My oldest friend was young, and very beautiful. She knew me as I see me then, and her passing seals the secret language of remembered time. With her I circled backwards on an invisible calliope. She was blue ribbons on pigtails, I was Orphan Annie. Her house came with relatives; mine had parakeets. My father was Clark Gable, and her dad was a dependable ride home from school. Her mother made exotic food like chopped herring and kishka. What my mother made she couldn’t eat due to dietary laws, and that made it enviable.
We grew up with the reality behind Venetian blinds obscured by our needs. And with her dying goes the continued laughter over our cockeyed bumping along the road of childhood. Her gift to me was a smile. I made her laugh, pulling her up from down, and she tolerated my excesses with a sigh.
What I forgot she remembered with relish, tidbits of our togetherhood: my depositing a scroungy puppy on her bed as she slept; our first formal gowns worn with identical red snow boots; me closing my eyes and yelling “a bus!” the first time I drove her in my car; her brother forbidding her to drive with me.
Our lives turned on their high heels down different paths. Her life was calm and content; my life was shooting stars and rockets. Our meetings and phone calls were stabilizers, an oasis where one could complain about dumb things like failed recipes and flat feet, and share dark humored intimacies about inferiority complexes, old boyfriends, and funerals.
Her duel with death began as a child. Twenty years younger than her brother, she flirted seriously with the idea of being a sad mistake. As the strong friend, I thought I could humor her through all the griefs that mothers say don’t give me. Last year, at forty-four, her cherished husband died. We got through that, I thought, with daily doses of tears and off the wall attempts at levity. This year, at forty-two, her imminent dying from breast cancer was her solo. For me, along with the acknowledgement of a mother’s greatest fears, came the realization of her superb strength and my own vulnerability.
I refused to speak to her of hope, since there was none, and thus was the one to whom she could speak honestly. I made noble attempts at our traditional humor, and had no idea that misstatements would filter back to me through her family who would never understand our understanding.
As she lay dying, I was told it would be too traumatic for her to see me. I knew this even before I called because of all the befores and the frightening loss of tomorrows. So instead, I sent twelve long stemmed roses in assorted colors. They were the last things she ever saw.
They tell me she told all the others who visited that they were from me.
And she asked to be buried, holding a rose.
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