The first time I celebrated Wendy’s birthday, it was 61 years ago, and she had just turned 21. It was 1958, and we were in Hambone’s in San Mateo.
Though we didn’t know it then, my future husband was the piano player, and her future husband was at the bar buying her first legal beer.
Neither of us knew we’d be celebrating birthdays together for the next 61 years, that we’d marry those guys, each have a child by them, divorce them, and go through life’s ups and downs together, with a bond so tight we’d have our last heart to heart the day before Christmas last year. I tried to wish her a Merry Christmas the next day, but her son said she wasn’t up to it. He was keeping me posted on her decline, and I said tell her I love her. Though how she could not know I didn’t after all those years, the laughter we shared, the long-distance calls when we lived on opposite coasts, the dinners, the trips, the tears we shed on each other’s shoulders over parents we lost, men who broke our hearts, and sometimes just sunsets over the Pacific or the Atlantic that just took our breaths away.
We were best friends to the end.
I called again on Christmas, and her son said it was a matter of hours. I didn’t tell anyone at my holiday celebration, and when my daughter gave me a photo album that included a photo of us together, I thought I’d come undone. I knew we’d never have another happy day together, but oh, I had memories. The call came the next morning. She’d slipped away in her sleep.
I was happy and sad. Relieved she would suffer no more. But oh, how was I going to face the rest of my life without her? I’d picked a friend who endlessly charmed me with her talent, humor, curiosity, intensity, verve, and just plain sense of fun. Because we’ve lived apart for the last dozen and a half years it’s easy to fool myself into thinking she’s still in Burbank and we’ll have another knitting week, sitting and reminiscing with our needles and yarn, talking about books, writing, old friends, and our kids. How can the world go on spinning without her devilish laugh? So many times in just the few months she’s been gone I’ve thought, I have to call Wendy and tell her my sister died, my daughter’s father — the piano player that first birthday– died. To be the first to call and say May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii. It was our competition for 60 years, Don Sherwood’s old joke. This year nobody was around to laugh with me.
Maybe life is random; maybe it’s not. I don’t have the inside scoop. But if it’s not, we were destined to meet. I was a tough sell, I resisted her overtures at first, but we sat at my brother’s breakfast table one Easter vacation and told stories and laughed all afternoon and cemented our friendship for life.
I couldn’t have gotten through life without two or three people. Wendy was one of them.
I’ll celebrate her today, her 82nd birthday, and imagine her telling stories and making folks laugh somewhere out in the cosmos. It was always her strong suit. We all have a few crucial choices in life. Make sure one of them is to pick a best friend as loyal to you as Wendy was to me.
Happy birthday, Wendy, wherever you are. and love from your friend.