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Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Tailgate

When I think of my friend Amy Boise, I think of something really stupid we did years ago, when we were seniors in high school. My dad had a red and white pickup truck that for some reason Amy and I were driving around in one day -- normally I took my mom's car, a serious-minded Oldsmobile. I guess the truck made us feel reckless because at one point on this foolhardy afternoon I turned the wheel over to Amy and decided to stand on the rear bumper. Thinking I was in the truck bed, she stepped on the gas and I flew backward, saved only by my quick grab of the tailgate, which thankfully was up and locked into place. I have no memory of the before or after of my bumper-riding. I just remember, in slow motion, feeling her hit the gas, feeling my body jolt back, and then feeling the relief of the tailgate's hard metal in my hands. Had I fallen off the back of that pickup ... well, who knows what my future might have been: broken leg, broken spine. Broken neck.

As it happened, though, my future turned out fine. Amy and I and the rest of us in our "clique" went our separate ways and headed off to college (I didn't really know it was a clique back then, it felt more like clinging to compatible girlfriends who could help each other navigate the stormy, uncertain waters of high school). Amy's college career took her to Kentucky where, after college, she decided to stay. My path kept me in New York state for awhile, then took me to Arkansas, then back to New York, to Manhattan and surrounds. As any one of my friends will be quick to say about me, I have a hard time saying goodbye to people. With that said, I've been diligent about maintaining contact with friends all my life and Amy was no exception. Even though we were 800 miles apart, we always kept in touch. Amy and I weren't phone friends, and neither did we -- when the technology arrived -- communicate much by email. We were a bit old-fashioned: we wrote letters and cards and made a point to see each other in person, albeit infrequently. But the frequency didn't matter. Our friendship was cast in stone.

Time went on. Amy married and divorced, I almost married then didn't, Amy pursued a career in the insurance industry, I pursued one in medical publishing and conference management. We exchanged newsy Christmas cards and, as I said, saw each other occasionally, maybe once a year, maybe once every two years. Then I moved back to Sherburne in 2010 and not long after -- and I'm still not sure why -- I wrote an email to my high school friends saying it was time for us to start getting together more often, that we weren't getting any younger and sooner or later (and maybe sooner) one of us would "go" and we needed, I thought, to take advantage of days when we still had our health to spend time in each other's company. This was not an easy thing, as we were flung far and wide: Sherburne, Syracuse, Rochester, New Jersey, Boston, Kentucky. But we're a willful bunch and made it happen, which is when the Annual Memorial Day Girls' Weekend started. Not all of "the gang" came every year, the gang being Jen, Teresa, Jackie, Ann Kathryn, myself, and Amy, but there was always a good showing. We'd have food and drink and great fun at a grown-woman pajama party at my house, would allow our guy friends to participate for a few hours, but ultimately kicked them out around 9 p.m. so we could be just the girls, lounging around in bathrobes, sometimes (depending on dicey Central New York weather) with a fire crackling and feeling 17 when we were far from it. Amy came only once, that first year, because it was a 12-hour one-way drive for her, though in the years since 2010 Amy and I did see each other more often. She made a few trips to Sherburne, I made one to Kentucky around Christmas 2013. We had a lovely time that holiday, reminiscing about the old days: winters sitting on the heated kitchen floor in her parents' house; summer weekends with boyfriends at my parents' house; our trip to Disney World; band performances; class reunions. Curled in chairs in her beautiful Kentucky living room by the Christmas tree. Her cats purring nearby. Friends of forty-odd years as comfortable with each other as a sock and shoe.

Amy died today. Cancer, diagnosed last summer. The first of our high school crew to go. In November Jen, Teresa, Jackie, Ann Kathryn, and I got in a car and drove 12 hours south. We spent four days with our friend, who but for rather dramatic weight loss was just the same: stoic, blonde, beautiful, kind, a gentle humor, and determined to stay as independent as she could for as long as possible. We did our best for her: folded clothes, cleaned, made an early Thanksgiving dinner. We took her out to eat a few times, but mostly we sat around and talked, letting her know as best we could how much we loved her. One afternoon she put an old album on her turntable: the song was the SE band playing "Temptation" and we cried, which many who read this will understand. Our final glimpse of Amy was that night we drove away for the last time. She stood there alone in the lighted window waving goodbye as we pulled out of the driveway. It's a moment none of us will ever be able to unsee.

As I mentioned, I don't do this goodbye thing well, and of course I know many more are ahead unless I'm next up at bat. The truth is we never know, do we? We look into the eyes of those we love and just don't know ... is the last picture I snapped of you on my phone actually the last? Is the last time I hugged your neck never to be repeated? Will I never touch your hand again, or hear you laugh?

Amy has moved on, and those of us who loved her should not be sad because the good part of her life was gone. And for friends still here by but a tenuous thread of breath and heartbeat? Let us take no moment for granted. Let us gather as often as possible and lounge in bathrobes by warm fires and clink glasses and acknowledge the pointlessness of political arguments and earthly things; let us be grateful that we have clung to that tailgate this long, because some of us have let go. More than anything, let us be thankful that by the grace of god there are dear ones who will stand by us until the end.

About Me

Newspaper columnist; blogger; author of Delta Dead; author of 101 Tip$ From My Depression-Era Parents; author of Australian Fly; editor: ...And I Breathed (author, Jason Garner, former CEO of Global Music at Live Nation), "A History of the Lawrence S. Donaldson Residence"; "The Port Washington Yacht Club: A Centennial Perspective"; "The Northeastern Society of Periodontists: The First Fifty Years"; editor: NESP Bulletin; editor: PWYC Mainsail; past editorial director: The International Journal of Fertility & Women's Medicine; past editor of: Long Island Power & Sail, Respiratory Review; Medical Travelers' Advisory; School Nurse News; Clear Images; Periodontal Clinical Investigations; Community Nurse Forum