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Finding beauty in unexpected places after my friend’s death

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Class had just started when the text arrived announcing my friend was dying. "It's in her major organs now. There's no more treatment. Sorry to tell you this way."

I turned off my phone and stood to greet my students. I was present in the room and in the moment, yet simultaneously vacant, both standing in my body and floating outside it observing my own attempts at normalcy. My mind struggled to operate on both levels and ultimately failed. I handed out an exercise and asked students to write independently for the hour.

The next day, my friend was moved into palliative care. She died two days later, the morning after she'd said goodbye to each of her three children.

To ward off despair, I set out seeking beauty. And to my surprise I found it. In a splash of warm sunshine on my face, in the curiosity of a toddler examining a flower and in a yellow butterfly that came by right after I received word.

But despair still hovered, threatening to suffocate me.

There was the wake and funeral, songs and stories. My clichéd offer to her husband, "If there's anything I can do to help please ask," met with, "Thank you, I appreciate it," but no direct request.

So I set out again seeking beauty. And once again I found it. In a couple walking hand in hand over an arched footbridge, in notes from friends, the collective strength of neighbours and in a shady graveyard where families will be eventually reunited.

Routines continued: sleep, eat, shower, work, cook. Get everyone to school and practice, homework done, litter box emptied, garbage to the curb, laundry washed, gas in tank, papers marked, lectures prepared, library books returned.

Yet, in the empty moments in between, my quest for beauty continued. I found it now unexpectedly in my own home and routines, in the measured chaos of a family dinner and the quiet company of a soft cat.

Incrementally I moved on, as one does, as one must. Slowly. Confusion receded but didn't disappear until I had a chance encounter in a pizza restaurant.

I had zipped in, correct change in hand, to buy dough and get out as quickly as possible. From the corner of my eye I saw a woman rising from her table with difficulty. She was leaving at the same time as me, a takeout container in a plastic bag draped over one arm. Her other hand balanced on a cane. She struggled to push the door open enough to get through, so from behind her I extended my arm and opened it wider.

Glenn Harvey for The Globe and Mail

“Can you help me, please?” she then asked me, looking ahead to the curb. Her voice was clear, direct and accented. We linked arms briefly as I led her down to the parking lot.

“Miss, are you going to Wal-mart?” she asked. Her brown face was covered with age spots and skin tags.

“No, sorry,” I answered, glancing ahead to the street where cars were already bumper to bumper. Home was in the opposite direction and I wanted to leave before the traffic peaked. I’d finished my workday, had fresh pizza dough in hand and was anxious to pound it out into dinner for my family.

“Okay, miss. Thank you for all your help.” She shuffled toward the bus stop. Although it was warm she was wrapped in layers: paisley scarf around her head; denim, faux-fur-collared jacket; long black skirt with a slit that exposed one gauze-wrapped leg. Her gnarled toes with long-neglected nails poked over the end of flip-flops.

I got in my car, wondering how she would manage on the bus with such limited mobility. I pulled up next to her and lowered the passenger side window. “Let me drive you. It would be my pleasure.”

She slid into the seat and asked for help again, this time with the seatbelt. Once settled, she praised the city’s young people as being the kindest and most willing to help. “Middle-aged people just walk right by,” she said.

She was on her way to buy toothpaste. “It is a necessity, no? It used to be that sanitary pads were a necessity. Not any more for me!” She laughed. When she was a girl in Sri Lanka, she told me, they wore white robes as uniforms at her all-girls school. If a girl got menstrual blood on her robe she would camouflage the stain by drawing over it with white chalk.

It wasn’t typical small talk, but I followed the twisting path on which her words meandered. I asked what had brought her to Canada. She told me she had come 10 years ago to reunite with her brothers. They have both since died.

“Do you have any children?” I asked.

“No. My husband died 36 years ago before we had any. He had a heart attack when he was 38 and didn’t get to the hospital in time for treatment. Now I’m alone.”

We pulled into the parking lot. I got out of the car to open her door and help her to her feet. She reached up and grabbed my shoulders, pulling my face toward her own. She kissed me on the right cheek, then on the left. “God will bless you,” she told me.

I had not set out seeking beauty that day, but beauty sought me out instead – in the form of a frail old woman, unafraid to ask for help, and thus offering it.

Alison DeLory lives in Halifax.

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