This week I lost one of the best friends I’ll ever have, and I’m at a loss at how to contemplate it. To say that I’ll miss her doesn’t come close to expressing the void that her passing will leave in my soul.
I can think of many reasons why Nancy and I should have hit it off, starting with the simple geography of our births. She was from Pittsburgh—not too far from my hometown of Canton, Ohio—which made it easy for us to compare feelings of being misfits in South Dakota. Like me, Nancy had no children, and she understood the joy and sometimes heartbreak of loving nieces and nephews like they are one’s own. So yes, we were both blond Midwestern girls (but from the Steel Belt part of the region) and ‘got’ each other from Day One, but any similarity to me wasn’t what made Nancy special. To begin to understand the magic of who she was is to go back to the first day I met her, when she was a student in the nighttime section of Beginning French that I taught in the fall of 2006.
On the class roster, I’d noticed that a married couple had registered, but I was unprepared for their enthusiasm on the first day of class and unprepared for Nancy’s warm smile, one which would color the seven years I would enjoy as her friend. In their 60s, Nancy and her husband John out-aged my other students by decades, but this didn’t bother them at all. It gave everyone a little more practice with higher numbers when we learned the “I’m ___ years old” vocabulary. I admired them for taking the class, figuring they’d read the press about foreign language being good for the memory as one gets older. They were great students, always doing their homework and happily volunteering when I needed role-play victims. Nancy let herself get stressed out taking exams (which was my fault for making them too long), but I never understood why because she did so well on them. I liked to cook French dinners for my classes, and through them Nancy and John got to know my husband Ray. (I made him pose as a French waiter for the dinners.) They signed up for the second semester, and by the end of the year, we had become fast friends.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned the real story of why Nancy and John had signed up for my French class. After long careers in Washington, D.C.—Nancy as a psychiatric nurse and John as a federal judge—they had recently retired in South Dakota, where John had been born and raised, and had settled in Mitchell, the town where I taught. One night in the spring, they attended a music recital at the university which featured three faculty members—one of them being me. For my set, I played a collection of 18 short Gershwin piano pieces. Unfortunately, I had a horrible cold that night and forgot the ending of every piece (and did a bad job of faking it). Nancy and John, however, had a different opinion and decided then and there that we were going to be friends. So when John saw the announcement for my French class that fall, he signed the two of them up.
“You stalked me!” I said when they told me about it over dinner a few years later. “I can’t believe you stalked me for a whole year, taking French just to get to know me!”
This was the kind of thing these guys did. John and Nancy told us about how just for fun they’d driven up to North Dakota at the dawn of the big oil boom to find out what was going on. Posing as reporters, they interviewed people on the street, trying to ‘get the story’. That was the zany magic of the couple who would join us for so many good times throughout the year. We’d take turns throwing themed dinner parties—many times just the four of us—learning more and more about each other.
Celebrating with another couple and Ray’s brother in 2009 on Ray’s birthday—and during the great stock plunge of 2009—the seven of us got into an impassioned eco-political discussion, arguing about who would win what elections and when or if the stock market would ever recover. Not able to come to agreement on how to solve the world’s problems (that night or on any other night), we agreed to meet one year later on Ray’s birthday and see who had called it right. We kept everyone’s predictions sealed and kept the appointment a year later. That year we made new predictions for the following year, and so on, the whole thing evolving into an Oscar-like excitement each year when the predictions were read aloud along with what had actually come to pass. We argued a lot, behaving like The McLaughlin Group, but kept it friendly. We called ourselves The Meteorologists and enjoyed making predictions each year on the political and economic climates. We treasured these times together as well as on other occasions throughout the year: the Fourth of July, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve; you name it, we celebrated it.
Nancy and I realized at lunch one day last summer that there were almost exactly 20 years between us in age—it hadn’t really occurred to us before. It seemed like it should have been remarkable, the age difference, but it wasn’t really. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have close friends of all ages throughout my adult life, and Nancy was no exception. Out of necessity I’d learned what kind of personal friend Nancy could be, as well as being a role model of a truly empathetic person. In low moments, I could count on her to be my cheerleader, expertly making me feel good about myself. We used to laugh about how lucky I was to have a shrink for a friend. As selfless as she was, she never failed to encourage my narcissistic pursuits, like the novel that I’ve been writing (and whining about) for over five years. That she believed in me is one of the reasons that the first draft is nearly complete. It makes my heart ache knowing that she’ll never read it.
On the topic of Nancy’s selflessness, I remember the time I was sipping on a glass of wine and she told me she was an ex-nun.
“You were a nun?” I said, snorting the wine out my nose.
I thought it was hilarious. How many ex-nuns does one meet?
“Did you think nothing but pure thoughts all day?” I asked, stealing my favorite line from the film Mermaids.
Nancy explained that she’d wanted a career through which she could help people. She spoke fondly of that time, but said she ultimately left the order when she decided she could better care for people by becoming a nurse. She stayed active, however, with the sisters and their mission, maintaining contact with them for the rest of her life.
When I announced to Nancy in January that Ray and I would be moving to Boston, she was so excited, not because I was leaving town, but because I would get to experience Boston. It was then that I learned that she had spent considerable time here studying to become a psychiatric nurse and then practicing in Cape Cod before eventually setting up her practice (and marrying John) in Washington.
Her blue eyes sparkled that day as she told me stories of living in a small apartment on Beacon Hill and on nice days of walking all the way to and from Boston University, walking through Boston Common, the Public Garden, Back Bay—all the places I’ve come to love since moving here in February.
I’m writing about Nancy tonight in a coffee shop on Beacon Hill. I’d already adored this neighborhood, but now I’ll think of Nancy as a bright-eyed twenty-something when I lose myself in its narrow brick streets. Beacon Hill’s gaslights on a winter’s night can carry a tinge of melancholy, and I feel it tonight in my desperation to lock the sound of her voice and the touch of her hugs in my memory, but remembering Nancy will never be an exercise in melancholy.
Over lunch last summer when we already knew of the tumors in her brain, she told me that she didn’t fear death, that it was another step along her journey of enlightenment. She was more concerned about leaving John alone. That she would focus on this so exemplifies the caring person that Nancy was, and if she knew that I was gaining some solace by writing about her tonight, she’d be happy for my sake that I was doing it, more so than for her own.
I’m to the end, yet it feels so incomplete to finish these words about Nancy. What I write can only be a partial portrait; Nancy touched so many more lives than my own. I could write pages about this funny, friendly woman that loved to live on the water; the woman who cracked up laughing when our cat jumped on her lap during a dinner party (cats can tell who’s nice); the woman who became incredibly connected with our community’s charitable organizations in such a short time; so many rich aspects of a rich life. I had the gift of her friendship for seven years, but she impacted others for seventy-one, and I can only imagine the wonderful stories other people could tell. At the end, I am grateful for the time I had with Nancy and know that I’m an infinitely better person for having known her.
Services for Nancy will be held Saturday, November 23, 11:00 AM, at First Lutheran Church, Mitchell.