It’s been 12 years since she’s been gone. More than a decade, less than a generation. Seems like a lifetime. Feels like yesterday. There are no words to explain who she was and what she meant. Friend doesn’t seem adequate though I was lucky to call her that for 23 years. We laughed a lot, shed a few tears and said few angry words.
In the early years, we did the typical stuff – school, Bar and Bat Mizvahs, ice skating Fridays, sleepovers, movies, passed notes, football games, cut class, and learned to drive. I drove a 69 Valiant and she drove an old Caddy with a broken speedometer and floating steering wheel. We went to concerts. We shopped, went to the beach, shared secrets, talked about boys and how our parents didn’t understand us.
After high school our friendship changed and grew into something deeper. I moved away and we re-connected with each visit. Long before email and the Internet, we relied on long-distance calls and letters. We racked up horrible long distance phone bills and heard the wrath of angry parents when we needed help paying that bill. We talked college and work. She kept me up on what was happening back home and I told her all about California. We talked about boys and how our parents didn’t understand us. She got sick once in a while and then more often.
I moved home. We got closer and she got sicker. We worked, hung out, went to bars, to dinner, movies. Sometimes our hanging out was in the hospital but that didn’t stop us. I brought movies, her favorite foods and sometimes we’d go upstairs to the patio and sneak a smoke. We went to services during the High Holidays and celebrated with one of our families. My father adored her. She and my father would tell each other wildly dirty and politically incorrect jokes seeing who could out-do the other. I answered the dreaded middle of the night calls – my car knew the way. My father called it the “Rona Rush.” There was often nothing I could do but being together made us both feel better. I held her hand, advocated for care, nursed her as best as I could. Donating blood became a regular activity for me every 56-60 days for ten years. I have a small scar on the inside of my left arm. We went to the beach – spending days taking walks, lying in the sun, reading and eating crabs. We still talked about boys and how our parents didn’t understand us.
I moved away. A professional decision with painful personal sacrifice. Saying goodbye to so many friends was awful but saying it to Rona felt different. I came home frequently and more often than not, our visits were in the hospital. We still laughed, made fun of people. Still watched movies, ate her favorite foods and snuck upstairs for a smoke. We talked almost daily. We talked about boys and how our parents didn’t understand us. We talked about what scared us. We talked until talk was no longer possible.
Rona died on June 27, 1999. I was in NC on a business trip and immediately flew home in the world’s tiniest plane. My father picked me up at National Airport. I lit what would be my last cigarette and promptly threw up on the side of the parkway. I sat in her bedroom, her phone book on my lap along with that infamous pink and yellow phone. I called the friends, many of whom I had not spoken to in years but I was given this job and I couldn’t let her parents down. I held her nephew on my lap while he wept for his tante Rona. I hugged her mother and felt her press a few special pieces of Rona into my hand – for me to have and remember. I joined her family and so many friends in saying goodbye. We wept, we hugged and we shared stories. I felt a pain so visceral that it lacks words.
I learned a lot as Rona’s friend. I learned some things that can only be shared by two good friends in private. I learned that you can cut one heel height off the shank of a shoe heel to make it more comfy. I learned to steer my car with my knees. I learned that the California Chicken Salad from White Flint really is the best salad, that hard shell crabs are way better with extra vinegar and Old Bay and that you can’t beat Thrasher’s fries. I learned listening to what is not being said is more important than what is verbally shared. I learned that friendship born in youth, nurtured through adolescence and appreciated into adulthood is rare and should be cherished.
My daughter’s bears Rona’s Hebrew name – Shoshanna Dena. I cannot say it without a break in my voice. Rona reveled in her Judaism and observance of those rites and traditions was so important to her. I find comfort (and a wee bit of humor) in knowing her name will be spoken in so many more years of Sunday and Hebrew school.
Today, Rona is the voice in my head that tells me sing out loud and live for today. That reminds me that family – however annoying and embarrassing – is family and so important. Telling me that friends are the family you choose and showing that there is beauty and grace even in illness.
So to you, dear Ro – I miss you every day. I am a better person for having known you. Thank you for being my friend.