My Friend, Alma Johnson

I met Alma Johnson in a fiction workshop in the early 90s. She was the star of the class – not just because of her writing talent or her ability to examine a story and make insightful and precise observations on the plausibility of its premise and structure, on whether the thing had muscle. She would’ve been intimidating if it hadn’t been for her smile which charmed you into smiling back. And there was her laugh—a hearty, invigorating guffaw. She could be tactful and she could be as direct as an arrow. Sometimes that arrow was tipped with sarcasm, though the sting of it was blunted by an underlying compassion that was wholly genuine. Alma was always honest.

I joined the writing group that met at her house. Any gathering at Alma’s house always involved food, which easily appealed to me. I love to eat, but hate to cook, which I think Alma found bizarre and inexplicable. For her, loving food was not just about eating it, but about preparing it: relishing the aromas as you sliced or pounded or shredded it, watched it sizzle in oil, or listened to it drip pan juices in the oven. It was about arranging it on a platter and positioning it on the table next to a vase of flowers freshly cut from the garden. Alma was a gardener too. One who knew the scientific names for plants she grew, saw in neighbors’ backyards, or spotted along the roadside. If Alma didn’t know something, she looked it up. Her mind was quick, her curiosity endless.

After the writing group dissolved, I saw Alma only occasionally, then infrequently, then not at all for a number of years. Last spring she called me to tell me she had finally read a book I had recommended around the time we first met. She wanted to let me know how much she had enjoyed it. Hearing her voice again, still rich with humor, was such a pleasure. I asked her how she was. Not so great, she said. She had cancer.

Her disease was advanced. I visited her several times over the next six months, always over a cup of tea at her kitchen table. She was delighted at the impending publication of my novel. She was adamant that I was not to give her a copy as a gift. She intended to buy it.

The last time I saw her was a few days before Christmas. She had discontinued treatments and was set up for home hospice care. We talked about books, but other things too.

She was seventy-five. She thought it a relatively young age to die. I agreed. I had nothing comforting to say.

Before I left, she showed me her room which had been fixed up for her comfort. She pointed out the curtains and the rug. She pointed out the digital photo frame on the dresser that played a slideshow of favorite photographs of friends and family, especially the son and daughter she cherished and the grandson she adored. She pointed out the bed and its features: the push-button hand control, the half-dozen or so adjustable positions, the hi-to-low height ranges, its pleasing appearance.

I realized she was showing me where she was going to die.

Go ahead. Give it a try, she said, meaning the bed.

I wish I hadn’t declined.

I didn’t treat this visit as possibly the last time I would see her, the last time I would have a cup of tea with her, the last time I would have a chance to really share something with her. I don’t think it was because I was in denial. I think it was because I knew her death wouldn’t change anything about what she had meant to me over the years, even during the times when we had little contact.

Alma died in late January. At the memorial gathering held six weeks later on a grassy hill overlooking Lake Washington, people shared their memories of her. An old soccer teammate recalled Alma’s throw-in as the longest anyone had seen. Alma’s physical strength was almost legendary. A boy about ten years old told how Alma had taught him the difference between lie and lay. We all laughed and nodded, because not one of us had escaped instruction by the grammar queen. Alma was always precise in her language. Her sister Kathy talked about Alma’s sharp mind, her penchant for analysis and her desire to know and understand the world around her. Kathy said Alma seldom talked about dying except to wonder how her thoughts could just stop. Her thoughts were so prodigious, probing, and articulate; her view of the world a mix of delight, hope, and cynicism; her expression of it humorous and profound.

People didn’t just love her. They were in love with her.

As her son said as we all stood together that brisk, silvery day on the hill, “Wasn’t she something?”