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Debra was my best friend, and the best friend I can imagine anyone ever having.
I first met her in my 20’s when my office had hired her as a temporary psychologist to help us with the overwhelming number of clients who had been referred.
When I first saw her walking down the long corridor that led to the psychologists’ tiny offices in the back of the building, I felt an immediate surge of recognition, so much so that I wracked my brain for weeks later, trying to figure out where I had met her before. She said she felt the same way.
We never did figure it out; despite being in the same profession and having overlapping social circles, we were sure that our paths had never crossed until that point (at least, I suppose, in this lifetime).
(Spoiler Alert: Since I don’t like to be blindsided by bad news myself, in case you haven’t already noticed, I am referring to Debra in the past tense. Her story in this lifetime ended when we were only 32, but she is still just as real to me as the day she died).
I could say about 1000 hokey, sentimental things about Debra, like she was beautiful and strong and brave and brilliant (and they would all be true), but I am not a Hallmark card and her story deserves better than those sappy cliches typically spoken of the dead.
So here is my attempt to describe someone who defies description and who lit up every room she ever walked into:
Debra was hilarious. She could make even an simple outing to shop for lipstick into an episode from “I Love Lucy”. Normally shy, quiet, and reticent, I found myself being braver with her, unafraid of looks of disapproval at our boisterousness.
Debra was straight, but completely accepting and supportive of me as a lesbian. Unlike some other straight friends I have, she didn’t have much patience with men’s nonsense and she was not flattered by their attention.
I have been accustomed to having to turn down men’s constant advances since I was a very young teenager, but when I was out with her, Debra always took care of it before I could even open my mouth.
Whenever men would approach us (which, tediously, typically occurred multiple times each and every time we went out together) Debra would shoot them down before they even got the first come-on line out of their mouths.
She would say something like “Sorry to interrupt, but we aren’t interested. We are in the middle of a conversation, and we would like to finish it uninterrupted. Thanks for understanding.”
Men would typically be startled by this directness; and seemingly very baffled that we did not wish to be graced by their presence. Most men took it relatively well, although a few got angry (“What’s wrong with you? You must be lesbians!”), to which we would simply nod, smile, shrug, and go back to talking.
We got together as often as possible, given our hectic schedules. Even when we couldn’t get together in person, we talked on the phone, usually giggling like school girls.
But we didn’t just have fun and laugh; we talked deeply about all the things that matter too. Life, death, love, work, happiness, dreams, theories, the universe.
Debra taught me to be kinder than necessary. There was another psychologist who worked with us who was, to put it mildly, quite difficult to work with. “Jane” (not her real name) was controlling, passive-aggressive, snarky, critical, and downright mean. She looked like she had been sucking on a million lemons; her mouth was in a perpetual moue of distaste. I reacted to her by avoiding her whenever possible, and defending myself aggressively when it was not possible to avoid her.
Debra suggested that we try reacting to “Jane” as if nothing was wrong, as if she were a perfectly nice, easy person to work with. So I started saying “Good morning!” to “Jane” as if she were anyone else, and asking her if she wanted a coffee since I was on my way to the break room, as I would do with anyone else.
After initially looking startled like a deer caught in the headlights, “Jane” gradually began being less aggressive and eventually became basically okay to work with. She was never my favorite coworker (or even in the top 50) but I stopped seeing her as a monster and more like the overworked, underappreciated person that she was.
Debra made the world a little better place each day she was in it, by bringing that sort of attitude into any situation she was in. Being around her always felt like the first day in Spring when the air is crisp and the sun is shining and the birds are singing and anything seems possible.
When Debra started coughing relentlessly (without a cold/flu or any other sort of obvious innocuous reason) for weeks and weeks, she finally went to her doctor, who offered her a prescription for anti-depressants. Yes, you read that right. Anti-depressants! For coughing (?!?!). The doctor also asked her about the state of her marriage. Because, apparently, the doctor must have thought that marital issues would lead to…coughing?
(Important note to all women: If any doctor simply dismisses your health concerns as psychological, immediately go to another doctor. Please.).
By the time she went to another doctor (she had postponed it because she was in the middle of exams), the problem had grown. I will spare you the details of the next 2 years because her story is not simply about her illness and she would have absolutely hated to be treated like an “inspirational story of the week“. (She would have rolled her eyes and made horrid gagging noises). Suffice it to say she and her wonderful team of doctors did everything they could to save/prolong her life.
Debra faced her illness, extensive treatments, and eventual death, with the same direct intensity that she approached everything: head-on. When she lost her beautiful long blonde hair, she grieved it, then began wearing ball-caps; her favorite one had the words “No Fear” blazoned across it.
I stayed with her (whenever she wanted me to) when she was in the hospital getting treatments (her family lived several states away and her husband had hit the road because he said he couldn’t “handle it”).
We would make the best of it, given the circumstances, pretending it was a sleep-over; both of us wearing goofy pajamas the whole time (even during the daytime) and watching movies until the wee hours.
Well-meaning people would visit in the hospital and offer platitudes such as “When God closes a window, he opens a door” or “God never gives you more than you can handle”, and our eyes would almost bug out of our heads until the person eventually left, when we would bitch and laugh at the ridiculousness of such nonsense.
Debra chose to not get angry when such things happened, because she knew that those people meant well, but it was quite vexing for both of us because of the sheer inanity and unhelpfulness of such statements.
I gave her an amber worry-stone, and she carried it everywhere with her, even to Duke University hospital to try a last-ditch-effort bone marrow transplant. It didn’t work for her.
I wasn’t there when she died. She had started pulling away about 2 weeks before she died, something I was hurt and puzzled about at the time, but have since learned that it is a normal part of the nearing-death process.
I later learned she died at sunset, after having made peace with her ex-husband earlier that afternoon. It was so like her to die as she lived, always seeing the best in people and willing to forgive.
The amber stone was in her hand at her memorial service and it was later cremated with her. Her step-mother told me she had died with it in her hand, so they decided to leave it with her.
Life went on, as it inevitably does even when it seems too painful to go on, and I soldiered on, my world a duller place without Debra in it.
I would say this was the end of the story…but it’s not.
Over 10 years later, I had traveled to Sweden to visit a friend, Helene, and one night, her friend, Ulrika, a purported psychic medium, came over for dinner.
Halfway through dinner, I noticed that Ulrika was looking at me strangely. I asked her why she was looking at me like that, and she said that a “beautiful woman with long blonde hair and an amber stone in her hand” was standing beside me and that the woman wanted me to know that she was still there.
(Note: I had never told my friend, or her friend, anything whatsoever about Debra; not even that I’d had a friend who had died way too young to ever worry about things like Botox. Life is depressing enough, and anyway, I still wasn’t ready to talk about it over a decade later).
The skeptic in me is suspicious. Did the medium somehow find out from another source? I don’t know. But I still cannot think of how she would have; I am just now learning to open up and talk about my life, so my previous state of being guarded and quiet was still very much in force at that time.
Whatever the case, I like the thought. Whether or not Debra still accompanies me literally (like the medium said) is a mystery, but I am positive that she does still accompany me, at least figuratively, every day as I continue to negotiate this difficult world, trying to always remember to be a little kinder than is necessary.