Two weeks ago two friends went shopping. They had formed a bond around this happening 20-years ago when they first met. Back when they shopped for treasures on their college budgets in unexpected places. What they found was inconsequential. It only served as goalposts of their time together. This ritual provided a space where they shared conversation, laughter, ideas, each punctuated by the “shzing” of hangers sliding across racks and calls from the next aisle to “checkout” the discovery. Value City and local thrift stores were the inauspicious places they found these looked-over gems or rock bottom remainders that no one had recognized for what they were. Those shopping trips were the comfortable dance to all the best songs they played over and over and over.
The girls are now women; mothers, wives and professionals. They don’t have to reach too far down to find the college girls they once were together. Both have managed to keep that self close by. So when they see each other no matter how much time has passed since the last visit, they find the understanding and love easily accessible, below the skin nuanced by the years they’ve lived since. And as they shopped two weeks ago, they fell into the grooves established decades prior. Though this time it was different. This time they both provided more than memories and a comfort of a shared history. This time they needed each other for physical support as they went through the motions of their historic ritual. While one endures the disease she’s had since they first met, the other faces a new, more challenging diagnosis that shakes the ground they have always felt secure on.
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Finding a way to absorb the reality of Linda’s cancer has left me immobilized… yet flailing. I’m desperately trying to get my arms around all that she is and what she means in my life. As the weeks have passed I have found the place deep inside that only she can touch and I’ve rested there. Within that space has come an outpouring of emotion and words in an unstoppable flow. It’s the soundtrack of our 20-year friendship – a melodic hum that exists beneath everything. And while my feelings are often beyond description, I am taking this time to honor her and what we share. I know it will empower me from now on as I continue to read and reflect on this most remarkable friendship.
So here goes…
I met Linda P. a few months after my MS diagnosis. Tumultuous is not a strong enough term to describe the few years leading up to the Fall of 1988. In short, my parent’s sudden divorce and my mom’s move to Florida led me in desperation to an abusive boyfriend. Escaping that, I moved to Maryland to attend the state university at College Park and after three semesters, I transferred to a different campus in search of a something more meaningful both academically and personally. I was getting used to making these big decisions on my own.
That summer before I started at the new campus began with my 20th birthday and the out-of-nowhere diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. It was a shocking blow to my fragile and forced independence. But in spite of my fear, I continued on by myself looking for a community to be a part of while finishing my film degree. Just a few weeks after I moved to the Baltimore suburbs and started at the UMBC film program, I found a group of people who felt good to be around. Just as the cream rises to the surface, so did Linda. It quickly became clear that we had something special. You know how sometimes you meet someone and they match you in ways you didn’t know possible? Well that was how it was with Linda. And as I search for descriptors to convey all that we have, I get lost in the reverie of everyday moments and how it felt back then to have her energy with me all the time.
Trying to describe a friendship in words is not unlike trying to sing a painting. I’m not sure if it was her spirited way of appreciating every moment that drew me in or her adorable personality. At this time, making new friends and meeting new people wasn’t easy. I was unsure and nervous about what MS would mean for me and this seemed transparent in my insecure presence. Many people couldn’t deal with this uncertain reality of mine and were obvious in their apprehension. But Linda never shied away. She clearly accepted every part of who I was in ways I could not yet do for myself. She gave new meaning and comfort to my world.
This girl came into my life at a time when I had no one and needed someone more than ever. She made me laugh and find myself again while I was starting over. Her talent knows no end, though she turns the other way when you recognize this. This allowed me to find myself. To find my artist’s voice in ways I could not have with a friend who absorbed attention.
So as I was finding my new identity with MS, whatever that meant, Linda helped me. She unknowingly pointed out what needed notice and dismissed what didn’t deserve attention. In my new life at 20 years old, I had no map or guide, no hope that most are traveling with at this point in their journey. And while the scar pattern had just begun to mar my brain, Linda was there to fill the in-between with laughter, color and song. And just as those scars still remain, so does what Linda has given to me all of those years ago and now. She helped me find myself, the someone beyond the diagnosis.
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I’ve always felt that the kind of bond students can find in an art department is completely different than other courses of study. As we explored deeper feeling to express in our art we found places within that touch our core. Finding these hidden archives of inspiration in our separate yet connected form (film & photo), we helped move the creative processes forward in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. We were irretrievably linked this way. As I was learning my own voice and worth, she instilled confidence in me that was of an immeasurable value. It has impacted me from that point on in both how I see the world and how I live in it. No matter what my limitations were or would be, I found value in my sense of self I had never known before.
What was new to me then, this creative self, was an unbreakable thread in our friendship over these two decades. Her mere presence inspires me and encourages me to back-up and simplify whatever I’m laboring over. Speculation and evaluation have always been my specialty, though sometimes my undoing, and her response helped me refocus on what was important. And while I had my own energy, humor and artistic interpretation… together we found something bigger.
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Throughout the years since we both left Baltimore she continued to touch my life. Her relocation to Orlando and my ultimate move to Miami kept us within driving distance. During those years we took that trip often. She thought nothing of hopping in the car and driving 4 hours to see me. She lent her support as I struggled with my increased MS symptoms and attacks that were becoming more regular in this time before any disease modifying drugs existed. She always provided simple responses to my complicated feelings that allowed me to refocus, without the fog that made it hard to see; all punctuated by her adorable self. She made my wedding dress and sewed the chuppah that she held during the ceremony. Although our tangible presence in each others lives had the ebb and flow that comes with adult life, she was always there.
When she changed her career and became a nurse it astounded me how one person could be so richly diverse. As an artist, she is a creator that brought new life and interpretation to everything she touched. As a nurse she combined her energy together with her new wisdom and gave it to those who are at the most challenging place, found only in a hospital bed. What she helped me find 20 years ago in my new self with MS, she was bringing to the masses at Mass General. A role that comes naturally with the dedication and knowledge she applies with little effort. And with the geography that separates New Jersey from Massachusetts we continue to be close with our ability to communicate and touch no matter how we are separated in time or space, recharging each other in ways that only two friends who have shared a 20-year-love can.
There is so much that I haven’t even begun to explain; our families, our children, our struggles and accomplishments. All of which live in the copious notes I have typed without noticing the keys. And so they sit in front of a glow of the screen; the words containing scenarios, that on their own seem inconsequential, but together are the recipe for the greatest friendship in this known world.
I sigh and breath deeply. Knowing that in one place I can go to see evidence of what will always be and will need no reminding. And as my mind takes me to a place of miracles and hope, I am back in the shopping mode. Yelling across the aisles to Linda the meaningless words of what was found underscored by what will always be.
Thank you dear Linda Park. And stop shaking your head saying that I made all this up. I have the documents that prove it if you don’t believe me. 🙂
I love you and will always have that embedded in who I am… forever more.
• • •
Linda passed on December 4th, 2009. As I type the words I still can’t believe it to be true. Through my tears, I know she will live on forever in my heart and mind.