I mentioned it’s difficult to write the lighter posts and that’s because (a) I’m not a naturally funny person and (b) I tend to take life a bit more seriously than lightly.
Today’s post is some of the heavier fare – maybe one of the heaviest. Yet, it’s about a person who was also the funniest woman I’ve ever met.
I met Monica (her real name) 29 years ago in a paralegal program at the University of California Irvine. Who knows why we clicked, but we did. We were both in transition – in my case, I was closing out of my marriage, entering single parenthood and changing jobs for more security and money. She eventually ended her marriage, too, and left her firm to be a better paid paralegal at another firm. After school, we lost touch for a a couple of years, reconnecting when both of us were single.
Monica was one of those people just blessed with the ability to tell the joke or story and to laugh at herself and others. She was whip smart, even if not college educated. She’d grown up with a mother who was an alcoholic/addict and a father who was loving but also very “addicted” to Mom, a sweet and co-dependent “guy named Joe.” From what she said, her young life was chaotic except for the presence of her father and her Nana, her grandmother. Her mother’s heart had been broken when her older brother who was developmentally disabled passed away. Her other brother was jealous of Monica’s attention-getting from both Mom and Dad. She escaped this after high school by becoming a legal secretary and then eventually training to be a paralegal. She was really good at any job she did, and earned respect and admiration from her work.
She loved antiques and Art Deco and decorated her home beautifully with carefully selected pieces. She loved to garden, too, and was good at it. She dressed well and drove a nice car. She was very neat and tidy, as her mother had been messy and chaotic. She was a homeowner early on and was able to trade up to nicer townhouses and made sure she had money in her 401K. She was deathly afraid of being poor again. Her weight fluctuated up and down and she was deathly afraid of being fat because she just couldn’t love herself fat. “Self-loathing” as she called it was a constant companion.
Yet she was still funny. She was a great person to have at a party because she took the time to listen to people and tell stories with the keen observation of a person who understood the human condition and forgave it in others, just not in herself.
But her worst habit, from her perspective, was her smoking. I don’t know how long she smoked before I knew her, but she smoked for at least three decades. She truly hated it and hated herself for continuing to smoke even in the face of all of the information she was given (continually) and in the face of social reproach and eventual pariah status. We, her friends and loved ones, didn’t reject her and I’m not sure anyone would who knew her, but she was convinced that her smoking (along with being fat) was the cause of her not finding a suitable love partner and who knew what else. She considered being a smoker the last social taboo.
We had a complex relationship, she and I. We had been friends through some of her worst years including her divorce, her husband being in a terrible accident and becoming a quadriplegic (after the divorce), her mother being found dead in her 50’s from cocaine addiction, her father’s decline and dementia, and even a long-distance love affair gone south. We were the friends who’d be on the phone for hours with each other, playing pseudo-therapist as well as big sister when needed.
Being someone who knew her well, though an asset in some ways, was also a detriment. A mutual friend opined that being one of Monica’s oldest friends and being there through the worst times meant she was uncomfortable around these friends, and I was one of the group who knew her during this time.
I often thought that she was the older sister I’d never had; often her love had the tough edge that only a sibling can provide – in essence it was “get over yourself, honey.” But she could also be amazingly tender, too. Once when I compared my agony du jure to her very real losses, she remarked, “Laura, pain is pain.” No one was winning the pain game.
There were many good times, too. My birthday, being near Halloween occasioned a few times of staying with her dad in his mountain house and having adventures at the biker bar in Big Bear Lake. I could hardly contain my laughter after being with her. And supportive of my dreams and goals? Oh yeah. You don’t have to wonder I asked her to be my matron of honor at my wedding to the ‘Publican.
And then there was the Christmas party for “the girls.” I wasn’t even invited for a couple of years after she started the tradition (during our early years when we didn’t see each other).
After going through her husband’s coke addiction and their eventual divorce, she’d joined Alanon and found a strong core group of women who’d been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. These women were there for her in a way that only those who have been in 12-step fellowships can fathom, and fast and close friendships ensued. So as a newly single woman, she decided to have a gathering of these friends near Christmas time.
It was a night where she would pick a theme and buy small gifts to illustrate the theme and give each of us not only the gift, but a quote that she felt suited the theme and us. She cooked dinner and decorated her house to the nines, pulling out all the stops in Christmas finery. She lit enough candles to burn down the joint. Dinner was never the main point of the evening, and sometimes it wasn’t cooked too well with dessert forgotten entirely, although every year there was fresh shrimp cocktail, rumaki, good champagne and Barbara Streisand singing The Lord’s Prayer; and Bailey’s for your coffee afterwards. Priorities.
She took so much joy in planning and plotting and being “Head Elf” for the year. Picking a theme – “time” or “sleepovers” for instance – and then presenting the timepieces or pajamas to each of us. We’d read the quote selected for us and ponder it – what could it mean? We’d squeal with delight as we opened our gifts.
As set as all this was, it also changed over time. One person left the fold and I was invited to join them and then a few others, until we were six women from different walks of life who came together because of Monica. For a long time we were the spokes of the wheel, with Monica the hub. She held the secrets we told her, she didn’t gossip or complain about one of us to the others, so we were safe to eventually become friends with each other without some of the ugliness that can pollute female friendships.
She kept our secrets but she didn’t feel safe enough to confide in us about her own difficulties. Just after New Years Day 2012, she woke up unable to breathe; this was after many months of her looking increasingly ill, with bloated ankles, mottled skin, a hand tremor that was getting worse, of speaking in a rushed manner as if she was unable to catch her breath. She was hospitalized with severe COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and told that the best thing was for her to quit smoking immediately, go through treatment and eventually resume her life, but as a permanent non-smoker.
She had dodged a bullet and was being given a tough, but do-able, prescription. Not only a smoker, Monica often drank to being drunk, and it was clear to her doctors that she had both anxiety and depression. I personally think she had long-term trauma from all her losses which may have been underlying the depression and anxiety, with all of these leading to self medicating through smoking and drinking.
So initially she quit smoking, took medications for depression and went back to therapy. Within a few months, she looked remarkably better – the bloat and tremor were gone, her skin had cleared from the mottle and her voice was clearer. She lost weight by changing her diet and had reduced her drinking as well.
After being in the hospital with the initial crisis, she’d been in assisted living to continue her respiratory therapy and was in a place where she could be stress free, with decent enough food, but no alcohol or tobacco. It was a nice bubble.
This changed once she was home and back at work. As the stress was building and she was less able to cope, she may have been turning to the professionals (we assume she was), but she wasn’t turning to us. And so she relapsed into old patterns. By that Christmas, she gave up being Head Elf for our Christmas party and another of the “girls” took over. At several points in the evening, she went outside to smoke.
We took our picture that year as we stood on the stairs, Monica next to me. We all smiled – she was still thinner, but didn’t look as good as she had that spring and summer. We didn’t know it would be our last Christmas.
Once again, in early January 2013 she had a breathing crisis. Again hospitalized, it was touch and go for a bit and it turned out she’d lost a fair amount of oxygen to the brain which controls, well, just about everything. One of the worst side effects to this was that she became both emotionally and mentally fractured, and eventually incontinent. She could be at one moment sweet and charming and then turn nasty and brutish, especially to nurses (those who she felt were subordinate to her), with the upshot that one of her doctors threatened to stop treating her if she didn’t shape up, and eventually she was in adult diapers. All of this was heartbreaking to us.
And once again, the doctors told her (this time more grimly) that the only possible way she’d survive was if she stopped smoking. A return to her normal life would be impossible. A return to work was probably not in the cards, and even being in her two-story townhouse was going to be too much.
But this time, although she gave some initial lip service to the prescription, once she was at home and not being monitored, she just gave up. Once she made the choice, we made efforts to see her and be with her as we could.
Monica was aware of the implications of her choice and was at peace, even as she lighted up a cigarette or sipped her wine. She was able to laugh and even tell stories and jokes about the indignities of her situation. But she knew it wouldn’t be long and it wasn’t. I got a call on a Saturday in April last year to tell me that she had died at home the previous evening, her brother’s family and hospice at her side.
All of us were shocked at how quickly death had occurred, but none were surprised at the outcome.
She lived her own way and died the exact same way. She knew smoking would probably kill her; she made it to her 57th birthday (on St. Patrick’s Day 2013), and about a month afterwards. It wasn’t lost on me that her mother had lived to just about the same age, also dying from her own addiction.
She wanted no memorial or burial and her brother respected her wishes. To this day we have had no information on whether her ashes were placed near her mother and father; we have no place to visit her.
In a way, it was if she had never existed to begin with. And that is sad, but it was her wish.
Remarkably, the remaining five of us have gone on to have closer friendships with each other, getting together most months for drinks, and continuing the tradition of the annual Christmas party. I think I can safely say that we love each other dearly and celebrate and commiserate with each other as Monica would have wanted.
I think she knew she wouldn’t live a long life and that is partially why she never had her own children. She always chalked it up to her own selfishness, but I think she knew. She once confided in me when slightly drunk her reason for remaining childless – “the insanity stops here.” She didn’t want to parent her children the way she’d been parented; she also didn’t want to leave her own children like her mother had left her.
Last year, on exactly a month to the day she died, we had brunch at Woody’s Wharf on the Newport Beach peninsula to commemorate her life. This year, we repeated the brunch, probably making it a new tradition. Yesterday, as we toasted her life with our champagne mimosas, I felt the joy tinged with sadness that such a life as had brought all of us together as friends was gone. Gone, but not forgotten.
I think Monica would have approved.