I was awakened in the middle of the night; the screen door was cracked open dusting the room with a warm gentle breeze. There was calm in the air. I hear this beautiful voice of a woman singing. I quickly turn around and there she is. I never knew she had that voice. As I began walking toward her, she looked at me and then slowly evaporated into “The Light.”
“Don’t go!” I plead. “Please don’t go.”
But she was gone. I sat up in bed with tears rolling down my face. It was just a dream. But was it really? She was just there, I said to myself. I could have almost touched her. Why did I have to wake up?
Lifelong friendships are few and so precious. In my early 20s, that one special lifelong friendship began. I met Rhonda when our (at the time) boyfriends were hanging out working on hot rods. We became instant besties. Rhonda and I spent many weekends down by the river lazing on our cheap beach towels, soaking up as much sun as we possibly could. Our perfectly pedicured pink toes would squish into the sand, and we almost always had an ice-cold beer in hand. We would talk endlessly about our futures and what they could possibly bring.
The clocked ticked on and those boyfriends became our husbands. We purchased our first homes and gave birth to a few kids. A girl for her. A girl and boy for me. Our children were close in age, which we cherished. We knew this meant “mom trips” with them during the gradual summer months. This was the evolution of growing from our 20s into our 30s.
We wanted to make memories for our kids that would last a lifetime and create a special bond among them. Often our husbands either could not go on these “mom trips” or chose not to, so we ventured out exploring the state without them.
There was the “Midweek Getaway” every summer. We would rent an affordable apartment on an albeit mossy green lake, but it hosted three swimming pools and grassy areas for play. We would barbecue burgers for the kids and make fresh, scrumptious salads for us. We took them to caverns and my family’s cottage on the ocean. We spent endless hours on the boardwalk standing in line for those kiddie rides, and all the while the kids would squirm and squawk. Then there was Disneyland, Circus Circus in Reno, tubing on the lake and so many more adventures.
Soon the kids were in school. Rhonda’s daughter had turned 5 and started kindergarten. It was during this time my friend discovered a baseball-size lump on her inner thigh. There wasn’t any pain but it was just very odd.
After a few doctor visits, imaging tests and a biopsy, it was determined she had liposarcoma. This is a rare cancer of connective tissues that resemble fat cells under a microscope. It tends to affect people between the ages of 40 and 60. She was just 40. Life turned on a dime. She spent the next few months driving back and forth to doctor appointments and radiation treatments that were over an hour away from her home.
Still, she held down her full-time job as a cellar master and cared for her family. The selflessness was beyond anything I had ever seen (although I was not surprised, as she often was called “Rhonda-Do-Right”). The treatments continued as she trudged through the burning of the radiation to her skin and the constant oozing and bandages. Then there was the exhaustion of carrying on with life like this never happened.
She was a warrior through the year and got a clean bill of health. Every six months she had to get checked, and every six months there was a holding of the breath, crossing of the fingers and a good prayer to the up above. The second, third, fourth and finally the fifth year of being cancer-free was like sending up the balloons and letting that bad “C” word go. During those five years, we continued to take our rapidly growing children on excursions. We had more vacations, dinner gatherings and parties.
A few years down the road her marriage was crumbling and a separation ensued. She also had lost her job. But this didn’t stop her. She had purchased some land and set out to build her dream home. She and a retired contractor single-handedly built this house on the hill enveloped by 8 acres and a view of the valley. Within two years she had created her happy place.
Fast forward to March 2016. We had tickets to see the band Disturbed. One of our favorite songs was called “The Light.” Prior to the concert, she had called me and said she wasn’t feeling well. Her attempts to walk down the hill to feed her four horses left her completely out of breath. She was beyond tired. This was not my vibrant friend.
After a doctor visit and tests, much like years before, her cancer was back. It had spread to her lungs and liver and lymph nodes. The prognosis was poor. The doctors could not say if this was a related cancer or random, but it was in full force this time.
Then, a night I will never forget. I got the call from her. The oncologist gave her six months to a year to live. We talked for an hour or so. I didn’t cry once. I encouraged her that she could survive this. There must be other treatments out there. “You are strong, Rhonda, you got this.” And “I know you, Rhonda, this will not stop you.”
She talked about how she told her parents and her daughter — and what the next steps were going to be. In other words, getting her ducks in a row for what was going to be her death. I still didn’t cry. “You got this girl, you got this.”
After hanging up the phone I completely lost it. I screamed and sobbed well into the night. This can’t happen to my beautiful friend. A few months later summer was here. We planned a trip with our (now grownup) kids back to the family beach cottage. This time we didn’t have to spend those endless hours at the boardwalk standing in kiddie ride lines, but we got to have happy hour with them. Guava-ritas and smoked salmon. Adult food instead of chicken nuggets. We sat out in front of the beach house just staring at the glistening ocean. There were some quiet, reflective moments as we breathed in the salty air. We all talked and laughed. One by one our children shared what our trips meant to them — and the joy of having these memories.
We drank those ice-cold beers, and this time Rhonda and I had the burger, not the salad. I remember watching her face as we left to go home. While driving away, she looked back at the little beach house for as long as the road would let her. Still, I displayed no tears. I was being strong.
In October we celebrated Rhonda’s 55th birthday with all of her family and friends. About 200 people came in honor. Pictures of her scattered the walls as her favorite music played. It was basically a celebration of life while she was still here.
For the weeks following, I would go and visit her for as long as I could or until she needed to rest. She shared with me what her wishes were for after her death. As I soaked it all in, the lump in my throat was unbearable, but I held it together.
Crying or showing emotion would mean I was weak. Rhonda passed away Nov. 3, 2016. The phone call came in the middle of the night. Although I knew it was coming, it didn’t change the flood of tears. My lifelong best friend was gone. They always say the good ones die young. She was one of them. To this day, I still ask “WWRD” (What Would Rhonda Do) when I’m feeling stuck or flustered or confused or need an answer to something, anything.
I still have my text thread with her. Many times I will just open my phone and scroll back. My memories on Facebook will pop up every so often, and I smile. Hundreds of pictures are stacked in my hope chest. Who knew at the time what those photographs would mean.
I muddle myself with guilt and regret that I never showed emotion in front of Rhonda. This was her personal time of pain and suffering — and mine, too, just in a different way. I never told her I was crumbling inside knowing what was going to happen. I prayed she knew in her heart that I cried over this time after time, alone. Never again will I repress my tears thinking it makes me a strong person. Strength is acquired through weakness. I hope my singing angel knows this, too.