"Nineteen down is tragedy," the tiny blonde whispered as she leaned toward me. "See how it goes with 26 across - agenda - and 32 across - demonic?"
"You're right, thanks." I smiled at her. I'd seen the well-dressed woman once or twice on campus but we'd never spoken before now. "Coffee later?" I asked as I went back to my crossword puzzle and she sat up on the pretense of listening to a boring speaker.
Diana and I met in graduate school. She was an elementary school principal studying school administration and I was trying to earn a post graduate degree in textiles and fine arts. Though we had different majors, all graduate students have to take the same required research courses.
The class we were in was experimental design, an advanced statistics class and the material wasn't formidable but doable. The boring part was the professor a.k.a. Dr. Blue and/or Dr. Brown because on Tuesdays and Thursdays, he wore a blue shirt and pants and on Mondays and Wednesdays, he wore a brown shirt and pants. Friday was his day off.
We bought our coffee at the campus kiosk and compared notes. Both of us were required to take credit hours in two competency areas and we discovered we both chose law and sociology. Diana wanted the background for her job and I was just curious and interested in both subjects.
When we exchanged phone numbers, I spotted a box of Cracker Jack in Diana's school bag as well as a Butterfingers chocolate bar. Then and there, I knew we would be great friends.
Diana died last year. She was 49.
After recuperating from an accident, I had several months of physical therapy. The therapist came to the house when I was still flat on my back but as soon as I was ambulatory again, I went to the Navy base for my appointments. The moment I walked into the waiting area, a young woman shouted at me.
"You think people give a shit about you? You think your folks care if you live or die? You think we all get guardian angels when we're born? We don't get shit! We live or die on luck, lady, so don't come in here and give me your holier than thou speech. I've heard enough to choke a horse. You're not a nurse. What are you, a f*cking social worker? Jesus H. Christ! I hate those fucking social workers."
That was my introduction to Lyn. She was in a wheelchair and I had just walked into the physical therapy waiting room. Feeling a little antsy about being there, I leaned against a wall instead of sitting on one of the straight-backed chairs. Both of us were waiting our turn with a therapist. I don't know who she thought I was but for some reason, my presence triggered her bottled-up rage.
"Not a social worker," I stated and offered my hand. "Getting therapy for a shoulder injury."
"Yeah, right," she sneered and spit at me.
I took a step back and away from her and thought about stuffing my mouth with chocolate bars so I wouldn't have to talk.
"Is that a Heath bar?" she asked and wheeled closer to me.
"Hard to get those on base. The asshole that runs the commissary doesn't carry them."
The asshole? The sweet man who orders anything I ask him to order? The lovely master sergeant who calls me to let me know when green jelly beans are in stock?
"I'm happy to share them with you," I said and extended my hand. "Here's two for a start."
"How much? I'm not a dickhead. I won't pay highway robbery."
"Well..." I drawled. "You're right. The cost might be too steep."
"How steep?" She couldn't take her eyes off the chocolate and for some reason, that made my heart hurt.
"A smile for starters," I said softly and watched for her reaction.
"Nothin to smile about in this world. Not a goddamned thing to smile about."
"You want the chocolate?"
"I want a smile."
"Not tellin you my whole life story, sorry-ass story, unf*ckin believable sorry-ass story."
"Just looking for a smile." I kept my arm extended, my hand palm up with the two Heath bars.
"Don't have nothin to smile about."
"Chocolate always makes me smile," I offered.
"Yeah, me too," she agreed and smiled.
Her anger had masked her pretty features, the narrowing of her eyes had obliterated a beautiful shade of neon blue. Her eyebrows needed trimming, but her lashes were long and thick and she had a set of doll-like cupid lips that would look lush with just a dab of gloss.
And when she smiled... that smile changed her face, softened her expression and I saw another person, a person who would make a huge impression on me.
Lyn died last week. She was 26.
Diana and I were a good match. We were both motivated to get through the required coursework so we could move further into our desired majors. We also had similar study habits. I tend to fill index cards with things I need to remember. Then, when I'm in line waiting to pay for my groceries, sitting at a stoplight, or stirring something on the stove... I use those minutes to go over the cards, studying them. Diana also had study cards and we often swapped them to help each other out.
I took my coursework when Cowboy was at sea and often invited Diana and her husband over for dinner. Diana was of Cajun descent and she always added something wonderful to whatever dishes I cooked for our dinners. Her Cajun jokes, told in accent, were hilarious and when Cowboy came home, he suggested the four of us enjoy a long weekend in Nawlins, Diana's hometown.
I have such sweet memories of our time there...
Diana died because a medical lab interpreted the results of a biopsy as benign instead of malignant. When the accurate diagnosis was finally made, her ovarian cancer had long since spread and metastasized.
Lyn was an Army brat, growing up on bases stateside and in Europe. She started smoking at age 9, was a chain smoker by age 13 and a druggie by 14. She was one of those rare users who rarely suffered withdrawal; she got high because it was easier than facing life.
I gave her my cell phone number and told her I was on base on occasion and if she was interested in talking, I'd be happy to share lunch with her.
"Don't take charity from nobody."
"Me neither," I said.
"I eat cheap at the commissary. You ever go there?"
"Yes. How about next Tuesday?"
"You're not gonna preach Jesus to me, are you?"
"You could maybe bring another one of them Heath bars with you? I could maybe give you a dollar for it."
"I'll bring Heath bars."
I brought Heath bars, arranged for the commissary to carry them and got a promise they wouldn't cost more than 35 cents each. The master sergeant that runs the place said he could get them at cost and she could have them for that price. I promised him one of my Key Lime pies for his family and the deal was done.
We had lunch that day. Lyn didn't eat much but it was lack of appetite, not lack of funds. She was fascinated by my dogs and couldn't stop petting them. They live to be adored so it was an enjoyable time for all concerned. With the dogs around, she opened up a lot and told me about her "sorry-ass" life. It was a sad one and I think I listened more with my heart than my ears. So much sadness in so many people's lives; it makes me count my many blessings.
She married a sailor and got clean. After 2 miscarriages and a stillborn child, her husband was deployed. He was at sea when she fell down a flight of stairs and was subsequently diagnosed with early onset multiple sclerosis. It didn't kill her; she had been a chain smoker from a very young age and died from inoperable lung cancer.
It took a long time to earn our post graduate degrees. Diana had a school to run and her hours weren't always her own. I only took a full load of coursework when Cowboy was at sea and when he was home, I restricted my credit hours to two classes so I could be with him. When we finally graduated, Diana's husband, John, and Cowboy treated us to a week in the Virgin Islands. We had a grand time. Both Diana and I wore bikinis whenever we were on the beach and drove our husbands crazy.
John was madly in love with Diana, chased her on the beach and tackled her to tickle her silly. Cowboy did similar things to me; it was like having a second honeymoon. The best part of that trip was being with a couple as much in love with each other as we are.
Diana grew up poor, one of nine children in a ramshackle house on the Louisiana Bayou. She waited tables to pay for community college, worked as a teacher's assistant and when she had enough money, finished her college education to become a full-time teacher. A lot of years and a graduate degree later, she worked her way up to principal of an elementary school.
She married John, a high school math teacher who embarrassed her by proposing at an outdoor stadium during a state teachers meeting. He had hired the Goodyear blimp to fly over the stadium with his proposal flashing on and off over the crowd. "Diana, marry me or I'll kill myself." Diana said she was so mortified she had to marry him or worry what he'd do next to get her to accept his proposal. They had a happy life together.
I met Lyn's husband for the first time when she was rushed to the emergency room at the base clinic. She had given him my number and I came to lend my support. Lyn was having trouble breathing and Richard, still in his seaman's uniform, was pacing the floor while medics worked on her. It would be a while before she was stable and we could see her.
I don't like hospitals and I especially don't like emergency rooms. I have flashbacks when I'm in one. From a child's point of view... a shorter-than-everybody-else point of view... emergency rooms are scary places. People rush around doing things you don't understand. It smells funny and there's a sense of serious worry all around you - all things that frighten a child. And no one sees you. If you pass out on the floor they might think you're sleeping. You pretty much blur into the walls and get immediate attention only if you're bleeding profusely or you're screaming at the top of your lungs.
I remember being there far too often when I was one of those short people. When you're in pain and trying to hide that pain... when you've been abused in some way - for me, it was mostly fists - your face becomes devoid of emotion even though your body is often covered by evidence of street life. You hesitate to let a stranger touch you, especially one bigger than you. Someone finally sees you and often lets you know that God loves you. Yeah, right. It's extraordinarily difficult to believe in a merciful God when you're wondering why you hurt so much. I suspect the everyday routine in a hospital emergency room either tends to heighten your religious beliefs or completely erodes your faith.
Lyn's biopsy revealed a malignant tumor in her lungs that was pressing on her heart. It was huge and inoperable and they gave her a few months to live. She was on oxygen, a hospice employee would be sent to her home with all the medical paraphernalia necessary to keep her comfortable, among which would be an I.V. to administer morphine when she was in pain.
Her husband went a little nuts. Considering the circumstances, I thought he reacted well. Lyn was stoic. She wanted to get her affairs in order and within a few days, all her legal matters were resolved, her husband was granted emergency leave to be with her and her final requests were settled.
She didn't last a few months. From diagnosis, it was a mere three weeks till Lyn died. I already knew the "sorry-ass" story of her life and I was stunned that the little joy she had experienced was about to end.
I saw her a few days before she died. She said "Thank you for being my friend."
A few chocolate bars, a hand to hold and a few shared meals. Was it my sympathetic ear when she told me the circumstances of her life? Was it my willingness to listen? Was it my silence when I refused to judge her? Was it my smile whenever I saw her? Is that what friendship is?
I barely knew her and I'm saddened her life was cut short before she had a chance to really live.
Larkin Hospital is located off U.S. 1 just outside the boundary to South Miami. There are quaint shops and expensive homes in the area and if window shopping on a Sunday afternoon, you'll see the latest in fashions and the hip younger crowd. There are outdoor cafés and street musicians playing impromptu jazz and a lot of very fancy cars parked by the curbs.
Diana and John lived in North Miami Beach but Diana chose Larkin for her chemo treatments. After a session, John would prop her up in the front seat of his car and drive slowly through South Miami. Diana loved it there.
I visited her in the hospital when the time came for her to stay there in order to have 24-hour care.
I am of the opinion that hospitals are no place for sick people.
No matter how modern the hospital, when you're a patient you seem to blur into something else. There's plastic under the sheets, I.V. poles with hanging plastic bags, lots of tubes disappearing under bed covers and needles stuck in the back of people's hands. The windows don't open. People wear crumpled masks and mumble inanities while they make marks on clipboards and the furniture rolls.
In the middle of the night buzzers go off and in the morning when you return to visit your friend, you see the empty bed with the blank clipboard and no more bald lady named Diana.
She was a gifted teacher, full of life and energy. Our lives are at a loss - coming to a sudden standstill - when another's life is cut short. Diana's life was a special one.