When We Mourn a Friend
A woman reconnects with classmates, finding comfort over a shared loss
(This piece was originally published in the author's blog, "Lost in the Sixties," in the Pocono Record.)
I've often said the only good thing about aging is that everyone else your age is getting older, too. But I've never felt the truth of that remark as much as I did last weekend when I went to Rhode Island for the funeral of one of my oldest friends.
Roberta and I grew up in the same neighborhood of modest postwar ranch houses — "the plat," as we all called it. We rode bikes together, went to school together, graduated together. We began freshman year together at University of Rhode Island, but here is where our paths diverged. She dropped out, went to work and got married a year or two later (I was her maid of honor). She soon had a couple of kids.
The last conversation Roberta and I had was about food she was going to cook for that party.
Roberta built a life for herself right in our hometown; I couldn't wait to get out. I moved to Providence when I graduated from college and went to work at a big newspaper. I married a fellow reporter, spent a year in Europe and briefly returned to Rhode Island before leaving for Illinois (so my husband could get an advanced degree there) and then New York (career opportunities for us both).
Two Women, Four Weddings
At some point, Roberta and I lost touch. But I knew she had gotten divorced — and then, so did I. Sometime later, she remarried, and in a number of years — after moving again, this time to northeastern Pennsylvania — I did too. Two women, four weddings.
We reconnected in our 40s at a high school reunion (the only one I ever attended) and were friends again ever since, despite living 200 miles apart. We saw each other a number of times, but the most recent attempts to get together — such as a plan to meet at my aunt's in Massachusetts to learn how to make my grandmother's special Italian Christmas dessert — always fell apart at the last minute.
At one point, three of us made plans to meet in Sturbridge, Mass., for a girls' B&B weekend. Roberta had to cancel because of a medical emergency with her elderly aunt, whom she was taking care of. She likewise lovingly managed the end-of-life care of both parents and an uncle, too.
At the time, I was struggling to oversee the medical and practical necessities for just one old person, my mom, who had moved next door to me and my husband. Caregiving is a stressful job. I don't know how Roberta managed it so gracefully.
We'd been looking forward to really catching up in July at another class reunion. Some of us were invited to a house party afterward at the shore. The last conversation Roberta and I had was about food she was going to cook for that party.
Instead: Roberta's funeral.
Roberta died of a heart attack that probably stemmed from damage caused by the two rounds of chemo she endured 10 years earlier to treat inflammatory breast cancer. She didn't have cardiovascular issues, not even high blood pressure. She was a bit of a foodie and something of a health nut. Just get her started on GMOs and Monsanto!
So many classmates crowded the funeral home that it felt like a perverse kind of reunion in itself. Some are friends. Some I'm in touch with on Facebook. Some I didn't recognize, and others I didn't really know even back in the day.
Never mind. We fell into one another's arms, and together mourned our loss. I seem to have more high school friends now than I had in high school.
All funerals are difficult. But there's something about the passing of a peer that really gets you. As I said to my friend Joyce, also a classmate, this is going to be our life from now on. We went through the other life stages together — marriages and divorces, births and illnesses. Now we bear witness to the deaths.