Gina and I met back in ’88 or ’89. I’m not exactly sure. I just remember that the definitive start to our friendship began while we were both in the midst of our first pregnancies. So I guess late 1988 would have been where it all began.
I was newly married and 21 years old. She was my brother’s friend’s girlfriend, 19 years old, and a total spit-fire. I, having always been somewhat shy and insecure, was instantly attracted to her confidence and zest for life. She was young, unmarried and pregnant. At that time in my life, I couldn’t imagine being in her shoes. But she was unapologetic and marched forward in life doing all she could to make a good life for the baby girl who soon arrived … and the four other babies who followed in the years to come. And she did a great job of it.
We fumbled our way through parenting in those early days. In addition to figuring out how to be good moms, we both had our share of struggles with financial issues, home-ownership, marriage, and all of the stuff that life throws at us. What stands out most about my friendship with Gina is that she helped me view life through a lens of humor. She seemed to know instinctively that if we couldn’t laugh at ourselves, we’d run the risk of letting life swallow us up, and she was having none of that.
As we grew older and began to find our footing, we settled into our own life routines. We shared it all with one another, often over the lines of a telephone. For so many years, not a day would go by without one of us calling the other. And even though we were in touch daily, hours could pass easily as the constant flow of conversation passed between us.
Our lives shared similarities, and yet had enough differences to help us appreciate one another. We both made livings as home daycare providers for many years, and so supported one another with ideas for keeping kids productively busy, and provided therapy for the inevitable frustrations of dealing with a house full of children all day, every day. We shared parenting successes and failures, relationship issues, family frustrations, and all the day-to-day stuff that kept life interesting.
I honestly still can’t say what it was that attracted her to me. But I was initially drawn to her wicked sense of humor. Once when we were discussing how neither of us thought we could stand one more game of Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, she began proposing names for potential similar adult versions of all these early childhood games. Soon we were tossing inappropriate game names back and forth, things that I dare not put in writing. And all I can say is that we were laughing until we couldn’t breathe. That’s what I loved about her.
I loved that she could do anything. Her parents divorced when she was young. She lived with her mom, and had all of the “stuff” a kid could want. But it doesn’t sound like her parents were involved with her very much. So I don’t know how or where she gained some of her domestic talents, but she had them! The girl could sew like nobody’s business. During her early years of marriage, money was tight. She sewed clothes for her kids, window curtains and valances, bedding, and made pageant dresses for her girls that looked like a million bucks. She was Italian and loved to cook, and she did it well. There was no home project she couldn’t figure out how to do on her own, whether it was construction, painting, tiling or landscaping.
She coached her kids’ sports teams and was always involved, if not as a coach, then on the athletic association’s board, or with the booster club.
She was a talented photographer. She loved photography and taught herself all the ins-and-outs and tried to share some of her knowledge with me, though I could never quite remember all of the right settings for different levels of light. But oh, the fun we had going out on what we called our photo excursions. We loved to go downtown, or to sprawling parks and capture everything we saw with our cameras. She eventually earned her living as a photographer, and the proof of her talents fills the homes of so many, including mine. She was always on the “taking” end of the camera, and I only regret that this meant there are far too few pictures of the two of us together.
As our kids grew older, leaving us time to explore hobbies of our own, she discovered bowling. She called me one day and asked if I would fill in as a sub on her team. I remember saying, “Oh, I don’t bowl. I’ve probably done it five times ever in my life.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I’ll help you. You don’t even need your own ball. You can use a house ball and rent shoes. You don’t have to be good. We just need a body.”
Well, the pressure was off and the rest is history. It wasn’t long before bowling became one of my pursuits and we shared many fun nights in the women’s league, laughing, improving our games, and drinking beers.
The years passed by … some good times, some bad … but we hung on to each other and at some point along the way, we decided we were best friends. Our kids grew up. We spent time together along the way, usually helping each other with life stuff, like painting rooms or making food for high school graduation parties. We made time to have fun together with our husbands on the weekends, and even celebrated some holidays together. Our kids came to think of each of us as family, and I was given the honor of being godmother to Gina’s son. Not so many years ago, I helped her family pack for a move that took them out-of-state and hours away from me. It was such a sad and difficult day when they drove away from here, but the miles couldn’t keep us from remaining the best of friends. Our phone calls were filled with affection, calling each other Chica, as had become our habit, and ending our conversations with “I love ya, man!”
Within a year after her move away from me, Gina was diagnosed with cancer, one of the most aggressive, horrible forms of the disease. Within days of her discovery of a lump in her breast, she had undergone a double mastectomy. She fought it and bounced back, but within a couple of years, the cancer had returned. She continued to fight and I prayed. I prayed, and prayed and prayed. Lately, I wasn’t reluctant in my prayers. I outright begged for a miracle.
On Memorial Day weekend, Gina’s husband, Jeff reached out to me and we talked. He explained that the cancer was winning. I had been wanting to go out and visit, but had not been able to fully work it out with Gina. Jeff told me she was never going to agree to have me come see her at this point because she would want to make the house perfect and ready for my visit. And she couldn’t do that herself because she was getting too weak and sick to do it. He told me if I wanted to come, I should come now. He said to pick the dates, any dates. He would make it easy for me. So we planned it and in mid-July I spent four wonderful days with her. Over the past few years when she would come “home” for a visit, my time with her usually had to be shared with others. She had so many friends and so much family that when she was here, everyone wanted some of her time. So one-on-one time wasn’t much of an option. Going there gave me that time with just her that we had been lacking for too long.
She had been having some really good days just before I visited. I was encouraged and told my mom so. Mom mentioned that when a terminally ill person has some really good days, it usually means the end is near. I was appalled that she would say such a thing to me, but I realize now she was right.
Gina and I had some beautiful days together. She was never able to leave the house, but she sat on the loveseat in the living room where she was basically spending all of her waking and sleeping hours by then. We talked a lot. She slept a lot. We watched movies. Actually, we watched “a” movie – Miracles from Heaven – multiple times. She had requested it and I picked it up at a nearby Red Box. I watched it again and again. Because she couldn’t stay awake for many hours at a time, she never quite made it all the way through the movie. I contemplated the real-life miracle of which the movie told, and asked God if a real-life miracle might be possible for Gina. But it wasn’t to be.
I passed the time while she was resting or sleeping by cooking meals for her family and for us, or taking short walks or reading while I waited for her to awaken. We cried when we hugged and had to say goodbye. I told her I loved her and she told me the same.
Last week, her family flew here to spend a week and to celebrate her son’s high school graduation with family and friends. They stayed with her oldest daughter who still lives here in Minnesota. I visited on Friday evening, the day before the party, and spent a couple of hours with her. I held her two grandbabies and talked with her family while I watched her sit quietly in a wheelchair, clearly struggling. She wasn’t feeling so great, and her husband told me she’d been having some difficult days. He worried that he’d waited too long to bring her here, but she had insisted on the timing and he hadn’t wanted to panic her by pushing to do this sooner than she wanted.
Saturday morning, the day of the party, Jeff called me very early. He said they were in the hospital. She had gone into distress during the night and he could not adjust her oxygen to the point where he could calm her again, so he’d called for an ambulance. I hurried to the downtown hospital just as quickly as I could get there, and spent the next eleven hours by her side as she struggled to breathe and find relief from her pain. I was honored to spend this time with them as she traveled this difficult road, and was allowed to be included in all of the conversations with doctors and specialists. It soon was made clear that there was no fixing this. All that could be done was to try to make her as comfortable as possible until the end came. Gina would not be going back to her home in Ohio with her family.
Jeff and I passed the hours by her side while the graduation party went on without us. We tried to make her as comfortable as possible, and he checked in frequently with the staff to see what more could be done. Gina maintained her sense of humor through it all. Even as we could see that her mind was partly in this world and partly in another, her true self came shining through at times. As one nurse asked if it was okay to do something for her, she raised her eyes and weakly responded, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!”
At one point, she looked wearily at me and teased, “You need to quit crying already.” Somehow I agreed and managed, if only from the sheer weariness of having been doing so much crying.
As night fell, Jeff kept asking me if I was sure I was okay. And didn’t I want to go home? I did and I didn’t.
Eventually, Jeff called his kids to come see their mom. I needed to check on my own mom and also knew that in the ICU, the hospital staff would probably appreciate if visitors were kept to a minimum. Part of me wanted to see my friend through to the very end, and part of me felt I should step aside and let her family have that time alone with her. Around 9 pm, I kissed her goodbye and hugged Jeff. I told him to call me at any time.
I went home and fell into an exhausting sleep. I woke up before the sun and began to dread his call, which came not long afterwards. He told me that the doses of morphine had begun to be administered hourly, while she struggled to make it through each hour before needing more. She had been able to spend some time talking with her dad, sisters and children before things grew to their worst. He said eventually, she settled down after yet another dose of morphine. Her breathing grew shallow and at some point in the predawn hours, she simply stopped taking another breath. My Chica left this world peacefully.
This hurts more than I could have imagined. I have guilt that I didn’t find a way to spend more time with her in these past couple of years, but am encouraged by those who found their way into her heart in her new home in Ohio. There were a few who took such good care of her and did the things for her that I wish I could have. I am so grateful to Jeff for making sure she and I were connected during her last days. He and I talked about how maybe this was all meant to play out as it did. So many decisions remained undecided about where to hold services and where to bury her if it all came to that. He said that maybe she was only waiting to be here, amongst the majority of her friends and family before she departed from this world.
Even in the midst of the pain I feel in losing her, I am grateful. Grateful that she is free from the pain and struggle. Grateful to have had a friend who loved me so much, who looked past my many flaws and insisted only on seeing the good in me. Grateful to have someone who stood by my side and lifted me up during times when I felt utterly alone. Grateful to have had someone who helped me see the world as bright, beautiful, fun and adventurous.
As Faceb00k was filled yesterday with tributes to her, I realized the significant impact she had on so many. Her friendships spread far and wide, and her influence on everyone was so similar and postive. She will forever be remembered for her humor, her adventure, and her many and varied creative talents. She was a friend, a willing listener and a source of encouragement to everyone. Her talents as a photographer beautifully captured the most emotional and important times in the lives of others. I only hope that in the void left in the wake of her passing, I can take on a part of her and share all the good that she was with the world around me.
Gina, I will love you always and look forward to the day that we meet again in Heaven. You will be deeply missed, my dearest and best friend. Thank you for being a part of my life.