Helen was my best friend in eighth grade. She was the liveliest, funniest, sexiest, most outrageous person I had met in my young life, and I was completely in love with her. For the next twenty years or so we laughed, sang, bickered, walked, hiked, ate, and talked together. She was charismatic, stubborn and insecure, with long ripply brown hair that flowed down her back, and a beautiful singing voice. I was introspective, funny, and poetic, tall and loping next to her quick purposeful movements.
We hitchhiked through Greece together attracting a trail of men who followed us like dogs on a scent (we were 18); we dissected processed and pureed each and every interaction either of us had together; we read Tarot cards and got astrology readings; we sang spirituals and Simon and Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell; we wrote a song or two together, with me on lyrics, her doing the music; we dated two boys who were best friends themselves; we shared babysitting gigs, books, clothes, and opinions; we cooked and ate, and at one point had a (very) short-lived catering business together.
We were children of the sixties and seventies, activists, or would-be activists. We made bean dip for United Farm Workers meetings, we marched in anti-war and anti-nuke demonstrations, and went to concerts by Sweet Honey in the Rock and Cris Williamson and Holly Near.
When I got married in 1987, my husband and I picked Helen to officiate at our wedding, while a Justice of the Peace witnessed it to make it official. Helen read Native American blessings to us; she cried through the whole ceremony, and midwifed us into our marriage. Fifteen years later, after my divorce, I flew up to Seattle to be at her wedding to Michael. He was ten years older than us, but active and spunky likeher; a singer, a dancer, bird-watcher, nature-lover.The next year they had a little boy, Jesse.
Last night I got the email that Michael is actively dying. I saw them last year and even after the chemo, he had spring in his step and looked much the same--a little older, maybe, a little thinner. We played Boggle, and talked birds and politics, and drama--I was there for a workshop of my play--and hung out with Jesse who is the same age as one of my nephews, equally adoreable, and preternaturally smart. I noticed Michael's especially tender relationship with Jesse. He and Helen could get feisty with each other, but this little boy was bathed in love.
My ex-husband died of cancer two years ago, leaving a widow and a four-year-old daughter.
When we were girls and dreaming our futures, Helen and I never factored in divorce, or cancer, hospice, in-home nurses, insurance payments, mortgages, social security benefits, pensions, or grief counselors for children. We weren't the type of girls who spent much time planning our weddings; we were too busy planning how we would solve the school desegregation problem in Boston, or go to South Africa and fix apartheid.
Our lives turned out so differently than we could have guessed. Larger and smaller at the same time. We did not liberate South Africa, or South Boston, but we were able to liberate parts of ourselves, and were touched by and touched deeply into many people's lives in the process.
Helen knew my mother--in fact she loved my mother, who could be an intimidating person. I had friends who lived in fear of my mother. My mother loved Helen too. They were both fiery and dramatic, detail-oriented, bossy, and charismatic. If my mother were alive today, she would be aching for what Helen is going through now.
My sister wrote me yesterday about a gathering of women she was at the other night, where all three of them were at one stage or another of sparation and divorce. I was at a similar gathering two nights ago with another friend out here, whose twenty-year marriage is ending.
I'm sure there are similar gatherings of women, all over the globe, to help each other through these rites-of-passage that no one talks about, these unmarriages. I'm sure even now, women are making tea and passing tissues and telling each other that it will be okay. Which, big picture, it will. The kids will survive and grow up, scarred, yes, but who isn't scarred? The woman will live, and if she's lucky, and chooses to, she'll grow from it all. But it's sad, and hard, and lonely, and not at all what we were trained to dream about when we were fifteen, lounging on a narrow bed, singing along to Joni Mitchell's "Blue" album.