Clearing away the receipts, letters, and documents that cover my desk I came across my own business card with a woman’s name, Pat, and phone number on the back. It brought back a lot of memories. It’s not what you think. It’s a true story that goes back a ways.
I met Pat seven years ago. With no family in town, Pat, like many others, gathered with others at a neighborhood pub some evenings for conservation, a way to keep loneliness at bay. (For those who work all day only to face an evening alone, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. are the loneliest hours of the day. Meeting others provides a balm.)
When I think of lonely people I’ve met I always see Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, one of American art’s most recognizable paintings. It portrays a couple and a man sitting at an all-night diner. That painting to me represents a dignified loneliness and Pat always seemed to be a bit melancholy.
Mutual friends introduced us and it so happened that she was a fan of books and writers. We became friends and I enjoyed seeing her out and about at Bonefish and the Bistro on Lake Murray Boulevard. She’d light up when discussing a book she enjoyed.
She started reading my work and never failed to say nice things. (How we love people who make us feel better about ourselves.) Pat became my ambassador and bumping into her always made the night more enjoyable. She loved talking about books. She told others about my work and last spring she introduced me to an out-of-work English teacher who wanted to write a book. What became of her book I do not know.
Spring 2014 came and went and summer arrived. Wednesday night at Bonefish is the “Bang Bang Shrimp Special” and that night draws a lot of so-called regulars. I’d always see Pat there talking to her friends down at the end of the bar. June passed into July and one warm Wednesday evening Pat was not at the local Bonefish as was her habit. A friend came over. “Did you hear about Pat?” Her grim expression caused me to listen intently.
Two weeks ago, she said, Pat had been out with friends one night when she picked up her cell phone and asked, “What is this thing? What does it do?” Everybody laughed … Pat was making an uncharacteristic joke. When they realized she was serious, alarm set in. Later, after some more out-of-character comments and behavior, they got her to a doctor.
Brain cancer had struck.
Pat moved to Rock Hill to live with one of her daughters and it was there that she had brain surgery. Time passed and it was hard for us to get reports about her. For a good while it was as if she had ceased to exist. One night at Bonefish, a friend wrote Pat’s name and cell number on the back of my business card, the one I’m looking at now. “Call her,” she said. “Pat would love to hear from you.”
I called several times to get what I hoped was a good progress report but all I got was her “leave-a-message” recording. Summer gave way to fall and one day I got an email from a mutual friend. “Tom, would you mind signing your new book (Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II) and bringing it to Bonefish so all Pat’s friends can write get well wishes in it? I’ll get it to her daughter in Rock Hill.”
I signed the book and wrote a personal note of encouragement to Pat. So did her friends. Her daughter got the book and gave it to her mother. An interlude passed and again we heard nothing. We called and left messages hoping someone would call back and let us know how things were going. Nothing.
More time passed.
I was working one afternoon when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number and I decided to let it roll into voicemail since bloodsucking telemarketers call all the time. At the last second something told me to pick up the phone. It was Pat.
I had trouble understanding her … her speech was labored and she was crying. Among the broken phrases and long pauses I made out a few words … “Thank you … for … the beautiful book … I’m sorry … I have … a hard time … talking.” And then she broke sobbed and amid all the crying the phone went dead. I told Pat’s friends that I had heard from her but then a lot more time passed.
December 9 I got a message from Pat’s other daughter who had driven up from the Lowcountry to see her mom. “Pat is my mom and I am visiting her. The book means so much to her. Thank you for thinking of her. She loves it. She is not doing well at all. This is so sad.”
A bad feeling took hold. And with good reason. Pat died December 15. She was 68. I had forgotten or never knew that she was a native of North Carolina. Later I learned that Pat kept my book close by to the end. I want to think that it was, perhaps her last book.
Eighteen days later on December 27 I received another message from her daughter. “We looked at the book together the night before she got too sick to respond … tears. Thanks for being a great friend to her.”
People contact me a good bit about my books. Most just want a signed book to give as a gift … It might be a birthday, retirement, or going away gift. I hear too from people who are curious about books. Most of the time they want to know how long it took to write it. “How did you get the idea to do this?” many ask. “Why did you decide to do this?” ask others.
Yes, why. We who write books do so for many reasons. Sometimes we want to add to the storehouse of knowledge. Other times we want to express a certain view on life. A creative itch needs scratching, too, you could say. I had never encountered a situation like Pat’s, though, where a book brought a degree of comfort at the end of life. Her friends who wanted to make my book into a super get-well card had a great idea. And so, life surprised me with the best purpose of all, though unintended. Giving a friend a way to see the beauty that surrounded her as her life itself ended much too soon. The best reason of all.