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Hattie

Penance was probably the reason I walked an elderly lady around the drug store helping her shop. I had left her waiting behind me while I grilled the pharmacy assistant about drugs. So when the senior asked the assistant to help her locate several items – “I can’t read the labels,” she said – I stepped forward.

As we circled the store selecting her favorite things, she told me how she had inexplicably lost the sight in one of her eyes and the other is too blurry to read things close up.

Mission accomplished, she heaped praise on me, failing to see that she had done me the favor. As Gwyneth Paltrow once said, we can only truly feel love by doing it – not by receiving it from someone else.

Our interlude later reminded me of something I am finding increasingly painful: Hattie, my former neighbor, surrogate mother, best friend and earlier enemy, is turning 83 this month and she is slowing down.

She, too, has lost sight in one eye after a stroke and is now having trouble with the “good” eye. Add to that the number arthritis is doing on her and she is moving more like a turtle than a jack rabbit - something I never imagined in the 30 years we were neighbors.

In our early years, we fought over her ivy – a cancer crawling all over my fence. And she had opinions about everything I did, including leaving my sprinkler on until I flooded her ditch.

I think the day we got over the bickering was in ’89 when we stood, hugging each other, while The Big One rattled our common fence and we checked on each other throughout the night.

Nowadays when I visit her we have kvetching sessions about our arthritis and bad backs and she usually wins. However, on days that I up the ante with each new complaint, we usually end up dissolving in laughter.

You have to picture Hattie to understand why her slowing down is so shocking. This sturdy German, staunch Catholic and Republican (we don’t talk religion or politics), decades after her military husband died, has groomed her acre of plants and gardens fastidiously.

She works from sunup to sunset, climbing the roof to paint the eaves, scrubbing windows, mending fences. She has more tools than a plumber and has taught me every handy woman trick I know. Albeit, she is a perfectionist and my fix-ups usually dangle by a thread.

But we both Git ‘er dun.

Anyway, it’s hard to see her limping with a cane now. I’d rather think of her at 55, taking her daily constitutional with her Iris Setter: both of them with long, reddish brown tresses shining and swinging in the sun.

I love the way she stands at the door when I am leaving her house and never closes the door until I am out of sight; how she allows me to drop in any time of night or day and always has time for me.

I am struck remembering the inspiration for Iris Dart’s book “Beaches,” which became a blockbuster movie. In our interview, Dart recalled her lifelong friend who once said to her, “I sure hope I die before you, because I can't imagine living in a world without you.”

I so empathize. And all I can do about Hattie’s aging is to cherish every single day that my beloved friend and I share on this planet . . .

 

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