It began with a series of texts over the summer when my best friend Staci informed me that her mom Sandy was suddenly having some unexpected health problems. She had been diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma nearly 3 years ago and all was looking pretty good. She had one of her kidneys removed and that was all cleaned up. They did find some nodules in her lungs, which is actually quite common with this type of cancer and had been treating her with chemo in the form of a pill. She had been switching treatments over the past year because she was having some adverse reactions. We saw her on a trip down to Florida over Spring Break this past April and, despite the fact that she had lost a bit of weight, she seemed her normal, wonderful, bubbly, self.
I was in a car with a co-worker on my way to a client meeting in Westchester in late August when Staci called me nearly hysterical telling me that her mom was dying. The doctors had been trying to figure out what was wrong because she had to be admitted to the hospital several times due to fluid building up in her lungs. They drained them, sent her on her way and back she went. I had said to Staci so many times that this was normal and that she was sick but it was not fatal and they would fix her all up and she’d back to normal. “Just hang in there, it’ll be fine.” Easy words from me. She is not my mother. Well, that is not exactly true.
Sandy lived across the street from us when I was growing up. Her mother and my mother were best friends for many years. Because her mom had her when she was so young and my mom had me when she was so old, we were daughters of friends yet Sandy was old enough to be my own mother. I was just sweet little Tammy. The youngest of all the children on the block. Sandy’s own sister Tina had been the one to name me. When my parents found themselves in a stalemate over my name (my Italian father wanted Jospehine, my Jewish mother wanted anything else), in walks teenage Tina to see the new baby. She had been singing the song “Tammy” which was very popular due to the series of Debbie Reynolds movies in the mid 60s. My mother loved the movies and loved the name. My father had other feelings but Tina prevailed.
Sandy gave birth to her first child – my best friend Staci – when I was 3 years old. Staci and I grew up almost like sisters with me looking out for her and adoring her like she was my very own baby. I was a forgotten-about child because there was so much drama happening in my family and my mother was an undiagnosed narcissist who was incapable of caring for her children in any meaningful way. I did not have many friends and, while being a very pleasant and loving child, I was lonely. Staci became the object of my affection and that love affair has carried on for 41 years. Because Staci and I were inseparable, I spent a lot of time with her family. Plus, of course, our families were very close so there were many opportunities to spend time together at bbqs, family events, birthdays, etc. But Sandy kept a special eye on me. She knew things were not good in my house and she genuinely loved me. She did not understand the pain behind my eyes but she saw it there and felt compelled to help me. I’ll never understand what motivated her but I will forever be grateful.
When I was in grade school, Sandy was the one who came to see my school shows. She was the one there when I lost a critical spelling bee (I was a nerd, indeed) and was outraged that the 5th grader got an easy word while, I, a 4th grader, got one far more challenging. For months, even years, she would curse the administration for their unfair practices. I got over it long before she did. Sandy protected me from the world. She knew she had to – maybe because she felt someone had to or maybe because she did not know any other way to be. I am guessing the latter.
When I was in third or fourth grade, Staci and her family moved away. It was time for them to move out of their small apartment in Queens and settle into their Long Island suburban life. In the 70s, this was the absolute fulfillment of the American dream. I was lost. My best friend/little sister was leaving. What I did not know is how much I was losing by no longer having Sandy there every day to serve as my advocate and help to stave off the effects of what was happening in my home. Sandy tried to look after me from afar, inviting me to come out to visit for weekends and during school holidays. My mother would never drive the 30 minutes to their house so, often, Sandy would drive back to Queens to visit her mother, who still lived down the block from us, and take me back to Long Island with her. I did not know I was being rescued and I am not sure I truly realized it until well into my adulthood.
Life went on and I struggled with the challenges of my home life. Sandy never said a bad word about either of my parents but I always knew, despite the fact that they had been a part of her life since she was a teenager, she was not happy with them. What I learned years later is that her anger and frustration over the way they treated me overshadowed any positive feelings she had about them.
I grew up, graduated from college, came back to NYC and Staci and her family were still very central in my life. I did not communicate with them as much as I had before I went away to school but they were always a very important part of my life. It was sort of complicated for me because I knew her family was not my family but I knew how much I desperately wished they were. When I met my husband and got married things changed dramatically. I went to see Staci and her family in Long Island the day I got engaged because I wanted to tell her parents right away. We drove out there and surprised her mom who cried as if it were her own daughter who was getting married. Staci was my maid of honor and Sandy was a bit part of my wedding. Staci’s dad danced with me to, of course, “Tammy”. When I became pregnant with my first child, I called Staci’s mom on my way home from work right after we got the confirmation call from the doctor’s office. She cried. I cried. Our relationship was changing. She was finally becoming my mother. She was there for me in ways no one had ever been before. When I came home from the hospital after giving birth to my older son, I immediately called Sandy (who by this time had migrated down to Florida as all good Jews do) and revealed all my fears to her. She assuaged them, assured me all would be ok and told me to call her if I needed help.
Both of my children have loved Sandy and her husband because they have been loved consistently by them from the minute they took their first breath. My husband will tell you that Sandy is his mother-in-law. Sandy loved him from the minute she met him and welcomed him into the family without a second thought. In this new phase of our life as parents, Sandy became a bigger and bigger component of our lives. She was the one I called when I needed advice. She was the one I sent photos to. She was the one we went to visit every summer and called on all the holidays. She became my mother. Perhaps, as an adult and as a parent, we dealt with each other differently and understood each other differently but, whatever the reason, we found a special place in each other’s lives that was exactly what I needed.
Throughout my life, Sandy told me that I should write. She told me that I have lots of stories to tell and that one day I would write a book about the craziness in my family. She assured me that this would be the catharsis I needed to move past the pain. She believed in me. She supported me in a way that no one else ever had. Last June, I learned that my father, who I had been estranged from since the early 90s, had passed away. Sandy immediately reached out to me and said “I am not sure what you are feeling but I want you to know that I love you and I am here for you.” I’ll never forget that.
There are millions of examples of how I was rescued by Sandy and I keep them safe in my heart. She helped to open my heart. She helped me to believe in myself and love myself and helped me to understand what it is to be loved by a mother. She was also a model for me on how to be a good mother.
On that day in August when Staci informed me that the doctors thought Sandy might have several months left, I could not catch my breath. How would I ever be able to process this? How could I lose her? How do I deal with this? I need to support my friend and be strong for her but I wanted to curl up in a fetal position and shut out the rest of the world. My mind was flashing with images and the pain was something I simply did not know how to cope with. How do I explain to people that this woman – my mother – is dying yet we have not biological or even adoptive connection? Would people understand?
It was towards the end of our summer vacation in North Carolina two weeks later that, after daily conversations with Staci, she informed me that the hospice that Sandy had been moved to following a complete deterioration of her condition, had called them to come back in to say goodbye. It was happening. She was going. I stood in the bedroom of our beach house and sobbed like I had never sobbed before. I never got to say goodbye. I struggled with the decision to leave my family behind and try to go down to Florida to see her or simply ride out this time with my kids and jet down there once she had passed. I will always question my decision but know that Sandy loved me no matter what I chose to do.
On Labor Day, I got up really early and went to the airport to make the difficult journey down to Florida to say goodbye to this woman who probably knew how much I loved her but might never have heard the words so clearly come from my mouth. I was all alone because the kids were set to start school the next day and it was simply unrealistic for us all to go down together. I sat on the plane for 3 hours and wrote a eulogy. It was heartfelt and I was certain it would evoke lots of emotion from the crowd. I ultimately threw it away and told my story. I shared with the mourners how this little girl was saved by a woman who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, felt that I was worth it. Every second of the eulogy I gave ripped a deeper and deeper hole in my heart but I knew I had to say the words, feel the emotions. I ended my remarks by saying “I will miss you every day for the rest of my life” and truer words have never been spoken.
On a day like today and, frankly, any day, I try to remember the blessing of Sandy. She helped me to be the person I am today and she did it without asking for anything in return. She was rewarded by being loved by me and my family – eternally. I can never express in words how much she means to me. The most bittersweet moment came when I walked in to meet with the rabbi with Sandy’s two lifelong friends prior to the service. He wanted to walk us through what was going to happen as we were the only three who were going to give remarks during the memorial service. He looked at us to identify each of us and said “you’re the stepdaughter, right?” My heart swelled. Finally, I was her daughter.
God bless you Sandy. I hope everyone can be loved as much as you loved me. Thank you.