It was the night President Obama was elected into office when I received a phone call from my friend Wanda, who calmly told me that she had admitted herself into the hospital after suffering from a relentless bout of indigestion for five months.
I heard the muffled sound of her two sisters crying in the background when she went on to explain that she might be dying of pancreatic cancer. I remember getting up from my chair and gasping, holding my hand to my mouth, not having any words. The whole thing was surreal, and I’m not sure how to explain why.
“Obama owes me one,” Wanda joked. “I dragged myself to vote and then called my sisters and here we are.”
People die, often unexpectedly. I was certainly old enough to have experienced plenty of unanticipated loss myself. But this was different. Wanda was 57, I was 55 and we had known each other for 31 years. She was my constant friend, my other sister and the one person in the world who truly understood me.
We met on my first day at my first job in New York City and became fast friends, following each other to two jobs after that. I came from the antiseptic Upper East Side, she lived down in the Village, and we were immediately joined at the hip — learning the magic of foreign films, spending summers on Fire Island and blowing money at fine restaurants on our birthdays, talking for hours until the places closed down. We’d obsess over poorly chosen boyfriends, not having children, family squabbles, career disappointments and where in our closets we could possibly fit another pair of shoes.
She was the kindest, funniest, most compassionate person I have ever known. At my 50th birthday dinner, where I had only five close friends, we went into the bathroom, both a bit loopy, smiled at each other and then she said, “This is soooo much fun.” I like to think that she was referring to our entire life together.
I was never more myself than I was with Wanda. We were often mistaken for sisters as we were both petite, had similar demeanors and shared a very peculiar sense of humor. We sometimes fought, mostly over her extreme belief in astrology and my residing on the other end of that spectrum.
“How can you be so close-minded?” she’d always ask.
“I don’t know,” I’d answer. “My Dad taught me a chair is a chair and an afterlife is a childish illusion.”
So we suffered through some painful rifts, but always found each other again, both of us realizing and appreciating that people who touch us deeply and for so long are very hard to come by.
I survived so many unbearable moments in my life because Wanda was there to help me through.
“Don’t worry. That bastard did love you, but he just can’t love anyone,” she said, when I had broken up with an old boyfriend. “It has nothing to do with you.”
So when Wanda called with her awful news, I had nowhere and no one to run to. I couldn’t believe it was happening to her, to her family and to our relationship. We used to kid around about little old ladies in coffee shops sitting together and how that would some day be us.
We regularly talked about our lives in the years to come, but the painful lesson we all eventually learn is that the future is a vision created only in the mind.
I was at the hospital all the time to see her.
“You know Robin, I’m not crying for me,” she said on my first visit. “I’m crying for my mom and my sisters. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with this.” That was so Wanda.
Time we expected to share with her was now being jammed into a single month. We sat in the solarium of the hospital, desperately trying to hold onto the intimacy we had shared, the physical attachment, just trying to soak in the last moments of being together, talking about everything but her impending demise.
She’d look out the window and I wouldn’t ask what she was thinking when she got quiet. I tried to deny the reality of her illness, believing that somehow she was going to get better, that because she was still alive, she wasn’t really dying.
It’s been almost five years since she passed away and there are moments just like when I first heard the news, when I can’t catch my breath, realizing that she’s not there. There are moments I want to talk to her and no one else, and sometimes when I go into myself, I can hear her soothing words. They say time heals all wounds, but her loss has only grown more profound and painful.
The extraordinary thing about loss and what fundamentally changes us is that death is complete. We completely lose someone — their presence, their touch, their smell, the space they took up in our lives. The only things we have left to hold are memories.
“I hate getting older,” Wanda often said. She was so self-conscious about her deep facial lines. “I wish I could erase my face.” It was such a beautiful face. I smiled every time I saw it.
She was too honest. Actually, I take that back. Honesty was one of the many things I loved about her. I value her more now as I age, realizing what an extraordinary person she was and how fortunate I was to have met a kindred spirit so early in my adult life.
I’ve found that it’s these rare attachments to those who really know, accept and love us completely, that more than anything else, is the thing that most makes our lives worth living.
This is the latest in a series of stories this month about how we cope with various types of tragedy and loss.