In the early spring of 2022, COVID-19 had taken away too much time, too many lives, and a quality of life I believed we’d never get back.
“You know what, hon?”
His eyebrow arched. My husband recognized the tone in my voice. I knew he was wondering how much work I was about to create for him.
“No, but I can bet you’re going to tell me, right?”
I couldn’t wait to see his face light up. “Since we can go out as long as we continue to avoid crowds, what do you say we go and open up the cabin?”
Maybe this trip could restore some sense of normalcy. I guess in the grand scheme of things; the cottage-style building wasn’t much. But to us, our kids, and even our friends, the cabin was a refuge. Somewhere to go when the world was too big and too noisy. A place where cell phones didn’t work, there wasn’t a computer in sight, and so, there was nothing to do but have fun.
Dave’s face lit up like the small boy he once was on a Christmas morning. “Yeah? You think we should? It would be great to get out of town for a bit. We haven’t had a vacation since when?”
I watched him lean back and close those big beautiful blue eyes. It took him a bit, but then he looked at me askance.
“Has it really been since our trip to see the kids for Christmas in 2019?”
“Yes, and I think it’s more than time to open the cabin. It will do us both some good.”
When we first bought the cottage, it wasn’t more than a three-room hut. Running water was a figment of the imagination, so there was a quaint little outhouse out back. But luckily, the cabin sat on a large piece of property and it bordered a lake.
Dave took on the ‘cottage project,’ the way he did everything else. By the time we’d owned it for a couple of years, it had running water and a larger footprint. The cottage boasted four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a gourmet kitchen. He didn’t care about the resale value – which went up dramatically - but he felt that our vacation home should be a refuge from the world, and not simply an opportunity to live in the wilderness.
After he completed the majority of the work, I said to Dave, “It always amazes me the things you can do. I know you never did some of this type of work before. How on earth did you figure it out?”
“Magic, woman. Magic.”
We both laughed and it’s still a memory etched on the surface of my heart, among others where he amazed me.
In many ways, I preferred the cabin to our home in the city. The open floorplan and vaulted ceiling made everything seem spacious.
If you were in the kitchen cooking, you could still see others as they played a game or worked on a puzzle. Conversations could be held from almost every room, and there weren’t any complications like dueling stereos or people only looking down at their phones.
When we were at the cabin, our kids talked to us, played games, and talked about heavy issues like sex, drinking, drugs, and their plans for the future.
Our nuclear family spent numerous weekends, and at least two full weeks every summer at our little oasis. On one momentous Christmas, we spent the holiday season in the cottage. I think I took more pictures that year than any other, and I hung several of the best ones in the cabin to preserve the memories.
After our children graduated from high school and went in pursuit of their dreams, the cottage became a second honeymoon spot for Dave and me. No TV, and no distractions, left us plenty of time to talk and dream.
And then we began to bring our friends to the cabin for weekends full of playing cards, watching old movies on the ancient VCR, and on one special birthday celebration, drinking ourselves into oblivion.
But when the world became infectious in 2020, our lives were in upheaval. Dave was able to keep working because his company was considered essential, but I was confined to the house. My myriad of underlying conditions made the outside world a dangerous place for me.
While we couldn’t do a lot of things during the pandemic, the worst was not seeing our good friends, Pete and Brynda. Since they loved our cabin almost as much as we did, Dave and I decided to invite them to come with us to the reopening.
And it turned out; some other friends would be in town that weekend. Rather than have to leave Pete and Brynda out of our plans, I told them to bring Jack and Cheryl, also.
It wasn’t as if we didn’t all know one another. The six of us had all met one another separately before we started hanging out as couples.
Pete and Jack were old friends – like since high school. Cheryl worked at the same plant as Brynda and my hubby, Dave. Since I did income taxes every year, Brynda was a client, and she introduced me to Cheryl. Then, Cheryl became a tax client, too.
Cheryl and Jack met when he went to work at the same company, and when they started to date seriously, Cheryl made Jack come to me so I could get all of his tax returns up to date.
So, it only made sense that the six of us would be friends. We spanned an age group of about four years – with Cheryl as the oldest, and my hubby as the youngest.
During that time, we’d all raised our kids and became grandparents. We’d gone on three cruises together and played so many games of Hearts; we could tell what someone had in their hand just by the look on their faces.
We’d laughed and cried together for almost thirty years, and there wasn’t much we hadn't shared.
Or at least we thought so.
Whenever we all got together, we would bring our dogs. We had two Maltese mixes, and Pete and Brynda had three beagles. Jack and Cheryl had a big husky who thought she was a little dog, so it was always entertaining to watch her play with the others. The first few hours with the dogs were usually rough, but once they all got used to one another, it would be quiet, and that way, no one had to leave their dogs in a kennel.
As I’d expected, the weekend started great. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. Blue skies, comfortable temperatures, and a soft breeze from the lake, all worked together to calm my nerves. After being cooped up indoors for most of the last two years, it was wonderful to be in the great outdoors.
When we first got there, I opened all the windows and made the beds with the sheets I’d freshly washed at home. There were small vases with flowers in each bedroom, and I felt like an amazing hostess.
My hubby put away all the groceries and supplies. We both knew the other couples would be bringing food, too, so we made sure to leave some room in the fridge.
Cheryl and Jack got there next, and they didn’t disappoint when it came to the food. Six luscious T-bones made my mouth water, along with a flat of fresh strawberries. The small cottage was starting to feel full.
Full of love and the company of good friends.
Around six-thirty, Pete and Brynda pulled into the wooded area. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something didn’t seem quite right when they came into the cottage.
Brynda was very quiet as she put away their groceries, and I knew she saw the T-Bones, but she didn’t say a single word about them. Now, that woman appreciates a good steak, and I knew at once—something was amiss.
Jack cocked his head over Pete as if to say, ‘do you know what’s up?’ I waited until Pete couldn’t see me before I shook my head, no. Cheryl must’ve noticed it because she started in on Brynda, asking her if anything was wrong.
Now if I only knew one thing about Brynda, I would say it’s that she’s a very private person. Until she’s ready to spill her guts, (which almost always happens – eventually,) you can’t get anything out of her.
I started to feel a little edgy. I didn’t want some stupid problems to ruin this weekend. I always looked forward to our time at the lake. And the silly COVID-19 virus kept us from coming up here for far too long.
Pointedly, I said to Brynda. “Isn’t it nice and quiet up here? It feels like there isn’t a care in the world.”
“Oh, I don’t know. There are some cares even your beautiful cabin can’t push away.”
She sounded pretty pissy, so I came back with, “My beautiful cabin? Oh, come now. It isn’t the place; it’s the fact we’re all together.”
Brynda shocked everyone when she burst into tears.
Pete rushed to her side, Dave and Jack stopped working on the fireplace, and Cheryl rushed over from the kitchen.
“Shhhh. It’s okay. We’re all here. We love you,” Cheryl patted Brynda on the back as she rubbed in a circular motion.
“I know you all love me, and I love you, too. It’s just... it’s just, oh, I can’t tell you all.”
I looked at Pete, and his eyes wouldn’t meet mine. So, I knew that at least he knew about whatever was going on with Brynda.
Dave looked up at me and shook his head almost imperceivably. Brynda was his friend first, and I knew they had shared war stories for years. Whenever he needed another female opinion, it was always Brynda he went to. She also helped him come up with great ideas for birthdays and Christmas. She was a huge part of the foundation of our marriage.
I felt my tears coming. I didn’t like to see anyone else cry. Despite not knowing what was going on with my friend, I hurt because she was obviously in pain.
Cheryl took Brynda in her arms and gave her a big hug.
I watched Brynda take a long shuddery breath, and then she relaxed.
“Okay, okay," as she pulled herself free from Cheryl's embrace. "You can let me go now. I’m ready to talk.”
With those words, we all sat down in various seats. I perched on the arm of the loveseat where Brynda and Cheryl were sitting. Pete came from behind it and sat on the floor at Brynda’s feet. Dave sat in one armchair, and Jack sat in the other.
We did our best not to stare and waited for her to begin.
“I had to go to the doctor the other day. Remember the dry hacking cough I got back in April of 2020?”
Everyone shook their heads. We’d all been scared she had ‘it.’ I suddenly felt a pit in the bottom of my stomach. What was she about to tell us?
“So, it turns out I had a weaker version of it. I didn’t end up in the hospital on a respirator, but it damaged my already fragile kidneys and liver.”
“What are you saying?” Cheryl’s hand immediately went to the pearls that were constant in her wardrobe.
A small sniffle came from Pete, and I knew. It was about to happen. Our little group of friends was going to experience our first loss.
And it was only a matter of minutes before everyone knew. None of us could look at one another. Everyone was sniffing or wiping at their eyes.
Dave spoke up. “What comes next, Bryn?”
“They’re going to start me on dialysis next week. I’m on the list for a kidney transplant, but there’s not much hope I’ll move any further up the list.”
“Really? You mean, they’re just going to let you die?” My voice was strained, and I was doing my best to keep from sobbing.
“It’s not really up to them. My body is just tired. And, frankly, so am I.”
An eerie silence filled the great room of the cabin. The moment engraved itself on my heart, and I knew we were all in for some pain over the next few months.
“Can I ask you guys a favor?” Brynda asked, looking at me and Dave.
“Anything. Just let us know what we can do,” said Dave as he moved closer to Brynda’s side.
Dave reached over for my hand, and we both waited to hear what Brynda had to say.
“Would you bring my ashes up here? You know, to place me?”
The enormity of the situation finally got the better of me. My sobbing took over my body as I went and put my arms around one of my dearest friends.
In the fall of 2022, five of us gathered in the cabin. We’d laid in plenty of spirits and food. The slight chill in the air was easily held off from the heat of the fireplace. Though Jack brought his guitar, no one was in the mood to sing. We had only one purpose for the weekend.
Promptly, at six o’clock, Pete carried the small white box out into the great room. No one spoke for a minute or two.
Pete looked at me and whispered, “Could you say a prayer or something, Jill?”
I wasn’t sure if I could say anything without breaking down, but I said I would do my best.
“Today, we bring our friend, Brynda, to her final resting place. She was a wonderful wife, mother, sister, daughter, and the best friend she could be to all of us.”
And then Pete opened the box and took out the enclosed bag with the last remains of Brynda. The rest of us held hands and huddled close.
As Pete poured the ashes into the fireplace, I recited, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Goodbye to Brynda, the best of us.”