Day Twenty – Mackenzie

So the very first person I met in high school was Mary McKenna. She was a great student but also a bit of a wild child, getting in trouble more than once with various nuns like Sr. Florence Rose (naught, naught, naught) and teachers like Miss Ho Sang, who was our Math teacher. When Mary told Miss Ho Sang that she had almost gotten a problem right and deserved credit for that, Miss Ho Sang schooled us by saying that “almost never killed a bird”. We didn’t know what it meant then; we still don’t but I do know that it still makes us laugh.

She called me Chalkie from the time she knew me because of my incredibly pale skin. Whenever she sends birthday cards, she fills them with confetti so that once you open them you’re picking up confetti off the floor for weeks. She knew everyone and didn’t put up with guff from anyone.

We were both always All My Children and Susan Lucci fans and kept each other current on what was going on in Pine Valley. As my great kid started to get interested in All My Children, sometimes the phone would ring at night and he’d answer. I’d hear him talking to someone, sometimes for 30 minutes or so and then hang up. Invariably, it was Mary (or Mackenzie, as he has always called her for reasons neither she nor I know) and they were talking about whatever dastardly deed Adam Chandler had done or discussing the latest misdeeds of Tad the Cad Martin. I’d ask him if she wanted me to call back but she never did. She just wanted to stay up-to-date with him.

For the longest time she met men who weren’t nearly good enough for her but then, in one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, she reconnected with John who she had known many, many years before. Neither of them had ever married and I was lucky enough to be invited to their wedding with its reception on the water, one of the truly great weddings I’ve ever been to.

She’s not afraid to state what she believes, even if it goes against what’s popular. She’s someone who puts her actions behind her words, marching for women’s rights, immigrants rights, human rights. When she retired from being a flight attendant, she spent years going nearly every day to visit 2 aunts who lived in assisted living facilities. She was their biggest cheerleader and their most vocal advocate. When she had a sense or knew they weren’t being treated properly, she was a force of nature to be reckoned with. She has continued to do this for others even though her aunts have long since passed away.

When you’re 14 years old and entering high school, you’re thrown together by chance with people. Some you’ll like, some you won’t. Some will stay in your life, most will go. But Mary has been there since the beginning and has been particularly kind and supportive of my great kid, which is the greatest gift anyone could ever give me. Thank you, Mackenzie.

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Days Sixteen, Seventeen, Eighteen and Nineteen – The Vernola Boys

So my Vernola cousins – 4 men who I have known since they were born – are both very much the same and each very unique. Each one has made my life (and my great kid’s life) better and they hold a special place in my heart as part of a very small group of relatives who mean the world to me.

Michael, the oldest, is a multi-talented director and a devoted husband and father to 3 fantastic boys. He opens up his home and includes us in every birthday party and, for many years, their Thanksgiving celebration which was always topped off with various cousins wearing crazy hats and singing bawdy songs. His family is his life and I’m glad to be a tangential part of that family. He was one of the last people to spend time with my Dad and I will always remember because it meant so much to my Mom and me.

Rob is one of the funniest people I know and has always treated my great kid with compassion and included him as part of the fraternity of Vernola boys. When Rob worked at the late lamented show “The Best Week Ever”, he let us know to watch one night because he had slipped my great kid’s name into the credits that rolled at the end of the show. I can’t even tell you how much that meant and how we still talk about it. He now hosts Thanksgiving and he and his wife and kids (who are so gifted in music and art) always makes sure to see that we are included. It’s one of the most joyous days of the year for us.

Dan is the man. He’s silly and the best teacher one could hope to have. He is tireless and witty and handsome and charming. And he finally met the love of his life, the great Adrian, and they were married the day before Thanksgiving, giving us even more reason to be thankful last year. His joy for living life to its fullest is infectious and makes you want to be part of his orbit.

Nick, the youngest, is beyond smart and incredibly hard working. When my great kid was going through a tough time, he made a point to reach out to him to let him know that he had someone to talk to. When you grow up an only child to know you have a big brother surrogate to talk to is so important and Nick has done that for my son. His wife, Sarah, is the sweetheart you are happy to know, the person who always writes thank you notes and who you can sit down with and get lost in a great conversation.

Their parents (and their story is coming soon) raised 4 extraordinary men. I always say that it doesn’t matter how smart or gifted your child is; what matters is that they are good people. Cooky and Dom Vernola taught their boys to be kind and compassionate, to help those in need, to share what you can, to be there when you’re needed. They’ve succeeded in every possible way with my Vernola boys, who light up our lives every day.

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Day Fifteen – Miss Deborah

So in another lifetime I worked at a (most-of-the-time) great job in the corporate world. The work was steady, the pay was good, the people I interacted with ranged from fantastic to awful (much like life, I suppose). But there was one person, above all, who I spent many years with and who changed me and showed me what a strong woman looks like.

Although Miss Deborah and I knew each other casually from working on the same floor, we ultimately worked side-by-side and I learned the true nature of her personality and beliefs. She was a tireless worker who commuted a long distance each way every day to get to the job. She was resilient, persistent, dedicated and totally responsible. She was the ideal employee in every way.

When my great kid was very young, he’d come in to the office right before Christmas to visit. Although the purpose of the day was for all of the employees’ children to visit with Santa and have lunch, Miss Deborah would take my son to Target every year when he came in and inevitably bring him back with some kind of action figure. I cannot tell you how much this meant to him and the fact that he still talks about it, some 10 years after the last time it happened, speaks volumes about how much he adored (and still adores) Miss Deborah.

She opened her home to anyone and, when she suffered the most unspeakable tragedy a parent can experience, somehow became even stronger than she had been. She began raising her very young grandchild along with her own children and did a magnificent job of protecting this young girl and keeping her mother’s memory alive.

When I left the company to spend more time with my parents and my great kid, I never looked back. I spent my last day there saying goodbye to people, promising to keep in touch (sometimes I’ve been successful; other times, I have not been). But when it came to say my last goodbye, my goodbye to Miss Deborah, I was heartbroken and inconsolable. I knew I would miss her wisdom, her stories, her love of soccer and tennis and any Trinidad team participating in the Olympics.

She was and is a person who lights up the world and who makes you want to be a better person. I aspire to be as strong and as resilient as she is and always has been. I have been blessed to be her friend and to have her call me friend. She is everything good and kind thing a person should be and I hope people tell her that every single day.

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Day Fourteen – Josh

So on one of my visits to the West Coast edition of the happiest place on earth, the piano player (who had become a friend) introduced me to Josh, who was the children’s performer both at the hotel and in the theme park. He was a gifted storyteller who gathered the children at the enormous fireplace in the lobby of the grand hotel I was fortunate enough to be staying at and would entertain them with stories and songs and poems. He was (and is) thoroughly engaging and you could feel the connection between him and his audience and the joy he brought to them.

We met and clicked instantly and exchanged phone numbers so we could keep in touch. And we have for more years than I can count. He’s handsome, charming, compassionate, loyal, spiritual and devoted to those he loves (and loves While You Were Sleeping as much as I do). And when I needed someone to save me after my darling Dad died, he was the one who did that.

A few months after my Dad died, my great kid headed off to work at a summer camp for 6 weeks. I was missing him and missing my Dad and at a loss as to what to do with myself. I was unhappy, profoundly so.

I believe that although we can’t see our loved ones once they leave us they can and do send us signs. I often hear my Dad’s favorite misheard song, Baldheaded Woman, when I truly need it or when something is happening where I wish he was around to guide me and counsel me and hug me. But after he died, I was waiting for a sign, something to let me know he was still with me. My Mom and my sisters had gotten their signs but I hadn’t.

Josh and I met at the hotel one afternoon when he was off and we sat outside and talked. And talked and talked and talked some more. He let me vent, he let me cry, he held my hand, he hugged me. He said all the right things and told me not to give up, not to lose faith and to trust that God and my Dad were with me.

That night when I slept I dreamed about my Dad for the first time since he had died. He came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder and told me he OK and not to worry any more. And it changed everything for me. The burden of my grief was lessened, the pain of not getting a sign was gone.

And I truly believe in my heart of hearts that Josh was the reason it happened. Because he took the time to be the ultimate friend to me, he opened my heart to the sign that was waiting to be seen. I will never forget that gift he gave me and I can never thank him enough for what he did. He was and is my hero.

 

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Days Twelve and Thirteen – Jimmy and Laurie

So the guy I know the longest in my life is Jimmy. We met in college where he was friends with my gone-and-forgotten ex-husband and he immediately charmed me. He is the most personable human being you could ever hope to know and can and will start a conversation with anyone and everyone. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone places with him far from where we live and we’ve run into someone he knows. He can make me laugh like no other, usually by singing some crazy song or impersonating The Godfather or regaling me with stories of his family, especially those about the escapades of his dear brother, Arthur, who passed away far too soon. He drove hours from far out on Long Island to come to my Dad’s wake for just a few minutes and is the person who could make my father (his best friend, Vinnie, as Jimmy always refers to him) laugh like no other. He is talented, creative and a born entertainer with a gift for being able to mimic almost anyone.

He was the best man at my ill-advised wedding and even after the marriage ended always stayed in touch with me. (It is a true testimonial to the kind of person he is that he made multiple attempts over many years to stay in touch with my ex-husband and was rebuffed or ignored every time. I will spare you my opinion on that kind of treatment by my ex towards his best friend).

Jimmy met his wife, Laurie, on the job and she’s the kind of person that immediately is at home in any situation. She is funny, wise, clever, loyal and passionate about what she believes. They have 2 beautiful and talented children and are an example of lessons learned and lives well lived.

A few months ago I was dealing with something troubling and was woefully and wrongly out of touch with them because I was convinced I was not much fun to talk to. I sent Jimmy a note apologizing for my neglect and explained why I had been absent from their lives. Without dwelling on the details, what I can tell you because it was so extraordinary is the most glorious act of kindness that both Laurie and Jimmy provided me. They were true friends in every sense of the word and how many people can you say that about?

We’ve known each now for 45 years and I know we’ll know each other forever. They love me when I’m at my best and they love me more when I’m far from my best. That alone is the ultimate gift one can hope to receive.

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Day Eleven – Samantha

So many moons and several dogs ago I met my friend Samantha at the animal hospital where I had brought my long-gone-now-but-still-missed dog Sandy for some sort of issue. My great kid and I were planning our first vacation together since we had moved to our home and started our new life and I was looking for some recommendations from the vet about a good place to board Sandy while we were gone.

My vet suggested I speak to Samantha who in addition to being an extraordinary vet tech also did in-home pet sitting. We talked at my house and Sandy, who was not always friendly to new people placed in her orbit, was instantly enamored with Samantha who is a sort of dog whisperer. We left on our trip and Samantha came over 2 or 3 times a day to walk Sandy and feed her but she also would stay and spend time with her, petting her and playing with her. It was the perfect answer because keeping Sandy in her own environment as opposed to putting her in a dog hotel was really better for her.

When we had to make the awful decision to put Sandy to sleep, Samantha was in the room with my darling Dad and my great kid to make sure Sandy was surrounded by people she loved as she went over the Rainbow Bridge.

A few months later we adopted the puppy I wrote about recently, the puppy who himself went over the Rainbow Bridge a week ago. When this puppy became deathly ill shortly after we got him, I knew how lucky we were that he was at the hospital not only with our great vet but with Samantha there as well. She’d check in on him, hold him, comfort him every day she worked. Knowing she was there made it easier for me to not worry as much about him while I was at work.

We got another puppy 2 years after that and Samantha continued to take care of both of them whenever we went away. When she discovered my beagle was limping one day when she came to visit, she called us immediately and asked if it was OK to take him over to the vet to have him checked out. As it turned out, he had a soft-tissue injury he probably got from jumping off the couch (the very couch he was not supposed to jump onto in the first place). She made sure he got great medical attention so that by the time we got back almost a week later, he was well on the road to recovery.

It was a sad day for all of us when Samantha moved away and wasn’t able to be our puppy nanny any longer. The dogs missed her and my great kid and I did as well. She’s so compassionate and devoted to animals and I had such complete trust in her that I gave her a set of keys to my house so she could just come and go as she needed to. I suspect she still may have the keys but if she wanted to show up tomorrow and let herself in to play with my remaining puppy, Lexi, I’d be great with that.

So thank you, my friend, for being the fairy godmother, companion and true friend to all 3 of my puppies over the years. Thank you for always being there for all of us, in the good times and those desperately sad times.

You’re the best, Sam, and never stop believing in yourself. Go be happy. You deserve it.

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Day Ten – Lenny

So I have often learned that when you least expect it someone who you’ve known casually for a long time suddenly becomes a real friend. And that was my experience with my sweet-as-sugar friend Lenny.

My whole family knew Lenny for years as he was the bartender extraordinaire at my parents’ favorite restaurant. Not only did he know what we wanted before we did, as we walked in he would already have our soft drinks waiting at the bar for us. He is funny in that dry sort of way that is endearing, loyal as heck to everyone he cares about, devoted to his family, a great husband to Matt and the person you’d call in the middle of the night if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Like Mary Poppins, he’s practically perfect in every way.

A few years back we started to become friends and he was (and is) the kind of friend you can say anything to without being judged. He offers good advice and makes great suggestions. He calls me dollface when no one else does. He’s the ultimate go-to guy.

When my great kid went off to college in Las Vegas a few years back, I flew out there with him to help him move all of his stuff into his dorm and then, after a long and tearful goodbye (mostly on my part, as I was now officially an empty nester), I took a happy pill, got back on a redeye flight to New Jersey, cried most of the way back and went home to sleep.

And a few hours later I got a text from my buddy asking if I wanted to take a ride with him to go look at the fancy houses in the fancy neighborhoods that we’d never be able to afford. I desperately needed company and took him up on his offer. Off we went with no set destination, driving around, getting lost, critiquing the houses and talking about everything and nothing at all. We went out to dinner and he regaled me with great stories because he’s a born storyteller. After thanking him for rescuing me, I went home feeling so much better than I had when I woke up that morning. Although I felt alone, he made me realize that I truly wasn’t. I was surrounded by people who loved and cared about me and all I needed to do was reach out. My friend reminded me that day that when you have friends, you are never alone.

Thank you, Lenny. And please come back to New Jersey one day.

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