On my 50th birthday, my friend Cindy took me to New York's Aureole and gave me a needlepoint pillow with the words “Old Friends are the Best Friends.” I asked how I could make her 50th as special.
"I'm having a luncheon. I want you to be the entertainment. Get up and say a few words."
Despite my fear of saying even a few words before an audience, I began writing my speech that evening. Cindy asked little of me since we became friends and nothing since her breast cancer diagnosis at 46. At the lectern, my voice stopped quivering within seconds. Cindy's smile and her guests’ laughter brightened the room.
Cindy gave. Showed up. Spent hours on the phone. Made life easy for her loved ones. Loved the Beatles.
In 1964, the morning after their first Ed Sullivan appearance, in her car with a broken muffler —"The Bea Bomber,” it had belonged to her mother, Bea — she waxed about Paul.
In 1980, we talked the whole day after John Lennon was killed. I played Beatles songs on the piano. We sang.
When she came to my school in seventh grade, she waited to walk home with me despite her popularity. Her wavy red hair, which she had done at Cecilia's, Buffalo's fanciest salon, struck me. So did her hand-knit sweaters: cardigans, pullovers, cable-stitched and plain, all navy blue. I teased her about the navy. She invited me to see the grays.
Her house was welcoming. So was her mother. On the foyer phone, knitting and purling, she looked up, smiling. “Help yourselves to a little snack."
We began in the living room with chocolate kisses, nuts, M&Ms and bridge mix, each in a compartment in a silver candy dish the size of the cocktail table, and moved to the kitchen for brownies, chocolate chip cookies and milk. Bea baked and cooked every day.
When she appeared to check her brisket, she said, “Nancy, how about staying for dinner?"
I stayed on a modified American Plan until college.
At my house, Cindy fed her soul. A voracious reader, like my father, she became his book buddy, borrowing hardbacks. “What should I take, Mr. D?” she'd ask going through our living room bookcase.
Cindy spent weekend nights with me instead of going to parties.
“You don't have to hang out with me.”
"Nance, I know what I have to do."
During a Friday sleepover, Cindy, wanting her hair straightened, got the iron, and put her head on her dresser. Nervous, I stopped after a small section. Saturday, I watched Cecilia finish.
Weeknights, Cindy gossiped with the girls. A friend's mother called her “the Hedda Hopper of Hertel Avenue.” But we shared everything. About first loves, first times, fears, family problems and school problems.
Cindy struggled with algebra. I found her a math tutor. I did not have a Sweet Sixteen party. Cindy and Bea made me a surprise 17th birthday luncheon.
I moved to Manhattan at age 20, she at 21. We both got married at age 22. When her marriage ended, she came over her first night alone. I had warned my husband to be sensitive. When he walked in, Cindy and I, drunk from Brandy Alexanders, were rolling around, laughing.
She made divorce seem like a hoot. I gave it a try. I didn't want liquor. “Let me cry."
Before 8 a.m., she'd call and say, “Making sure you're up” or “Making sure you're alive.”
In restaurants, we split two dishes. Our daughters, with us when we shared a tuna melt and waffles, made faces. “Those don't go together,” hers said.
On the surface, neither did we. An uptown lady, Cindy wore fine clothes and jewelry. I never had blow-outs or mink.
Cindy shopped with me for the layette, arrived first at Mount Sinai Hospital after I gave birth, flew to Buffalo for my mother's funeral unannounced and arrived early at my book signings, in recent years with a cane, buying 15 copies.
"Cindy knows just enough math to get by, but she knows what's important,” my father once said.
Her success as real estate agent surprised no one. The seriousness of her illness did. She rarely talked about her health except when her doctors upped her treatments or found something new wrong.
Our best topics: our children, work, men, books, theater and our grandchildren. We bashed people we'd never bash with anyone else.
Last August, we met at her favorite bakery so she could buy babkas. Wincing, she claimed she was too hot to sit over tea. I got her a cab.
On my 71st birthday, she emailed warm wishes. We didn't celebrate together. A first.
She was hospitalized for a brain bleed. I visited with babka. She looked older than my Cindy. She wanted to discuss our grandkids and My Fair Lady, not her daily transfusions.
"What can I do?” I repeated.
When I said I'd be spending Thanksgiving in Palm Springs, she asked me to visit her sister, who had moved to a nursing home there. “That's what you can do. Visit her. I won't see her again."
Cindy put the pictures I emailed on her nightstand. A hospice nurse moved in. We didn't speak on her 71st birthday. I didn't say goodbye.
The Central Synagogue cantor began her funeral with Let It Be. The pianist played Here Comes the Sun at the end. The other music and shiva were also what Cindy had arranged.
I go to the phone to call her. “And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me."
Cindy knew what was important. I had a true friend.