Nori gathered interesting people as so many pearls, valued for their own merits. I was one such pearl in her long strand of friends, keeping company with a vast array of shiny people.
It took me decades to find a kindred spirit, but in one afternoon we developed a relationship strong enough to make up for the time we missed. I keep myself close, with an affection for many people, but a deep mistrust of all things human. My friend Nori, on the other hand, charged fearlessly into friendship. I observed this phenomenon with interest, like studying a mystifying insect, with both horror and fascination.
The first time I connected with Nori we were hiking. I had met her multiple times, but this was our first adventure as a pair. We waded along the trail through the bog, the water flooding over the walkway. We started talking, and began an almost comical conversation of, “You did that? I did too!” We crunched through stiff pine needles, softening the trail. We discovered that our childhoods were reflections of each other, caring for siblings, discovering new worlds in books. We listened to the chickadees call. We shared a need for introspection, a curiosity for all things, and relentless optimism. We listened to the stream rushing with the weight of melted snow, smelling like life. She was me, just a little older, a little wiser, a little more zen. We peeled back the layers of our lives and shared the sweet, sharp bits in-between.
She was already sick on that day, we just didn’t know it.
When she told me she started by saying, “I don’t want you to worry, but…” A diagnosis – cancer. Not the kind you recover from. I began to dread those words, “I don’t want you to worry, but…”
How could someone so vibrant ever die? Her body was inconsequential in the face of her will. The doctors must have it wrong.
A year passed. She slowly worsened. Still, Nori carried her hopefulness and tenacity right through.
I started visiting her almost every weekday, making sure she ate, making sure she was ok, helping her with errands and shopping. One afternoon with a bite in the air I went to check on her. Nori laid on the couch, propped up on pillows, her once-strong arms frail. “In a minute, I’ll get up,” she said, keeping her eyes closed. I watched her thin hand stroke her blanket, pulling pleasure from the softness.
“Sure you will,” I said. I kept just the right amount of perkiness in my voice.
A cooking show droned on in the background. I sat in the rattan egg chair, rocking. I tried to appear calm and relaxed while I watched her. She was sneaky. She’d pretend she was fine, always onward, but you could tell when it was a bad day. Pinched lips and a certain squint were the closest thing to an admission to pain.
She patted at the fuzz of hair that had grown back, flipping her skinny little braid away. When she first started losing hair I bought her headscarves, do-rags, colorful and silky. The best one, her favorite, rainbow tie dye. Even when chemo took her hair, she refused to cut off her braid. Her once luxurious hair dwindled down to a tiny little queue. Somehow that braid was hope, and as long as she didn’t cut it, she had it.
She did not open her eyes or move. “I hope you’re prepared for an adventure. I want to go to the Thai place today. I have to try their appetizers.” She was a honey badger when she had a mission, no time for quibbles or the protestation of body parts. You couldn’t be a bad influence on Nori, she was like a river surging down a mountain, a force of nature in her own right.
She opened her eyes and leaned forward, groaning. Her skin was yellow, but it had been yellow for so long that it was normal. I didn’t even see it any more.
Nori nodded as she said, “I think we need to bring the wheelchair this time. If we have it, we won’t need it.” This woman who hiked mountains on crutches and spurred old people to new heights. She drove you forward, flotsam in her wake.
Telling Nori she shouldn’t do something was an excellent way to get her to do it. So I went for diplomacy. “Are you sure you want to do this today? You don’t want to do this another time?”
“There won’t be another time.” She didn’t make eye contact when she said it, didn’t put extra weight in her tone. I felt my heart stop, electricity sizzling through my limbs and the top of my head. Time slowed as I felt the weight of grief try to yank my heart down through my stomach. I kept it off my face as I watched her stand.
We loaded up, and I drove. The ride to to the restaurant seemed to take two minutes. We chatted the whole way. We had barely left and we were there, having already solved half of the world’s problems.
She stubborned her way into the restaurant, sans wheelchair. The smells of Thai food greeted us as we were seated. She pretended to peruse the menu, then went ahead and ordered every single appetizer.
When they brought them out we tried each. She couldn’t eat much so she cut hers in half.
We discussed which we liked, which we didn’t. Shrimp Satay with peanut sauce. We were so alike in many ways, so different in others. Kratong Thong with ground chicken and Thai spices. Each dish was a new experiment, to be tested and compared. Shumai in a wonton skin. It was exciting to see how someone else reacted to the same food, what they thought and how they liked it.
We talked about our adventures as we ate. Our trips to the art museum. Our Boston donut pilgrimage. Strawberry picking with the kids. Driving an hour to get four very good chocolates. Going to Chinatown for Dim Sum. Making “woofie pies” for the four-year-old on her birthday.
Two hours later we had tried every single appetizer on the menu, and probably the patience of the waitress and chef. But she was satisfied.
By the end of the meal her pain had ratcheted up. A pinch in her forehead, a shifting in her chair.
She was quiet on the ride home.
I had convinced myself that she was invincible, mind over matter. No one with that much stubborn willpower could die, no matter how sick their body was.
But something was different. The pain was too much, or the body too worn out. Something had changed during that supper of appetizers.
That night was the first time I cried for Nori, the tidal wave of grief crashing down. Less than a week later she was gone. At the viewing she was all decked out in a purple dress, but it did not look like her, sunken and tiny. Still her tiny braid was tucked away, and her husband cut off his ponytail to send with her.
At her memorial the church was filled with people who shared stories of compassion, of acceptance, of a kindred spirit… Nori was a seeker… She believed that love is enough… Nori treasured people… She made people feel special… She savored life… They told of more adventures, of trips to deliver holiday cookies, of birthday lunches, of friendships deep and true. I can see now that Nori was the greatest pearl. She strung together decades of disparate people, holding them together in her capable hands. She was a source of encouragement and comfort, helping people see the value in themselves. There will never be another like her.