My Friend Gretchen

I moved back to my hometown in late 2002, and left my friends of 17 years back in Texas. I got a nursing (RN) job fairly quickly, but then the dysautonomia and seizures made it impossible for me to continue working, even after finding a ‘desk job’ as an RN. I passed out too often to be employable. SO, I was at home. People here don’t keep in touch with ‘throw away’ co-workers, so I didn’t really have friends. There was nobody to list on any ‘who to call’ paperwork, except for my dad. So I was at home pretty much all the time. I had some really nice neighbors. ‘L’ lived directly across the parking lot from me, and Gretchen, and her daughther ‘E’ lived upstairs from ‘L’.  I became friends with ‘L’ first- mostly since I saw her the most, though I saw Gretchen periodically, and ‘E’ when she was home from college.  ‘L’ eventually moved to a condo, and Gretchen moved ‘L”s apartment downstairs.

For a while, we saw each other in the parking lot, and also got used to each other’s routines. She knew when my vertical blinds had been closed too much, and I knew when she was grading papers at her dining room table. I later found out that when she thought I hadn’t been seen for ‘too long’ she’d call the apartment complex office to see if they’d heard anything- to be sure I was OK.  I spent a lot of time in the hospital for sometimes weeks at a time- so she’d check up on me. She’d see my dad checking in on my dog (Mandy), and since they knew someone in common, they’d chat.  Gretchen taught 4th grade for many years in a neighboring school district.  Eventually, we talked more. I’d see when her grandson (first grandchild) was brought to see her when he was tiny, and other times when her daughters (‘A’ – the baby’s mom, and ‘E’, the college student) visited.  Being on disability, and home the vast majority of the time, afforded me a lot of time to see who was coming and going.  We always talked when we saw each other, but it was more ‘parking lot neighbors’ kind of stuff.

I forget which one of us had a knee replacement first, but that gave us something in common. We’d commiserate over the rehab process.  Then Gretchen started having other health issues, and also had to go on disability.  I understood what it was like to have a profession taken awayIt’s not the same as retiring. It’s being robbed of something that is truly loved, and having no way to get it back. It hurts.  I ‘got it’.  We started talking more, and becoming actual friends. If she needed me to go get her car when she’d have to go to the hospital, I was glad to help out.   I don’t consider a friend someone who is paid to be in the same place at the same time (that’s a co-worker- and friendly co-workers are incredibly important, and can become friends). Someone who is paid to provide a service isn’t a friend- though they can be friendly. To me, a friend is someone who shares common interests and is loyal and fun to be around.  Gretchen was a friend.

She decided to move closer to ‘A’ and her son-in-law  in another state, which was really hard, but I was also happy for her. She had a grandson she adored, and a granddaughter on the way. She was so excited.  ‘E’ was doing well in school, and she was so proud of her.  And we still had my unlimited phone plan (I had a landline; she had her cell phone), so keeping in touch wasn’t a problem. It would be different, though.  I could call Gretchen when she lived across the parking lot and ask if she’d eaten yet… her reply was “I’ll get the car.”  And off we’d go in literally less than five minutes.  She’d show me her latest treasures from the Target discount racks, and be so excited. I think she went to Target at least 3-4 times a week; sometimes I’d tag along.  I haven’t been able to go there since she’s been gone…  She called me when she couldn’t get her quilts in a ‘Space Bag’, and we’d fold and shove and vacuum until the thing worked.

Gretchen had had another knee replacement and began having complications. She had fallen, and also had some tendons fall apart and an infection.  She had several more surgeries, and we’d talk daily about something, either in the hospital or in one of the rehab centers (she knew I’d worked in rehab and nursing homes as an RN, so I knew what was acceptable care), as well as during TV shows we both liked.  It was a rough time for her.  She did come back to this town for a month not long after her granddaughter was born, and ‘A’ and her family had taken a trip.  We did a lot of thrift store shopping for the grandkids (we packed the Jeep absolutely full), and had fun just goofing off together.  She had an infection brewing in her leg, and we’d gone to Walgreens…both of us had forgotten our glasses. Fortunately, she could see close up, and I could see distances, so between the two of us, we got some panty liners to put on her leg to sop up the drainage from her leg. It was a bit unconventional, but it worked.  We just laughed about our combined visual deficiencies, and how we made it work 🙂 We always found something to laugh about !

After she had the last surgery, she was in a long-leg cast, but Gretchen wasn’t one to sit around.  She wanted to be mobile ASAP, and didn’t let a wheelchair or cast keep her from moving herself from chair to bed, or wherever she needed to go (like in front of her computer to order stuff for the grandkids and her daughters).   She’d been through a lot after the last knee replacement, and it seemed like things were going well.  She was going to be by herself one weekend morning, and she’d asked me to call her just to see if she was OK- and I had no problem with that; we talked all the time anyway (or she’d e-mail me; I just found a few of her old e-mails that had been saved the other day… kinda freaked me out). 

I called as planned, and got no answer. I knew something was going on- ‘A’s home phone had multiple lines; even if someone was on one line, another would be open. And, they weren’t supposed to be there. Gretchen was supposed to be home alone. Something was wrong.  I tried several more times, and was trying to figure out what to do if I couldn’t get ahold of her.  And then ‘A’ called me. I knew before she told me.  Gretchen had died.  They’d found her on the floor that morning.  Whatever happened had been fast.  She had some other medical issues, so there were very plausible reasons for a sudden death… and it was sudden and unexpected.  It was later found that she’d been on the computer as late as 1:00 a.m. that morning; she was found before 8:00 a.m., or so.  I was stunned.  My friend was gone. My friend’s daughters, son-in-law (who she also adored), and grandkids had lost an amazing part of their family.

Since then,  twin granddaughters were born less than 2 years after Gretchen died. She would have been so excited and  having so much  fun with all four of those beautiful kids.  I keep in touch with ‘A’, and her husband, and ‘E’, which has been great.  I see the updated photos on FaceBook.  I know Gretchen would be so proud of all of them.  Her heart was so big, and she loved them all so much.

I don’t think Gretchen ever met a stranger, she was just one of those people who was kind and really cared about people. She got a bunch of kids’ hats, mittens, and socks when we’d go thrift store shopping for kids in her class who didn’t have much.  She thought about what other people were going through when she had a lot of her own stuff going on. But her family made her light up more than anything.  I was so angry that she was missing out on them… on those incredible grandkids growing up, on ‘E”s life after college and grad school (and that she’s working for Target !!), the twins (that she never knew about), and so many of her friends and her former students.

But I got to know Gretchen for a few years.  Very few people have been in my life for such a relatively short period of time and left such an impression.  She was a real friend. I’m lucky to have known her. ❤

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