On the Wings of Life

April 2021

Jane Salodof MacNeil

Jane Salodof MacNeil, On the Wings of Life

Journalist Jane Salodof MacNeil is a retired medical editor who is now writing the novels she finally has time to finish. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I lost someone important to me recently, but this isn’t a story about loss. It’s a story about life.

My friend Audrey was born in 1930, and I came along in the first batch of baby boomers. Sixty-four years later we met in a community built so LGBTQ seniors would have a welcoming place to grow old. Audrey and her husband Bill were among the first straight couples to move in. By the time my husband, also Bill, and I arrived, the population was a blend of seasoned spirits eager to share their humanity.

Audrey spent much of her life guiding young people in university campus ministries and a scholar enrichment program at the University of Oklahoma. In retirement she embraced neighbors considerably more mature but no less engaged. We attended a Metropolitan Opera broadcast and drag shows, listened to live jazz and lectures, shared holiday dinners and heartbreak. What we most had in common was ailing husbands whose time was running out.

Through it all, Audrey was fun. A group came together for a weekly ladies’ night of snacks and stories. Audrey’s were the best. She’d crossed the ocean on a student ship for a postwar bicycle tour. Young Americans on bikes? Europeans were stunned to see them. Her first job after college was in Texas. Because she was a single woman, a banker required her “daddy’s signature” on a loan application. Audrey responded by closing her account. In Oklahoma she oversaw a dorm that housed one of her institution’s first Black students. Word came that a mob was about to storm the building in protest. They didn’t get in, Audrey confided with a laugh. A recent panty raid had taught her girls how to fend off an attack.

I lost someone important to me recently, but this isn’t a story about loss. It’s a story about life.

Time caught up, as it always does. Our husbands died, and my friend’s health declined. Audrey was still Audrey, spirits high and mind intact despite mounting physical limitations. In time, she moved to a skilled nursing facility, and her room was filled with guests and laughter whenever I visited.

After about a month, Audrey was rushed to a hospital where she nearly died of a blood clot in her lung. She wore a Do Not Resuscitate band on her wrist, but the staff ignored it. For the first time, I heard her complain. She’d been ready to die—indeed, she felt she had died. Why had the treatment team brought her back? What was done couldn’t be undone, and she returned to the nursing facility on hospice with a standing order for a cocktail every afternoon at 4:30.

And then came COVID-19. Suddenly no visitors were allowed. Phone calls had to do. Mostly we talked about the news and people who had died. It felt as if the whole world was out of kilter. “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4) took on an unforeseen urgency. Sheltering at home, I obsessed so much about family I’d lost over the years, it seemed they’d moved back in. The more I cherished their presence, real or not, the more I realized how grateful I was to have had loved ones to mourn, how empty life would have been without those I missed, and how my friend sounded weaker each time I called.

Audrey died in June, a week after her daughter arrived for a visit conducted through an open window. A funeral was arranged that close family and friends could watch remotely. Just five of us attended in person. At Audrey’s request the minister read the Mary Elizabeth Frye poem telling us not to weep, that we should look for Audrey in the wind and rain, in circling birds and the stars at night, that she did not die.

Maybe I wasn’t listening. I just couldn’t help feeling my wise, gregarious, compassionate friend deserved a better send-off. Afterward, I sat disgruntled on an outdoor bench facing her grave. That’s when something almost struck my face. There was no missing a bright, beautiful butterfly—symbol of life and death, of spirit and transformation—rushing past as if on hyperdrive. Unexpectedly, I felt consoled. Audrey was telling me her spirit lived. She was free.

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