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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Immortal Frog

Her birthday is tomorrow, 4/21. She would be 45, six months younger than I am, a Taurus to my Scorpio; they're opposite signs on the astrological wheel which might partially explain our immediate attraction to one another.

Her dad called her Frog, her mom called her Dierdre, her friends called her Deedee. My mom called her Deedle-Dee and loved her like a daughter.

I met Deedee in high school, 1980. I could only see the back of her head in first period gym class as we sat on the floor awaiting Coach Ferris to give us our lame instructions for the day. I noticed the thick drape of wavy brown hair cascading down her back. She was entertaining a group of girls, talking with her hands. I remember smelling the clean scent of Agree shampoo and wasn't sure if it was that or something else that made her seem so familiar. It felt like being home.

We spent the early years hanging out at the malls, going to Astroworld. We skipped school a few times to play on Galveston's East Beach, arriving at the building on time and meeting in the gym before making ourselves free of all authority. No one ever questioned our sunburns.

We shared our secrets regarding first boyfriends, first kisses, our lost virginity. I was there for her during the storms of her parents' frequent separations. She spent all night with me when my mother died and we were both too scared to sleep.

She married before me after high school. She devoted herself to being a stay-at-home-mom. I attended x-ray school then divided my time equally between work and family. As the years passed, our friendship deepened and grew to a healthier union than either of our marriages. We moved as a team through losses, family dramas, financial woes and the constant inner struggle to move forward as an individual without leaving anybody behind.

I talked to her on the phone almost every day, usually for hours. We were food for the other, a security blanket and touchstone. She was Lucy to my Ethel, Laverne to my Shirley. We joked about pulling a "Thelma & Louise" if things got too bad, neither of us afraid of the unknown as long as we were together. But because she was such a sure thing in my life, I'm afraid I sometimes took her for granted, returned her calls later than others because I always knew she'd be there for me. She - we, could wait.

We attended the Renaissance Festival every year. We took long road trips to Kentucky to see her family. One trip in particular was a frantic attempt to reach the bedside of a dying relative - Uncle Niles. We drove day and night to get to Bardstown, Kentucky in time for Deedee to say her goodbyes and fulfill her mother's unequivocal imperative, "Deirdre, if you've ever tried to do anything in your life, you better try to do this."

I joined Deedee on the trip to buffer the tension she felt around her family. It was also an opportunity to get away from life as we knew it, to be more ourselves as we traveled away from the "every day". But despite driving without rest, we were a couple of hours too late. Uncle Niles had died only moments after we checked into our hotel. When we arrived at Deedee's mother's house where the family had gathered, we were greeted with cold stares. Our tardiness and the surprise "guest" in tow would set the stage for a humiliating blow-up.

It happened one night following a long talk around the kitchen table between Deedee and her three older siblings. Somewhere in the conversation the old tensions began to melt as the siblings laughed together for the first time in years. It seemed appropriate, I thought, to sing the Barney theme song (I love you/You love me/We're a happy family...). It was about this moment that Deedee's mother, Elizabeth, walked into the kitchen. She was already seething over my presence, my lack of relationship to the deceased. Her daughter had come to fulfill a duty, not make a vacation out of it. Elizabeth directed her anger at me.

"Is that what your family does when somebody dies? Sing about a goddamn purple dinosaur?"

She stormed off to her bedroom. Deedee ran after her to explain the context of the moment. After failing to settle the matter we left Elizabeth's house, both of us crying before we'd even backed out of the driveway. The trip back to the hotel was a quiet ride along dark tree-lined roads. I watched out the window as pines spun like faceless ballerinas with too many arms. We talked all night once in the hotel room, ate a whole package of Reeses miniature peanut butter cups. As always, the problem at hand crumbled to dust when the spasmodic laughter took over. I told her when the laughing became like the snorts and sobs of a choking man, "This is adding years to our lives."

Together we were stronger, impervious, immortal.

Everything was resolved the following day. The late hour and stress of her brother's death had made Elizabeth edgy, at least that's what we chose to assume. Once Uncle Niles was resting in his earthen plot, we returned home.

In May of 1998 I realized Deedee had just turned 33, a birthday I'd somehow missed - a first. The age had been a rough patch for many. My mother left my father at 33, I was leaving a husband; my brother David, John Belushi, Chris Farley and even Jesus died at 33. It was an odd thought process that led to an equally odd warning, "Be careful being 33. Bad things happen to us." She just laughed and reminded me of all the death poetry I'd written in high school.

I took my two children for a haircut the next day. I was feeling exhausted and the black and white floor tiles seemed a good place to rest my eyes, a place to stare at nothing. Then suddenly the air was sucked from the room. The tiles moved, black squares separating from white. I told myself the hallucination was due to exhaustion and my impending divorce.

All the way home I tried to place my empty feelings, the strange compelling vacuum that felt unrelated to my marriage ending. When I entered my house I saw the answering machine blinking. It was another friend asking me to call her right back. When I returned the call I learned that Deedee and her family had been in a car accident, that Deedee was life-flighted to Herman Hospital.

I dialed the hospital number and spoke to an emergency room attendant who told me Deedee had been discharged already. I was confused. "Oh don't worry," he said, "It happens all the time - people who are life-flighted sometimes walk right out of here."

The vacuum persisted. I called the friend back, too scared to cry, "I can't feel her."


On the day of Deedee's funeral I was surrounded by packed boxes. Movers had been scheduled in advance to transport these boxes to my new apartment in Seabrook, ironically in the same hour as the funeral would be scheduled in Friendswood. My compass felt erased. I needed her, her reassurance that I was doing the right thing; I needed more laughter to turn my doubts to dust. I couldn't navigate the space alone.

I sat in a back row at the funeral home while waiting for the service to begin. Elizabeth saw me crying and leaned down to ask, "You gonna be okay?"

I just shook my head.


I remember Deedee when I hear a Ronnie Milsap song. She's one of the pleasant ghosts rattling in the wide halls of Clear Lake High School and along the quiet streets of Quail Walk apartments where we once lived. She watches her children sleep though they're mostly grown now.

She's a constant ghost in my head.

Every Halloween I see her dressed as a "witch" with blacked-out teeth and a face painted celadon green. Sometimes one of our memories steps forward sans any triggers at all. They all want their turn. I don't argue with them.

There's a picture of us taken during a trip to Chicago. We're wearing shorts and enormous smiles, leaning in together as the wind takes up our hair in every mad direction. Deedee is pointing to the center of her forehead, a secret code indicating our inseparability: You're right here.

I am.