Felicia Friesema is teaching me to live.
Felicia is the wife of my friend Steve Julian. Steve and I met a number of years ago—when his former high school principal was exposed as a predator priest. Although Steve was not a victim, the priest and Steve had tangled over an editorial then-student Steve had written for the Damien High School (LaVerne, CA) student paper. Finding out the priest was a predator only confirmed Steve’s less-than-amicable feelings for the guy.
I loved having lunch with Steve. We’d talk about the play (a little) and then we’d talk about life. Stuff. Each other. Because we weren’t in each other’s social circles, we had a bit of freedom to bounce problems off each other. We could talk about our fears (his was health, ironically) with candor—without causing the other to worry. He taught me to be patient. To embrace silence in a conversation. I love his friendship and I love him.
And when Steve talked about Felicia, he glowed. This year was going to be their second Christmas as a married couple. Steve told me how he envisioned a long and happy life together (and his continual Facebook updates were testament to that).
But things have changed.
Very recently, Steve was diagnosed with a stage four Glioblastoma Multiforme. It’s a tumor in his brain that is robbing him of his memory, his motor skills, and his words. (For those of you who know Steve as the morning host of KPCC’s Morning Edition, you know how tragic this is).
I haven’t seen Steve in a few months, so I did not see the rapid onset of the tumor and the even faster decline in Steve’s function.
But then Felicia began to write.
She posts updates on Caring Bridge, a site where family members of people who are ill can post updates and keep friends and family informed. I’ve followed other friends on the site, and usually the posts are simple—who, what, and where. How to help. Where to bring food.
Felicia’s entries are anything but simple.
Yes, she does post what she and Steve are enduring: cross-city trips for radiation, Steve’s frustration, Felicia’s exhaustion, surgeries, care, middle-of-the-night issues.
And then she goes further. She talks about life. About fear. About dying and acceptance. About learning to ask for help and feeling comfortable in asking people to give them privacy.
But mostly (and I don’t even think that she knows this), Felicia talks about love:
Life and death are unfair. It’s a constant of our existence. Suffering is universal, no matter what we do to avoid it. The only thing that makes any of it worthwhile is the love we share with one another. We have been the recipients of so much astounding beauty, reconciliation, and devotion the past few weeks. It’s a cooling salve on the heat of our emotions.
Or their first Christmas together, as opposed to their second:
We had little fantasies about buying some land in Waimea and raising some small livestock. I said sheep or goats, he was more for chickens. Sheep don’t lay eggs, he said. True enough. But I’m a big fan of sheep’s milk. An argument for another time.Our second Christmas as a married couple was not as humid or warm or full of new things to see, but it was saturated with love from so many different places.
She’s brutally honest … and funny:
“Do you want to tell folks anything for the holiday?”“Sure.”
“I’ll type it for you.”
He paused thoughtfully.“Fuck it.”
She talks about paperwork and encourages her friends to get an advanced care directive, durable power of attorney, and living trust done (I also do, by the way).
She talks about the importance of trying:
Except to ask the question, “what if the treatment doesn’t work?” And even if it does, the prognosis is still a punch to the gut. Steve asked me that question last night. I told him that we would have to make another hard decision.
He asked why we were even bothering to try. He knew the size and aggressiveness of the tumor. The oncology team was incredibly candid about outcomes, statistics, and likely scenarios. I don’t know how his brain encodes memories anymore, but a lot of the important things seem to stick. Those oncology frank talks seem to be one of the sticky memories. And if he’s going to die anyway, why bother with putting him through treatment?
How would you answer that? It took my last bit of control to keep it together and tell him, “because we have to try, babe. We have to at least try to kill this tumor. And if it doesn’t work, or if it’s too much, you tell me. You tell me and we’ll stop.” He nodded. I hoped that was one of the encoded memories.
I believe Felicia is writing to heal. I think she’s writing to express what is going on and to make sense of the chaos that has become everyday life to her and Steve. She’s writing to find forgiveness for the hand they have been dealt.
But she is accomplishing so much more than that. It’s the reason I re-read her entires. She’s teaching us all how to live. How to love. How to mourn for what is happening to Steve. How to show our sadness and love.
I have never met Felicia. But I will forever consider myself in debt to her. Not just for taking care of Steve, but for showing me—all of us—how to live with grace.