Saturday, April 19, 2008

In Loving Memory of The Best Friend I've Ever Been Blessed to Have

Nearly thirty-two years ago, while living in Boise, I applied for a checking job at Buttrey Foods, who had just finished building a brand new grocery/drug store. After going through the application, testing, and interview process, I was thrilled when I received a call from Jim, the store manager, offering me a position. At last I was going to work in the retail grocery business, something I had dreamed of doing for many years. I had worked other retail jobs but this truly was an answer to my prayers.

Two weeks before the actual opening day of business, those of us who were hired started our training period. On the first day, after an orientation meeting, we were taken to the check stands where we would be trained to operate the terminals, learn all the necessary codes, how to properly bag the groceries, relate to customers, etc., etc. Each of us was to pick a partner to work and train with. As I was looking around to see who was closest and available, this skinny little, dark haired, freckle-faced, blue-eyed, gap-toothed, woman, a newcomer from California, came up to me and said, "Hi, I'm Suzanne, would you like to be my partner?" "Sure, let's go for it", I replied. We joked back and forth as our instructions came from our trainer.

Coincidentally, I knew that NCR terminal backward and forward, having used it for several years at a previous job. Therefore, it wasn't but an hour later that the trainer assigned me to be the trainer for myself and Suz. We were on our own, taking turns being the cashier and the customer for the remainder of the day. By the end that first day Suz and I had formed a bond that has lasted all these years.

Suz wasn't as enamoured with the grocery business as I was, deciding stay with that job but for a month or two. Didn't make a dent in our friendship, though. When I wasn't working, we would talk on the phone, get together for coffee, have lunch, help each other with projects,... too many things too list. We never got bored with one another, or ran out of things to talk, laugh or cry about. We were so different, yet like two peas in a pod. Every day, I grew to love her more. She became my fifth sister and I loved her as if she truly were.

As the years passed, major changes came into both of our lives; divorce, illness, kid problems, financial burdens, job losses, new jobs, new boyfriends, moving........all those things that make life both a challenge and a joy. We shared our lives to the fullest, including our families, friends, homes, meals, beds, heartbreaks, good and bad news, deaths, births, and innermost secrets. We both fell in out and out of love in almost perfect synchronization after our marriages ended. When her heart was broken, I felt her pain. When her soul soared with joy, I felt that joy with her. She did the same for me.

During the early years of our friendship, Suz made the decision to move back to California. I was very sad to see her go, but we talked often by phone, keeping up with the goings-on in each others lives. I truly missed our coffee in the mornings or after work, and the daily babble we would share. Needless to say, I was thrilled when she called one morning about 3:00 AM and asked me to find her an apartment, she was coming back!

We spent the next few years (our early forties) acting like a couple of college girls. Suz wasn't back long, when my I had an accident which broke my leg, and a "True Love", who broke my heart, all at the same time. He had insisted I stay at his house so that he could "take care" of me after I came home from the hospital. I've never been so miserable in my life! That's another story, but even though I had ignored Suz to a degree, in favor of this man, it was she whom I called from the hospital when my pain was so severe I was screaming in pain. She sat by my side the entire night, holding my hand and trying her best to make me comfortable, and it was she whom I called when the pain in my heart matched the pain in my leg, when this man, who "loved" me so much, yelled at me if I made the slightest whimper from pain when moving my body while trying to find a comfortable laying position. No questions asked, she came to his house when I called, loaded me into her car and took back to my own home, seeing to it that I was comfortable and safe. She had also just had her heart broken. We cried together and we healed together.

After a couple of months, when I was able to walk again, with the aid of crutches, it was Suz who insisted that I was not going to sit around and mourn my life away. We were going to have some fun and meet some people. That we did for the next few years. She started by dragging me, kicking and screaming, out to the Sunshine Saloon, where we met men and women our own age, forming a group of friends who loved to laugh, dance, eat Chinese, 3:00 AM breakfasts, Sunday drives, picnics, BBQ's, house parties, and more dancing. Those were some of my fondest memories of our friendship.

Those years passed quickly, and our lives changed again. I found the Fireman and Suz moved back to California with her kids and Chuck, whom she married. Again our friendship was by telephone only. After a few years, Suz called me to tell me she was moving back again and that Chuck was long gone. It just so happened that the townhouse next to mine was for sale and to make a long story short, Suz and her son Alan, bought it. Before long, we were not just best friends, we were neighbors. I was thrilled again. Many happy years were spent carrying on our friendship. Suz was not just my friend, she was the best neighbor I ever had.

The years passed, the kids had grown and moved away, and the Fireman moved in with me, after selling his home. A year later, he and I built a new home in Nampa...I was the one moving. I had also entered the management training program with Winco and was promoted to a management position. This consumed so much of my time that there was hardly any left for family and friends.

The past ten years have included way less time for my best friend than I needed and wanted. I deeply regret that. Our phone calls, while always filled with laughter and much joy of just talking with each other, became fewer and far between after I was promoted to store manager and moved to Moscow. So much, that I wasn't there when she was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, and didn't learn about it until, during a moment of longing for her, a little over a year ago, I called her, after searching the Internet for her phone number. (she too, had sold the townhouse and moved to a new home) I was devastated when she told me she had this terrible burden to bear. Here we were, so many miles apart and I wanted to hold her in my arms and share that burden with her but my responsibilities and the miles wouldn't allow that. She was so hopeful and strong about the situation that I couldn't let her hear the anguish in my heart. We talked for a very long time that night, promising to keep closer touch and me promising to make the time to see her when an opportunity to be in Boise came my way. I sobbed like a baby when we ended our call with "I love you, my friend."

That opportunity came a few months ago. We went out for breakfast and had a wonderful visit, sharing old memories and updating each other on our lives and families. She looked so healthy and full of life, it was difficult for me to accept that she was still fighting for that very life. She was starting treatment again...chemo and radiation for new tumors found in her body. She was strong beyond belief, accepting whatever might happen, with grace and dignity. She assured me that she had no regrets and was happy with the life she had lived, the wonderful family she had, who had given her so much love and support during this fight. It made me love her even more.

We talked by phone as often as possible and were looking forward to seeing each other again this month when I planned to take a week of vacation in Boise.

After not hearing from her for what seemed too long, I called her daughter, Michelle, to ask how she was doing. The news was not good. Hospice had been called in to help with the dying process. I made Michelle promise to keep me up to date if she could. I talked with Suz too, asking how she was doing. She said, "I'm just trying to hang in there until you get here in April." It broke my heart as I told her I would be there. It was only a few weeks away. Again, we ended our call with "I love you, Friend"

The weeks sped by and on April 3rd, early in the morning, I felt an urgent need to call Suz. Michelle answered the phone. I asked how things were going and was told that Suz might not make it through the night. How could this be? All, I could say was, "Michelle, tell your Mother, to wait, I will be there tomorrow." I literally could not talk at that moment, but immediately e-mailed my boss, begging him to allow me to leave early for my vacation to Boise to say good-bye to my Best Friend/Sister, explaining in a few words, the situation. I hit "send" and burst into uncontrollable tears of grief. He called me about ten minutes later, offering his condolences and told me to go.

My grief was so deep I knew that I couldn't safely drive myself, so my sister Mary, who knew Suz well, offered to drive me. Later that day, after calming myself, and giving Mary time to make arrangements, I drove the short trip her home in Pasco. Early Friday morning, we left for Boise, heading straight to Suz's home.

Mary drove, allowing me to be alone with my thoughts and my prayers to make it on time. Mary had taken a bad fall that morning, and was hurting, but she was a rock for me. As we neared the house, I mustered all the strength I could for what I knew would be a very emotional situation. I did not want my friend to see me fall apart. I phoned to let Suz's kids know that I would be there in a few minutes, fearing that they would tell me it was too late. Alan answered the phone, telling me that she was agitated, not wanting to see anyone. She wanted to be left alone to die. I told him I didn't care, she is my sister and I will not take no for an answer. I would have my last opportunity to hold her in my arms and tell how much I loved her.

I arrived, heading straight to her room. "Oh, my God", I thought, "this person lying in that bed, can't possibly be Suz!" Bending over her, I kissed her forehead, took her hand and said, "Suz, it's Dort, I'm here." She struggled to turn toward me, opened her eyes and smiled.

I told her not to try to talk, that I would be there with her for as long as she wanted. I continued to talk to her about our walk together thru the past thirty-two years. I told her how much I loved her, thanking her for allowing me to be a part of her life for all those years. She was responding as I recalled fond memories of things we had done and places we had been. I made her promise to be there to greet me when my time came and to have a cup of coffee waiting. She promised.

As time passed, she seemed to rally, asking to sit up. We propped her up on pillows continuing to visit, Suz answering with her usual smart-ass quips in that tiny little voice she was able to squeeze out. I longed to hear that great laugh of hers, but knew it wasn't possible. She was laughing with her eyes, I could see it. Soon she asked for a cup of coffee. I told Michelle I would not let it spill on her, so Michelle brought her a small amount and me a full cup. When she took a sip, she managed to say, "It wouldn't be the same without coffee." We were back at the kitchen table again, sharing conversation and drinking coffee for what we both knew was the last time. I will treasure that moment forever.

She managed a couple more sips before that few minutes of strength began to wane. We helped her lay back down then Suz and I were left alone to say goodbye. She clung to my hand as I continued to talk to her, mustering only enough strength to say a yes or no and give me a weak smile as she stared straight into my eyes. I assured her that her family was going to be fine and that it was ok for her to let go now. I testified to her of my belief in God and that He was waiting, along with family members and friends gone before her, to greet her with a love beyond anything she could imagine. It was time for her to go Home and remember who she really is.

She was getting weaker and I knew she would soon be asleep so I told her I would be back later to see her again, that she needed to rest now. She squeezed my hand, I hugged her the best I could without hurting her, kissed her cheek and told her again, for the hundredth time that I loved her. Her last words to me were "I love you Dort" It was her last conscious awareness of me and the last rally of her life. Her last few days, she was already in another place.

Suz left this world behind the following Monday, on her birthday, April 7th.

Though my heart is filled with grief and sorrow for her family and for my loss of the best friend I've ever had in this life, I celebrate having been blessed to know her, to have heard her infectious laughter, shared her sorrows, cheered for her successes and for having been granted the privilege to hold her in my arms as we said our final goodbye in this life.

I love you Suz...............and I WILL have coffee with you again.

Your Best Friend in this life and the next.........................Dort


Jenn said...

What a very touching story - you are lucky to have had such a wonderful friend.

Cristie said...

That was very well written, mom. I have so many memories about Suzanne too. It seems like there wasn't a time when she wasn't a part of our lives. I'm glad you got to see her one last time and say goodbye.

Michelle said...

Very touching tribute. She was a wonderful friend for you to have. Not many people can say they have that kind of friend for that many years!

Sandee said...

Very moving. I cried as I read this. I have a funny story to tell you from Suzanne's Michelle next time I talk to you.

Michelle said...

As I sat here reading this for the third time, I try to find the words to thank you for being there for my Mom in the end. It meant so much to her and to all of us kids, because we know how much she loved you. You two always were something else when you were together. :) I keep hoping everyday will get easier. Now that things are getting back to normal in my life, I think it is actually getting harder. Everything reminds me of her. When Alan calls, it stills says "Mom" on the caller ID, my first trip to Costco without her, our afternoon visits.....EVERYTHING. I go in her bedroom every time I'm over there and say "Hi" to her. I just wish my memory of that last day would leave my mind, so I can remember only when she was so full of life. I'm sure that day will come at some point.
Well Dort, thank you again for being there for us and especially Mom. Thank you for writing this tribute for my Mother. You will never know how much it means to all of us. You are a true friend forever.


Shannon Richardson said...

Dorothy, I am grateful to have read your tribute to Suzanne. I share your pain, if only to imagine losing Cristie, my best friend of 26 years. I remember Suzanne, and as a teenager, wondered if Cristie and I would ever have the kind of close relationship like you and Suz. Well, yes, we do!!! And I want to thank you, not only for putting up with us in our teens, but for raising a daughter who has been and will always be a priceless feature in my world. I hope you have a wonderful Mother's Day, and God bless Dort and Suz for showing the world the true meaning of friendship.

Your 4th daughter, Shannon