourself what you think it is, but if you have some sort of derisive comment to make, keep it to yourself.

The reason I bring up her post is because of a question she asked at the end of it: "Does this happen to anyone else?"

I'd like to say, "No." I really would. And if I forget about this one particular instance, I could say, "No."

But I can't forget that instance, see, because it involves a friend of mine from high school, one of my very best friends. She felt like a sister to me. It's about the week she fell ill and died, and I didn't know anything about it because I was out of the country, unreachable. Except that I did know. Sort of. Somehow.

I was on a trip to Canada with some friends in August about ten years ago. We went to the Stratford Festival of Canada, which I highly recommend. This town in Ontario has turned repertory theatre into the town's main business. From May to October, on three separate stages, they perform a variety of plays.  At least half of them are Shakespeare, but there's always a mix. Aside from all the Shakespeare, I've seen Anything Goes, Medea, Collected Stories, Elizabeth Rex (an original work by a local playwright), Tempest Toss'd, and Threepenny Opera. And that's just a sampling.

2000 was the first year I went. We were there to watch (among other things) Hamlet, performed by Paul Gross, a Canadian playwright/actor/musician/director/producer who'd risen to fame (mostly in Canada and Europe, though he has a following here) for his role in a TV series about a Mountie working at the Canadian Consulate in Chicago. The show was called "Due South," and my friend Maddie was tracking his career with professional interest. She would later go on to write her PhD dissertation about him.

The week we were there was the week around my friend Victoria's birthday. I had sent her present early, because I wanted to make sure she got it before I left the country--she lived in Kansas, I'm in Pennsylvania. I have never trusted the mail to get things where they're supposed to be in a timely manner and/or in the intended condition, which means when something arrives intact and on time, I am always pleasantly surprised. She had called me to thank me, and to wish me a happy birthday as well (I was thirteen days older than she). During the course of the conversation, she told me about something odd that had happened while she was driving home from work. Her leg started to hurt her, a lot. She said the pain was so intense, she screamed out at one point. Then, just as quickly as it started, it stopped. She thought it was a cramp. She only mentioned because it had happened that day, and her leg was a little achy still. The conversation drifted on to other topics. At one point I made her laugh so loud and so hard that her husband came up from the basement to see what was so funny. I have no memory of what I said, just the sound of her laugh.

Maddie, Barbara, and I spent a day or two in Toronto first, because all three of us love Toronto. We got to Stratford on a Monday evening. I know this because there are no plays on Monday. They build their week Tuesday through Saturday, Monday is their day of rest. It's also the day most of one group of tourists are replaced by the next one.

I'd say from about Tuesday onward, Victoria was on my mind. I'm sure this is partly because I thought she'd love what we were doing. I sent her a birthday card from there, telling her she definitely had to come here with me sometime, that she'd have a blast. She was a huge Shakespeare fan, loved theater and art and even opera (which I didn't develop a taste for until a couple of years ago), and I'm sure that an entire town whose main industry was a combination of tourism and theater would charm her the way it was charming me. And I dunno, partly I just couldn't get her out of my head. I kept seeing things and feeling like I was pointing them out to her. Which was silly, of course, because she was all the way over in Kansas, and I was up there in Ontario.

The day we drove back was a Saturday. It was the day after Vicki's birthday. It was a particularly long ride, because we took a wrong turn somewhere and almost wound up in the wrong part of the U.S. ("Guys?" I asked from the backseat, gazing out the window. "That sign says we're headed for Sault St. Marie. Isn't that in Michigan?" Screeee. One abrupt pull-over, consultation of maps, and U-turn later, and we were headed toward Buffalo. Only added 2 hours onto our travel time.), and I didn't get home until well after midnight.

I was dead tired. I seriously contemplated sleeping in my clothes. As I stumbled toward bed, something made me stop, go to the kitchen, and look at the answering machine. It used a blinking light instead of an LED number readout to alert you to messages. Steady light=no messages; flashing light= message: one flash for each message, then pause, then resume flashing. The light was steady. At least it looked steady. I could swear it had flickered for a moment, so I made myself look at it extra hard. Nope. I headed to bed. No message for me.

Yes there is.

I didn't hear that so much as I felt it. All right. I turned back around and looked again. Steady light. I looked for a very long time. No flashes, not the barest flicker of one. No message. Ignore that feeling. It's wrong. There is no message.


Around noon the next day I got a call from Brent, Vicki's husband. He'd never called me before about anything, not once, but instead of realizing something was up, I just greeted him cheerfully. I didn't hear, or more accurately didn't understand what he was saying, at least not right away. Here's the gist of it:

Sometime around the beginning of the previous week, Vicki started to have trouble breathing. Brent took her to the hospital, where they found she'd thrown a blood clot (remember the leg pain? I think that was the clot) that had wandered into one of her lungs. They got rid of it, kept her a couple days, and released her when they thought they had things under control (she'd been on my mind since Tuesday). Brent had been trying to call me all week, but had apparently written the number down wrong, because he couldn't get through until this morning (no message, but there was a message). The evening of the day she was released from the hospital, she threw another clot. She was having trouble breathing again, this time so severely that Brent called 911. She went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital, and they could not revive her. That was a day before her birthday, when I thought I was wandering around Stratford with her in my head. I think by the time I sent her that second birthday card she was already gone.

You know how in the movies when someone hears someone has died, they say, "That's not funny!" or "I just spoke to (or saw) him/her!" ? I always assumed that was for effect, and that it was an awful silly bit of dialogue. My first thought? That Brent was playing some horrible practical joke. The next? That she couldn't be dead. I'd just spoken to her a week ago. Brent told me that Vicki had wanted to make sure I was thanked for my birthday present. She'd forgotten she'd already done that (I was on her mind too). I made sure that I told him I had never seen her happier than when she was with him. It was true. Their brief history together had a bit of a turbulent start--her parents (well, her father) disliked Brent intensely, and for no reason anyone else could see except that it was threatening to break up their domestic arrangement. She wound up having to move out, because they gave her a "him or us" ultimatum and she chose him. They hadn't spoken in a few years. Brent called them when Vicki was in the hospital, and they came running. Thank goodness that got mended while it could.

I couldn't even go to the funeral. I'd just used up all my vacation time and my extra money on a trip to Canada. I couldn't fly to Kansas. Brent promised to call me with an address to send flowers to, but he forgot. When I called again a few days later, the funeral had already happened. I'd missed the whole thing.

That night I had a very vivid dream. I was in a very ornate room. The furniture was all Victorian, in reds and golds. In the middle of the room was an oval table, made of mahogany and topped in white marble. On the table sat a large hurricane lamp, ruby-red, with the light burning in it. Inside the lamp there was a goldfish swimming. I went to the table, blew out the light, took the top off and got the fish out. It lay there in my hand, perfectly content--not gasping or anything--while with the other hand I cleaned out the lamp and replaced it with fresh fuel and a new wick. I put the fish back in the lamp, and it went back to swimming around and around. I lit the lamp, put the shade back on, and left the room, taking one last look over my shoulder to the lamp on the table, where the fish was watching me. It looked like it was waving at me.

I woke up knowing that was about Victoria, but not having the faintest idea what it meant. I'm still not quite sure.

So anyway, what was that? Distress call from Kansas, followed by a visit from the dead? Or me thinking of a friend because her birthday was approaching, and not believing I could leave town for a week and not get a phone call the whole time I was away? I should point out that just about everyone knew I was away, and I sometimes go for weeks without an incoming phone call.

And while we're at it, can anyone interpret that dream?