© Another Day in the Country
Yesterday, I got a call telling me that my friend Rita died. Even though I knew she had been sick — so sick she couldn’t talk on the phone — I really didn’t think this would be fatal. She was young, after all.
The whole month that she was ill, I felt so helpless. She was in California. I am in Kansas. There was absolutely nothing I could do that would be helpful. She was under the best of medical care. She had people watching out for her. My daughter went to visit and reported each time how very ill Rita was, not always coherent, on dialysis. I kept her in my prayers, but should I have prayed more often? I held her in my heart, but that seems so little to do for a friend — a good friend, a long-time friend, an improbable friend, a sometimes renegade friend, a loyal friend.
My old friend Dr. Shaw used to say to me, “One of the worst things about growing old is losing your friends.” As you age, especially after you retire, your chances of making new friends gets smaller quickly. And what is more valuable than a friend you’ve known for 50 years, or as in Rita’s case, 35 years. I’d known her since she was a teenager.
“You’ve got to meet my little sister,” Rita’s brother, a college student, said to me. “She’s a real case, but I think you’d like her. She’s artistic but her sense of style drives me crazy.”
Big brother was a sharp dresser and his little sister preferred old jeans and tennis shoes. Thanks to her brother, I met Rita when I had car trouble in San Jose. Rita’s parents lived nearby and offered to help us limp the car to the garage and even gave us a bed for the night.
Sometimes I look back in bewilderment at how Rita and I became friends with 20 years separating us. I guess at first, I became her advocate when she came to college. Then I became her boss when I gave her a job. Then I became her classmate when I decided to major in art to finish my degree — Rita was an art major, too. Then I was her mentor when she took over my job and then, year after year, we were just friends.
When I used to host an hour-long radio talk show, my friend Rita was one of my favorite guests. Sometimes she’d even fill in for me. She had the most beautiful handwriting, calligraphy style, so that people would hire her to address their wedding invitations. She designed a business card for me once, as a gift. It was the most beautiful card I ever owned and all it had on it was a red W. She loved to play games, design games, and taught us to play “Hand and Foot” when she visited us here in Ramona.
Every time I’d see her on my trips to California there would be something new for show and tell. Her latest was painting white high-top tennis shoes for a friend’s birthday. “I wonder if my kids at Centre could do that?” I asked. “Probably too expensive for an art project.” I took pictures, just in case.
She loved Facebook, and this summer when I was in the Napa Valley she announced on her page that she was going to lunch with Patwick — that’s what the college kids called me, first and last name all run together. All through our meal her phone was beeping, signaling that she had messages. “Look here, Patwick,” she’d crow, “Remember Lisa, who used to work for you — she says ‘hi’, and Julie, Dennis, Bob Wilcox, remember him? Oh, here’s a message from Karla, whose family used to live next door.” That’s how the dinner went until 50 people had sent greetings and she hadn’t eaten her burrito.
And now she’s gone. Her parents died several years ago. She never married. Had no children. A mutual friend called to tell me the sad news. I called my daughter and had to leave a message. There was no one who I really knew to console. No one to console me. No one to talk to about Rita, rehash the memories, laugh and cry and remember on another day in the country.