Today is June 24, according to my computer, my phone, and my iPad. (How did we ever know what day it was before all those devices began to simplify our lives?)
The first time I looked at the date today, I thought, “Today is Phyllis’s birthday.” It took a nanosecond to remember that my long-time dear friend passed away suddenly one-and-a-half years ago. And this is the first time I’ve been able to write about it.
Phyllis and I met when her family moved into the large apartment building where I lived in Albany Park, on Chicago’s northwest side. I don’t remember our exact ages (we were four months apart), but I do remember that we were in grammar school. We became friends almost immediately. Because we were neighbors, we were able to spend a lot of time together. Sometimes we were outside the front door of our section of the building bouncing a ball while chanting, “A, my name is Alice, and I come from Alaska…” Those of you of a certain age may remember that game. Sometimes we would walk around the block, talking and giggling.
When puberty hit, we walked around the block with a purpose: To pass the basement apartment of a boy we thought was cute—and maybe dangerous. He seemed dangerous because a) he wasn’t Jewish, a taboo according to our parents, and b) he had that 50’s greaser look that nice girls were often attracted to. We even went so far as to befriend his much younger sister to see if we could find out more about him. The truth is that if we confronted him and he was interested in either one of us, we wouldn’t know what to do about it. This was the 50’s; we were innocent and intended to stay that way. There was nothing worse than a bad reputation!
We had other obsessions as we were growing up. Together, we wrote a fan letter to Billy Gray, that adorable guy who played Bud on Father Know’s Best. We filled two pages with teenage-girl drivel and then taped two aspirin to the bottom of page 2, apologizing for possibly giving him a headache. We never heard back.
As we hit the later teen years and then young adulthood (but still lived with our parents as was common then), we occasionally double-dated and spent more time just talking about our dates and our lives. I went away to college for the first semester after high school graduation; Phyllis didn’t. But we got back together in the summer. One of our favorite things to do was go to dinner—just the two of us—on Sunday evenings. We had our favorite restaurants, all accessed by bus, but on the Sundays that we couldn’t decide which restaurant to go to, we put all the restaurant names on little pieces of paper in a hat, and then one of us would pull one out. If we didn’t like the first choice, we did it again. I don’t remember any arguments or disagreement on where to go, or on anything else. We just had fun.
When I married at the young (by today’s standard) age of 22, Phyllis was one of my bridesmaids. When she married a couple of months later, I was one of her bridesmaids. Although our husbands weren’t friends, she and I talked and visited fairly often. I was in school, she was working.
Then we began having children, two each, and, although we were still close friends, we didn’t see each other that much. And when we would occasionally get together for lunch or dinner, I realized that in some ways we were becoming very different people—from our clothing choices to our interests. But after a few minutes together, one of us would say something about things we had laughed at in the past, and the differences didn’t matter. I think Phyllis was the one friend I laughed with the most. (I love all my very funny friends, but childhood humor has a way of triggering the biggest laughs.)
Hard times hit both of us. There were family illnesses (hers), a divorce (mine), and other issues that were alleviated just a bit when told to an understanding friend. But throughout everything, Phyllis never missed sending a card for my birthday or wedding anniversary. I wasn’t always so good, but I tried to follow her example.
In March of 2013, my husband and I were invited to a 50th wedding anniversary party for Phyllis and her husband. (By this time I was with husband No. 2 and married only 18 years.) It was a wonderful party, and I got to spend time with her adult children and two grandchildren.
I hope I emailed or called her afterward to tell her what a good time we had. I’d like to think so. I may have spoken to her once or twice after that, but we didn’t meet for lunch or dinner after the party. Then, in January of 2014, I received a message from the email address she shared with her husband, with the subject line, “Sad news.” I thought about their son, who had undergone serious surgery the year before and worried that something had happened to him. I wasn’t prepared for the message that started out with “My wife of 51 years…” Phyllis was gone, suddenly. She hadn’t been feeling well that week, but she pooh-poohed suggestions that she call the doctor. On that last day, she ran errands with her son and collapsed just before they got into the house. It was a massive heart attack.
We went to the funeral service, the burial, and the shiva, and still, I couldn’t process the loss. When my birthday came shortly after, a part of me expected to see that thoughtful birthday card in the mail. There will be no more cards. But I can still honor her today, what would be her 73rd birthday, by thinking about the joy she added to my life. I miss my old friend.