Maxine died Monday. These few unforgettable moments are from August 2010.
There were fifteen of us at the Edgewood Diner, most of us retired from the Ashtabula County Board of Developmental Disabilities, where we had worked in the Adult Services Program at Ash/Craft Industries. Three or four were looking forward to returning to Florida at the first sign of winter.
After a few minutes of politely bringing everyone up to date with our lives, we began talking of the past and getting raucous. Like the eight million in the Naked City, we each had a story - in fact, most of us had several to share. We laughed at ourselves, we laughed at each other and we laughed at former colleagues who weren't there. We laughed at our frequent ineptitude and marveled at the even more frequent insight and brilliance of the people we were supposed to be helping.
I had been told several times over the years that I would know when it was time to retire. As it turned out, Multiple Sclerosis intervened and forced me to retire before I was ready. A few years earlier, I had a job that kept me on my feet most of the day, and at home I cut the grass, shoveled snow, cleaned the gutters, often made dinner, sometimes did the ironing, played ball with the kids, went to Little League games and band concerts, and took long, meandering walks. But now I spent most of my waking hours in a wheelchair.
Maxine was there, and she put it all in perspective for me. She is seventy-one, originally from Nova Scotia and has the most wonderful accent and self-deprecating sense of humor. She also has cancer, and she wore a baseball cap to hide the smattering of hair that had sprouted since her last series of treatments. Not long before I had heard Maxine might have just a few months to live. If she was suffering that night from either the disease or the treatments, it didn't show.
"Tom, tell me the truth now," she said when she came in, "do your loins still long for me."
It was vintage Max. Then she spent the evening telling her stories, wonderful stories. Like the time an Ash/Craft client - a woman who in appearance and attitude resembled the Maxine of greeting card fame - asked her if she had found a man.
"No, not yet," Maxine told her.
"Well," the client said, "if you'd fix yourself up a little maybe you could get one."
One day, Maxine was talking to the staff psychologist about care for the aged, and a client walked by and heard just a snippet of the conversation. Later in the day, the client went up to Maxine and asked: "So, how's your new boyfriend?"
"What new boyfriend?"
"Yeah, Jerry. You know, Jerry Atricks."
And there was the time a client put a bag of chocolate chip cookies on Maxine's desk. Maxine said she couldn't accept them, but the client kept insisting.
"I went to the doctor the other day," Maxine said, trying another approach. "He told me chocolate cause me to get cysts."
"Well, it doesn't give the shits," the client said.
As the gathering was breaking up, Maxine asked me, "How did this happen to two such wonderful people as ourselves?"
Neither of us had an answer, of course. I told her, in many ways I feel fortunate: I'm not suffering and I have good insurance. But the not being able to do all the things I once did gets me down.
"I know two things," Maxine said. "I'm not in control of this, and I have to take things one day at a time. This is my life, and I'm going to make the most of it."
Sometimes, the ebb and flow of life, like the tides, cannot be controlled. But sometimes, in small ways, it can. And I thank Maxine for reminding me.