One of the lessons I’ve learned from losing my daughter is that we should never put off spending time with people we love because we assume there will be plenty of time. We can always, we think, cultivate our relationships after we’ve finished written this important report, after we’ve studied for that exam, after we’ve cleaned the house, after we’ve earned and saved enough to buy a new house…. You know just what I mean. That’s what modern life is about, most of the time. I’d thought I was pretty good at putting this lesson into practice – as I've written in my memoir, I try my best to make time to see my children, my grandchildren, and my friends, and have even arranged my work schedule to facilitate this. But as it turns out, in some important ways I’ve been no wiser in this regard than anybody else.
This past week, I spent three days in Athens. Normally, I wouldn’t go to the effort and expense of flying abroad to stay for only three days. I wouldn’t choose the week before Passover to leave the country. I wouldn’t go without Daniel. But this was far from a normal trip; I went to Athens to visit one of my two best friends from high school, who very probably has no more than a few months to live.
Danae (at her request, I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy) and I met in seventh grade, on our first day at Hunter. Her parents had immigrated from Greece when she was six years old and, despite having had to master a completely new language, she’d passed the entrance exam to New York City’s highly selective public high school for girls. We immediately became close, even though – perhaps because?– we were so different in so many ways. She was deliberate, methodical, and thorough, while I was the ADHD queen – impulsive, disorganized, and never, ever on time. Whereas I’d sit down to write my papers, well, not even at the last minute, but sometimes months after the deadline had passed, she always handed in her work on time, with each “t” crossed and every “i” dotted. Her tales of the Greek immigrant community fascinated me, and I in turn introduced her to my family’s (admittedly untypical) version of the Jewish American experience.
Together, Danae and I weathered the normal turbulence of adolescence – and not-so-normal times, as when my father died suddenly when I was fourteen. Like most teenage girls, we kept nothing from each other – we shared our frustrations with parents and teachers, our crushes, our strong opinions about the issues of the day, and our dreams for the future. Hard as it is to believe, we never had a single fight during our five-plus years together.
In eleventh grade, she introduced me to her new friend Laurette, and we very quickly became a trio. Amazingly, again, we didn’t suffer from the jealousy and competition that so often plagues young girls’ threesomes. But after high school we dispersed, in keeping with contemporary American custom, to our respective higher studies and careers. Interestingly, none of us ended up living in the United States – Danae returned to Athens shortly after graduating in our school's accelerated program, I moved to Israel after law school, and Laurette settled in France, where her mother had been born and grown up, after her post-graduate studies.
Until last week, I’d seen Danae only twice since graduating high school – once in 1974, when I crossed Europe by train to visit her in Athens, and once in 1986 when she and Laurette visited me and my family in Israel. At first we were in touch only once every year or two (or three) - Danae defines herself as the "world's worst correspondent" - but with the advent of inexpensive international calling, we began to speak more often. Athens is only two hours from Israel, and I thought many times of going to visit. But the years went by and she got married, had two children, and built a whole life for herself, and the visit never happened; I never met her husband (who, sadly, died of cancer eight years ago) or her children. There was always some reason not to go, and it just didn’t seem urgent. There would always be time next year.
Then, two months ago, she was diagnosed with the nastiest form of pancreatic cancer – the one with a prognosis of a few months at most in ninety-eight cases out of a hundred. (If she’s in the lucky two percent, up to two years remain for her.) Suddenly, there may not be a next year. So Laurette and I decided, more or less on the spur of the moment, to surprise her for her birthday, which fell last Tuesday. (We knew there was no point in trying to arrange it with her, as she never wants anyone to take trouble for her, and also because she – like so many of us – chronically puts things off, especially enjoyable things.)
The visit, such as it was (three days after twenty-four years!), succeeded beyond our expectations. Danae was utterly, and very happily, surprised when we showed up at her apartment Tuesday late morning. Everyone she spoke with on the phone heard all about it; at least I thought I could make out the Greek words philae (friends) and gymnasium (high school) in each of her conversations. We found her in much better shape than we'd feared – she had enough energy so that we could organize a birthday dinner-party for her that evening, and she could organize an outing for all of us the next day to a café by the sea. She even had enough energy to worry that she wasn’t being a sufficiently good hostess, and kept saying, “If I’d known you were coming, I would have arranged more for you to do.” We kept replying, “If you’d known we were coming, you would have said no and we wouldn’t be here!”
We also had the kind of frank conversations that we used to excel at when we were teenagers. This time, though, the subjects were radically different; we spoke with her about getting her affairs in order, and her plans for her sons, who are eighteen and seventeen years old.
I hope very much that there will, indeed, be time for me to return to Athens, and that this past week’s trip will not have turned out to be my last. But I am certainly grateful to have had the chance to see my dear friend - and the chance to say goodbye, if our goodbyes when I left for the airport were really our last.
My relationships with those I love have comforted me more than anything else in my grief for my daughter. I think it’s a sign of my resilience that I’ve put a very high priority on nurturing those connections. But, I now see, I can do better; I hope very much that I will.