Remembering my Friend, Rivaud

"Friendship isn't about who you have known the longest.

It's about who came and never left your side."

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You guys didn't hear from me yesterday because a dear friend passed away pretty suddenly.

You may have seen on Facebook the small post I shared describing our unexpected encounter - I met Rivaud back in November 2011, as a volunteer for the ALS Association. I'd never volunteered before, but my grandfather died of ALS that same year and I wanted to honor him somehow.

At his funeral, I felt compelled to speak to the coordinator of the ALS Association, Ellen. She had done a lot for my grandparents, providing expensive technologies and nursing staff, and a slew of moral support.  I told her, “I want to help. I’m a writer. I like to clean. I’ll do anything.”  A few weeks later Ellen sent me a name, phone number, email address, and short description of the job—“Rivaud (pronounced RAH-VO) could use help cleaning. She’s new to the area, estranged from her family, and a bit cynical.

When I received word from Ellen, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, or whether I wanted to do this anymore at all. Nevertheless, I emailed Rivaud and she wrote back with very detailed instructions on how to get into her place, as she could not physically help with the process and lived in a secure building.

When I walked in, I sat nervously in front of her— a middle-aged woman with short brown hair, slumped slightly in a rolling office chair in front of a large desk and computer.  She was controlling the mouse with her right hand, although at one point, when it slipped off the table, I caught her lifting that hand with the left one, in an attempt to place it back on the desk. The room was tiny and I noticed her hospital bed.

After some small talk she asked, “So, you can you come every day?” I felt myself cower a bit, “Sure,” I mumbled—wanting to take it back immediately! Rivaud seemed nice and this was pretty easy so far, but I couldn’t commit to every day. What was I thinking?

When I left, I called my granny (who cared for my grandfather for 10 years with ALS) and asked her what was appropriate: “How often should I go?” She suggested once a week; that way, she said, it wouldn’t be new every time.

I emailed Rivaud proposing we start with Tuesdays and she happily accepted.

The next year was filled with unexpectedly pleasant visits similar to the first—sitting across from Rivaud chatting about this and that.  She didn’t need help cleaning, but rather, with a few simple evening tasks, like brushing her teeth, combing her hair, and wiping her face with a wet cloth.

She also needed help walking over to the bathroom, but eventually, gradually, her movements became less and less.  She seldom sat in her desk chair or used her desktop computer anymore.  Whereas you used to be able to pull her out of the bed, into an upright standing position, it was now a severely hunched position. Her hands became flimsy and useless, and the bathroom, not worth the effort.

We didn’t talk much about it, though.  We hardly ever talked about ALS.  We focused on happier times—Rivaud shared about rock climbing in the Grand Canyon, hiking in Maryland, and learning to do an Eskimo roll in her kayak. We read The Hunger Games trilogy and went to see the movie together; discussed grammar and ordered in; eventually, I setup a TV in Rivaud's room and we started watching documentaries, which worked well for her as talking had become quite exhausting.

Over time, my passion for writing became evident.  Rivaud is a retired English teacher and of course, me (aka motormouth), couldn’t contain all my ideas for writing projects. All my previous mentors had been my English teachers, too and in this way, our pairing seemed like fate. One night, she said, “I want to see you get published.” She was half-asleep and weary, but it was genuine. I left feeling a sense of determination: I thought to myself, “I want her to see it, too.”

For Rivaud’s birthday I brought over pasta, cake and flowers – at the time, she could still eat solid food. I also presented her with a canvas of the picture below that I had taken of the bright-colored Kayaks in Georgetown along the Potomac. I apologized that the water wasn’t bluer... She got teary eyed, looked sadden (yet so grateful) and said, “It’s ok. It’s the water I know.”

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This Saturday Aaron and I plan to kayak in the Potomac in honor of Rivaud, who passed away Monday, August 12th. I was with Rivaud the day before she died, and I promised I'd think of her when I finally got in a kayak... reality is, I'll think of her much more often than that.

Have you ever volunteered? 

Have you ever met someone or known someone with ALS? 

Read more about this disease on the ALS Association website here.

Read the post I wrote when my grandfather passed here.