Maria and I had set a date to meet the next Tuesday, 11 a.m. at the coffee house. The busy days of December were over. It had been months since we’d taken the time to write together. We came that day as much for the coffee and catching up as we did for and an hour or so of writing. It was my first visit to the coffee house and I was impressed with the ambiance. Maria had a way of finding the most amazing venues.
We were both working on books; I was writing a “quest” novel with a self-discovery theme, she was writing a memoir of her life after immigrating to America in the 60’s. Maria was a holocaust survivor, the only one of her family that lived. It haunted her that she couldn’t remember her mother’s face.
Maria waited for me at a table, already writing. We hugged. Her eyes were intense as always, but her cheeks looked feverish and her face was puffy. She was having chemo treatments every three weeks, but was steadily losing her battle with bone cancer. Her writing had an urgency that was understandable. When I told her, she would be immortal in her words; she smiled and patted my hand. She knew that I too had looked into cancer’s face, but I would live. Her days would run short come spring.
We took our notebooks, pens and coffee upstairs. We picked a table for four along the support column in the center of the room. It was well away from the chill emanating off the outside walls. The table was large enough for us to spread out our work.
The atmosphere in the coffee house that afternoon was gentle and slow. Two women sat quietly talking in one of the booths. They looked to be in their late 60’s and were obviously good friends. Were they planning a get-away like Thelma and Louise?
A young couple sat together on a couch in the corner, small smiles flashing and fingers entwined. I wondered if they were new lovers. Maria had taught me to weave stories around the people I saw.
She and I became lost, uninterrupted, for over an hour, writing in our own worlds; mine make believe, hers a memory. We could’ve stayed all afternoon, but Maria had grown tired and chilled. Even in her winter coat and scarf the cool air found her. We put away our stories to be continued another day. With a final hug, she headed home to rest.
I didn’t know that would be the last time Maria and I would write together. She’d left her second book half-formed, not believing there was time to finish it. She focused the last weeks of her life’s journey into poetry.
For two years we’d met every Wednesday for lunch and writing at a restaurant downtown. Every week the waitress brought her hot water with lemon, while I enjoyed a dark rich cup of coffee. I’d finished my first novel over a salad with Maria.
During her last days, she asked me not to visit. She was a strong, independent woman and didn’t want to be remembered as sick and weak. But she continued to send me poems; heart wrenching, hard to read, gritty poems.
Now, I envision her with a notebook on the table, a pen in hand and a beautiful scarf around her neck; writing, always writing. I hear her telling me, in that Polish accent she never lost, “Write it down. Write down the story.”