Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembering Gretchen

Key West -- My friend Gretchen Feldman died this week. It's not that it was unexpected but that it was, as she put it a year ago, ludicrous. That's when she learned she had stage 4 lung cancer. She didn't smoke. And at that point she had no real symptoms. Oh, maybe she'd lost ten pounds but that was good, wasn't it? She'd wanted to drop ten pounds. And she'd had some GI distress over the summer, but who didn't? She and Sam and George and I had dinner last November when we were in New York for Thanksgiving week. They had come down from the Vineyard where they lived year round, to see an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital. What do you say when your friend tells you the diagnosis is for real - though she can't believe it and neither can you? Only a 4-letter word will do.

We met Sam and Gretchen at a dinner party on the Vineyard just before the presidential election of '92. We were all Clinton supporters and excited by the possibilities. I was seated next to Sam and Gretchen was across the table. They were from Baltimore and so was George. They knew the Cooper Camera Mart, started by George's father. Gretchen and I didn't really get to talk that night. She was beautiful, with a dazzling smile, but quiet, observant . Sam, handsome and outgoing, had all my attention. It wasn't until later that I got to know Gretchen. The first time they came to our house on the Vineyard, Gretchen carried a huge bucket of wildflowers from her garden. They lived "up-island" and I hadn't yet seen their beautiful home overlooking Chilmark Pond, and just beyond, the ocean.

Gretchen was full of surprises. She was a serious artist. Her watercolors were big and bold. Her Vineyard scenes grew more and more abstract, full of deep, rich colors, making them look almost like oils. When we first met she was also doing studies of Vineyard animals. George fell for a painting of a cow that was so loose and had such humor we bought it on the spot and to this day it hangs in our livingroom, making us smile each time we pass. Randy is a huge fan of Gretchen's work and several of Gretchen's paintings hang in her home.

Who would have guessed that Gretchen also excelled at ping pong? Larry holds a ping pong tournament at our house every summer and one year Gretchen and Sam stopped by. All the players were at least twenty years younger than the four of us. I had no idea that either Gretchen or Sam could play. I thought they were just being sociable. But they were the stars of the night. Sam played our young neighbor in the finals while Gretchen played her daughter, Leigh. Gretchen won.

The next year Sam bought an outdoor ping pong table like Larry's and I knew from then on the rest of us wouldn't stand a chance.

Once I confessed to Sam and Gretchen that I was teaching myself to do crossword puzzles but it didn't come easily. My mind works in interesting ways but whatever it takes to do crossword puzzles eluded me. I was proud that with practice I could now do the Monday and Tuesday puzzle in the New York Times (the puzzles grow progressively more difficult until the Saturday puzzle, the toughest of the week). Gretchen confessed that she didn't bother with them until at least Thursday. Who knew?

Gretchen and Sam's daughter, Dene, was married at their Vineyard home. Though it was July and too early for a hurricane, a fierce tropical storm hit the island. It had a name but I can't remember -- only know it started with a B. All day we waited for the phone call that would tell us plans had been changed - the wedding would be moved to the Hebrew Center, or some other indoor venue. But the call never came. The wind howled as we headed up-island. The tents, as planned, were out in the open field overlooking the ocean. Inside the big tent, Larry and I kept looking at each other, each of us quietly planning our exit strategy if the crew couldn't hold the tent down. Worse yet, if the tent collapsed. But Gretchen and Sam were smiling and telling all their guests how they also had married in the rain and look how well it had worked out for them.

All of this is superficial, of course. You can't really get a feel for Gretchen from reading anecdotes. The real Gretchen was a private person. She didn't talk about herself. Sam and their two daughters and their three grandchildren were the most important people in her life. That much I know. I once saw a photo of a gorgeous young couple at their house in Baltimore. It only took a second to realize they were Gretchen and Sam. Theirs was a love affair to the end.

Which brings us back to that ludicrous diagnosis. Gretchen underwent chemotherapy. She said she could withstand any treatment as long as it would make a difference. In early September the Craven Gallery on the Vineyard hosted Gretchen's last show. She was there looking thin, but elegant, in a crisp white shirt and flowing pants, her silvery hair cropped short, as always (though I know she was never happier than wearing an old t-shirt or a sweater she'd ordered from a catalog). Her paintings were abstract and colorful. "They're cells," she whispered to me. "Can you tell?" Of course. That made perfect sense. The cells in her body were running amok but in her paintings she could do with them whatever she pleased.

The last time we saw Gretchen was the day before we left New York for Miami to campaign for Obama. She was rooting for him. Sam had instructed us to amuse Gretchen. No problem. The four of us sat around their apartment telling stories (some at the expense of Sarah Palin) and laughed and laughed. Gretchen said their lives centered on the C-words -- campaign and cancer. We laughed about that, too. I held my true feelings inside until we'd left.

I bought a stunning painting at Gretchen's last show.

When I unwrapped it in Key West the name she had printed on its back was Fat Cells II. She was still making me laugh. It will hang in my study so I can see it every day. And when I do, I'll think of Gretchen. Not that I need a painting to remind me but I like having a part of her here with me. She was my "girlfriend" and I'll miss her.

Cherish your friendships while you can.
xx Judy