Today my dear friend Sandi would’ve been eighty years old. She isn’t here to celebrate because she died almost five years ago. But if she were here, she would tell everyone she didn’t like having birthdays, she didn’t want to celebrate her birthday, and if anyone mentioned her birthday, she would be angry. One year her family took her at her word, and she was deeply hurt. (I hadn’t been so foolish.) I knew her birthday needed quiet acknowledgement: a card in the mail, a text, an invitation to lunch for “a chance to chat,” and a small inexpensive, but just-what-she-wanted gift.
The first time I met Sandi was in a law office. She was a paralegal, and I was a newly hired paralegal. When our mutual boss introduced us, he added, “Vickie has an English degree.” (I rarely tell people I’m an English major because I’ve learned they think I’m secretly judging their grammar. I also don’t want them secretly judging my grammar.) Sandi remarked, “Oh, good. That’ll be useful because I can never keep the possessive-apostrophe-s rules straight.” I told her I struggled with affect/effect and to lie vs. to lay. I thought about Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains in Casablanca. I suspected the sharing of our grammatical weaknesses was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Later we would laugh about this. She had been intimidated by my being an English major. But it turned out, having attended a private, rigorous Baptist school, she had some good grammar chops herself.
I was forty-five when I met Sandi, who was sixteen years older than me. And the first time I met her oldest son, he said, “I’m surprised that given the age difference you and my mom are such good friends.” I answered, “Your mom’s a little young for me, but I try to be tolerant.” He burst out laughing with the same raucous from-the-bottom-of-his-belly laugh that often erupted from Sandi. “Point taken,” he said. He knew exactly what I meant about his mother.
One year, just after Sandi had become sick, I cleaned her garage for her as a birthday present. Her son owned the house where she lived and he was coming to visit. Through no fault of her own, the garage was a mess and she knew he would be upset. She couldn’t get the responsible party to clean it, and she didn’t have the strength to clean it herself. However, she was embarrassed about me cleaning up the mess, until I pointed out to her that it was a free birthday present, and weren’t we always about free or very inexpensive presents? It took me hours over the course of a couple of days to sort, stack, and sweep the mess into submission. But Sandi and I had some good times going to the Goodwill and to the hazardous waste disposal site together. If you can have fun going to the dump with someone, that’s friendship. A week later when her son arrived, the garage was shipshape, and he complimented his mother on how good it looked. She told him it looked good because she had been given the best birthday present ever.
I think of Sandi every day, and on some days, I cry because she isn’t here. But I did my heavy sobbing when she was still alive. I’d come home from visiting her and sit on my wooden deck stairs and sob.
A picture of two white ducks paddling on water that her niece painted hangs on my family room wall. Because she knew I loved the painting, she gave it to me before she died. A quilt graced with cheerful red cardinals perched in pine trees that she made for me rests on my bed. And when I turn out the lights before going to bed, two LED nightlights glow from outlets in my house, ready to light my way should I need to move about in the dark. When she gave the motion sensor nightlights to me, I looked at her rather dubiously. I’m not a gadget person, but she was. She had a light-up-in-the-dark toilet seat that could be set to glow in different colors. She assured me I would grow to appreciate their usefulness. But what I’ve really come to appreciate is that I think of those nightlights as her watching out for me.
Sandi and I agreed on important stuff. Like Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich were the funniest, but the casting for the movie One for the Money was awful. That Antiques Road Show was binge-worthy, but we should always begin watching it with Dairy Queen treats in hand. That potato salad should always be made from scratch and only with real mayo. That sometimes husbands and children had to be humored.
We loved British sitcoms, The Full Monty, and inside jokes. We shared an irreverent, nonlinear, cheeky sense of humor. We could poke fun of each other, ourselves, and situations, making one another laugh out loud, sometimes hysterically, which always made her snort.
But we always knew when to batten down the hatches and look out for one another. That is, after all, why she gave me the motion sensor nightlights.