March 20, 1969. Backs straight in our au courant “pleather” mini-jumper dresses, Dee and I sat side by side for our fourth grade class photo. On December 20, 2008, thirty-nine years and nine months to the day this picture was taken, she died. We’d been friends for nearly forty-three years, since 1966 when Dee and her family moved into the house across the street from our house in Fayetteville, New York.
When I look at this picture, I can barely remember myself as a young girl. The years have melted away. Back in the days when we wore our pleather dresses, summers were endless. Now it seems summer, much less a lifetime, passes in the blink of an eye. My father often told me that the older you get, the quicker time goes.
I don’t recall thinking much about dying when I was in fourth grade. I’m sure questions came up if I saw a dead robin in our yard, but until I was twelve I hadn’t been touched by illness and death in such a personal and profound way.
Two years after this picture was taken, when I was in sixth grade, my father had a major paralyzing stroke and my sister had her first of two cancers, a brain tumor. For me, their illnesses were the beginning of my realization that good health can be tenuous and life may be fleeting. They both lived, but while they were hospitalized, I heard many stories of those who did not.
The lump in Dee’s breast appeared shortly before her fortieth birthday. Cancer. For her it was the beginning of a difficult ten-year journey. My sister beat cancer twice so I held strong in my belief that Dee would overcome cancer too. I wanted the best for her and prayed for her health and complete recovery. Selfishly, I couldn’t imagine her not being around.
I cheered every bit of good news, every PET scan with hopeful results. For any step in a negative direction, I tried to offer words of encouragement. When she reached her seven year mark as a survivor, I was elated. A few months later, the cancer was back.
It wasn’t until the year before Dee died that I began to let it in. That Christmas she sent a package containing all the Christmas ornaments I’d given her over the years with a note, “I would like it if you would add these ornaments to your collection. They have hung on our trees for many years.” I wanted to put them back in the box and return them to her. Accepting her gift felt like an acknowledgment that time was running out for my friend.
Today is the one year anniversary of Dee’s death. I think about her all the time, sometimes with sadness that she passed too soon and at other times with gratefulness that I was able to enjoy a friendship that spanned four decades.
I take some comfort in knowing that Dee was in the arms of her husband when she died. Their marriage was the source of tremendous strength and joy for Dee. Two of her sisters were also there. She was surrounded by love and, from what they’ve told me, she wasn’t in pain.
I will never have another friendship quite like the friendship I had with Dee. There is no other close friendship I have as an adult, which goes back as far. Dee knew my family and she knew about their illnesses and our struggles. She knew the decades of twists and turns in my dating history that led finally to a wonderful man and a happy marriage with Big Papa. She knew that I loved a good yard sale as much as I loved a trip to the farmer’s market.
Dee knew me in such a way that I didn’t have to explain myself. And, despite much of what she knew of my failings, she was still my friend through thick and thin. Sometimes, I marvel that she stuck by me during the many years I made poor choices in partners and sought paths where I was not true to myself. She held steadfast in her support of me, her friend, believing I would find my way.
There are days when hearing her voice on the other end of the phone would mean the world to me. She always knew how to find the words to soothe, and I’d feel listened to and understood. She managed to keep in touch with her large network of family and close friends, and was the glue between us, keeping us updated on each other’s lives. She remembered our birthdays and anniversaries, and she had the uncanny ability to pick out just the right gift.
In this season of giving, I warmly remember our friendship. There is no finer gift than the heart of a loved one or the hand of a friend.
May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the warm rays of sun fall upon your home
And may the hand of a friend always be near.
In loving memory of my friend, Dee Wood Schaubroeck. October 5, 1958-December 20, 2008.