In August of 2008, two months before author Liz Aleshire died, I was one of six friends — all women, all writers – who gathered on Cape Cod to complete her manuscript, 101 Ways You Can Help: How To Offer Comfort And Support To Those Who Are Grieving. The book was to be a tribute to her son, Nathan, who had died thirteen years earlier of bone cancer. He was sixteen.
On the day we arrived at the Cape, Liz called from the hospital and spoke with each of us about what how much it meant to her that we would put our lives on hold to finish her book. We, in turn, let her know how lucky we were to have a friend for whom we would so eagerly make such a sacrifice. I had organized the project in mid-July when Liz took a turn for the worse. Emergency open-heart surgery had not delivered a miracle.
In that phone call, Liz asked what we had learned in finishing her book. For me, it was seeing how much pain she’d hidden all these years behind a smile. I learned how carefully Liz avoided talking about Nathan’s death. She had lived through every parent’s nightmare and knew that talking about it made people uncomfortable, enough to drive friends away. Not us.
On the day we arrived in Wellfleet, we combed the beach, each of us looking for two perfect stones. That night, we painted a word or symbol on one of our stones, something we hoped Liz’s spirit was ready to shed. On our last evening, we walked down the steps and gathered in a circle for a releasing ritual. We envisioned Liz's body free from pain, her mind free of depression, her heart free of sorrow. One by one, each of us walked out at low tide, prayed in our own fashion, and threw our stone as far as we could.
Like the others, I climbed back up the steps with the second stone in my pocket. On that second stone, each of us had drawn a symbol of Liz’s strength, some quality that enabled her to get through those painful years. Those symbols might have been for her humor, resilience, loyalty, compassion, wisdom, to name a few. We would honor Liz by keeping her gift alive.
Liz died on October 13. She lived long enough to see the cover of her book. It was published in the spring of 2009. I can think about her now and not feel that gut-wrenching pain. Maybe that’s because I have a literal touchstone. On mine, I wrote “Friendship.”