Warning: This is looong!
I am not sure what exactly it was that drew Marie, Sue and I together. Sue was my assigned locker partner during my freshman year of high school by virtue of alphabetical order. We were very well paired in this sense because I was short and she was tall; this minimized discussions about who got which shelf and, thankfully, gave me someone to grab things for me. I suppose Sue and I differed in many ways. She looked like an Irish Coleen with her blond hair and freckles and I looked like a typical American mutt favoring the Italian side. Sue was quiet and reserved; I never shut up. (Even now, when the spoken word is so difficult, I insist on writing a daily blog so that I can still impose my thoughts on people!) Sue was an only child and I was the fourth of five. On the surface, we had nothing in common. Marie and I shared a lot in common except that she was like me times 5: she talked more, laughed harder, pulled nuttier stunts, etc.
I always have this image of Sue, Marie and I as a set of scales: Sue on one side, Marie on the other, and me in the middle. I don’t say this because I perceive myself as the fulcrum or steadying force. It just seemed that whatever continuum you chose: Sue was on one end, Marie on the other and I was somewhere in the middle. We were like our on little normal bell curve.
As an adult I have often wondered what it was that kept us together over the last 26 years. Our three-way friendship occurred during that essential time in life when our hearts are so wide-open and unjaded. We hadn’t learned to hold our cards close to our chest so we were fully ourselves with each other. While we were all very bright women and I sometimes resented their superior academic prowess, we never fell into competitive patterns. Instead we cheered each other’s achievements and, in doing so, likely propelled each other forward. It also helped that we had completely different taste in boys, which eliminated any chance of a man coming between the three of us. And we each loved to laugh with no topic, no person being unworthy of a witty remark or jab.
But what I really think drew us together and kept us together is that we found in each other the sisters that family had failed to provide.
It was whirlwind weekend of emotion here. Sue joined Marie and I on Thursday just as I was boarding the emotional rollercoaster. I spent Thursday slipping towards high anxiety and by Friday night I was in fetal position. Bill was out for the night, taking advantage of my girls’ weekend to enjoy time with a friend and some male bonding at the 9:00 showing of “Ironman.” If Bill had known how badly I was feeling prior to his departure he would cancel his plans so I tried to hold it together as long as possible. As soon as he left I started to come unglued. Marie and Sue held me close as I bawled my eyes out. But part of me could not understand what was happening. I had felt fine Sunday through Wednesday, joking and laughing with Marie, running errands, and preparing for Amelia’s party. Then Thursday I could feel myself going under as if I were drowning in a sea of my own uncontrollable emotions. By Friday I felt like I was in the vortex of despair. “What is happening?” I wondered aloud. Then I remembered that I had restarted prednisone a few days earlier. I switched on my laptop and it appeared that it could be causing my sudden severe change in mood.
While I was researching on the laptop, Sue was consoling me and Marie was busy with the phone. Marie is the eldest child of two deaf parents. She has been making phone calls since she was four years old. No one can work a phone like Marie. In fact, she actually did answer phones part-time when we were in high school. She quickly established that there were no Saturday clinics at either Duke or UNC. I felt like I could make it through the weekend, but Sue and Marie had more sense than that. Finally I confessed that I had a friend who was a psychiatrist and I thought we could pose the prednisone hypothesis to him. Marie called and within minutes he was at my house.
My psychiatrist friend confirmed that the prednisone might be causing my hysteria. He suggested a plan to taper that drug. Then we discussed the reality that I am depressed. I have been trying to address this issue with the help of my family practice doctor, whom I adore. Unfortunately, I am incredibly sensitive to SSRIs. I feel great the first 7 days after I take them, the period during which they generally haven’t started working for the average patient. Then, when I get to the point where most people finally get a benefit, I develop severe anxiety. Knowing that I needed a psychiatrist to sort this out, I called 5 psychiatrists this week, and only one called me back. The soonest I could get into a private practice psychiatrist was July 1st.
Fortunately for me I have said psychiatrist-friend and a husband with a prescription pad. Over the next 24 hours we discovered that Zoloft comes in a liquid form that we could dilute to a very small dose in hopes that I could get the benefit of the anti-depressant effects without the side effects. I started the drug Sunday. Time will tell.
So I spent my girls’ weekend in a depressive stupor. Saturday I sat on the patio and knitted Aidan’s scarf (still not done). Because I taught myself to knit, I am not very facile with yarn and needles. My projects demand all my concentration so they are a very good antidote to depression, anxiety, perseveration, and all their terrible companions. As I knitted, I listened to Sue and Marie busy in the kitchen. They were making the cupcakes for Amelia’s birthday party and the cookie cake that she wanted for her family birthday dinner. They were laughing together and, as I listened to them, I got that feeling I often do as I watch Bill and the kids from afar: this is what it will be like without me. They will move on, they will find joy again, they will continue living. A part of me mourned that I was not part of the culinary festivities but my breathing was too labored and my anxiety too high to try in that moment. I joined them later at the table when I could help decorate the cupcakes.
Marie and Sue seemed to have a grand time. Sue prefers to leave the cooking to her husband Sean, but Marie ensured that she digitally documented Sue’s newfound baking skills. I teased her, “Now Sean is going to expect you to do this at home.” Amelia wanted an “A” for her cookie cake but Marie and Sue made so much dough that they were able to spell her entire name in very large letters. (The A required some post-oven surgery which was much more successful than the plastic surgeries of some celebrities who appear to be having difficulty with the concept of “ageing gracefully.” Shit, I’ll take ageing period. Who cares about the graceful part of it?)
By dinnertime I felt well enough to go out to dinner. We ate at Cinelli’s, Amelia’s very favorite restaurant. We toasted at 6:58 pm to mark Amelia’s arrival into the world despite the small technicality that it was actually 9:58 EST since she was born in California. Then we returned home to our cookie cake and watched “Grease.”
Marie, Sue and I sang along with the songs and, once again, I marveled at the amount of brainspace being occupied by 70s songs and apparently not in my head only. I relished every moment of sitting on the sofa with my best girlfriends and revisiting memories of singing along to the Grease soundtrack on my brother’s turntable all those years ago. We laughed at all the double-entendres we missed as young teenagers and hoped that my kids were missing all the cuss words. We gushed over John Travolta.
Sunday was a relaxing day devoted largely to waiting for Amelia’s pool party to begin. The rain spoiled the “pool” part of the evening, but the girls improvised by playing in the showers at the club instead. I suppose, given the thunder and lightning, that was not a safe activity but that didn’t occur to me at the time. I sat through most of the party, relying on Sue, Marie, and my friend Kathy to handle the festivities. Today was just one of those days in which I cannot seem to get enough air. As I watched these women play my part I thought to myself that it is just as I had promised Amelia and Aidan, “Life gives you many mothers not just the one of your birth. You will always have a mother when you need one. You just need to look for her.” There they were: three women mothering my children as I know they will do after I am gone.
When we returned home I was tired and needed to rest. I wrapped my arms around Sue’s neck and thanked her. I would have never been able to do the party without her and Marie’s help. As we embraced I realized that this may be the last time I see her, hold her, and tell her how much I love her. “I’m so afraid I will never see you again,” I cried, “I want you to know how much I love you, that you were a sister to me.” “I want to come back again,” she answered, but she has three young girls at home. “I don’t want you to regret anything. You are here. You did everything you could for me,” I assured her. I cupped my hand against her wet cheek and smiled at her.
I drove Marie and Sue to the airport this morning. I was fighting a coughing fit for most of the ride, and Marie and Sue were unusually quiet. As I took the airport exit, “Another One Bites the Dust” came on the radio. Sue and I laughed at the little sing along Marie had going in the backseat, “Steve and I listened to this song 41 times in a row to learn the words.” “I’ll try not to think of this song as foreshadowing,” I joked and we all laughed hard, like we used to laugh at something dark. We spent the rest of the drive debating the relative merits of various Queen songs and then, in the last few moments, I threw in a couple memories from our summer days at the Jersey shore. We laughed about the time I ran into a glass door. “Not one of your smarter moves,” joked Sue. And we struggled to remember the term we used for making prank phone calls. I use the terms “we” loosely, Sue and I laughed too hard to pull it off but Marie was a master at it. “Yes, Is this the such-and-such hotel? I was wondering, do you have mirrors on your ceilings? No? How about video taping equipment?” Marie could do this straight faced while Sue and I were rolling on the floor peeing our pants. “A Larry,” Marie called from the backseat, “We called it pulling a Larry.”
At that point we reached the US Airways stop. I looked at Sue closely; I wanted to remember everything about her in that moment: a pink and white striped shirt, black capris, brown sunglasses, freckled face, red hair, a pink tote bag slung over her shoulder and the most enormous black suitcase ever brought on a weekend trip. I burned the image into my brain so that I will have it in case there aren’t any others in the future. I watched Marie and Sue say good-bye, grateful that they will have each other.
Then it was off to Southwest. Marie and I embraced and I cupped her little head with its sassy short haircut in my hand, “I love you.” She returned the sentiment and promised to be back soon.
On the way home in the car, Kool and the Gang’s Ladies’ Night came on the radio. I thought about all the dances and parties Marie, Sue and I went to together. I pictured them dancing together someday at their children’s weddings, still crazy on the dance floor, still having a blast together.
Sue once sent me a card with three old ladies on it, each labeled with one of our names. I thought of the card today. What a great trio of old broads we would have been. It is not meant to be for I am not destined to reach a ripe old age. But I hope someday the two of them will sit together on a park bench, Marie and Sue debating the relative merits of each young hunk walking by and one will say, “Michelle would have liked that one.” For if any two people in the world know me, it is they.