Three years ago today, Yvonne Fraley passed away. She was my mother's best friend, but beyond that--she was like a second mother to my sister and me as we grew up in the wild hills of Tennessee. Her daughters fit in with us perfectly--Aimee, just a few years younger than myself, and Danielle, just between Chelsea and me in age. I have so many memories of sitting at her kitchen table, eating at ten at night, the fireflies outside beckoning, a litter of kittens always on their porch. I remember trying on Aimee's clothes and playing that first version of SimCity, feeling so cool to be hanging out with a teenager. I remember spraying Yvonne's neighbor with the supersoaker, pleased we had drenched his pack of cigarettes, laughing in the too-long lawn. We would walk down to Kmart and get slushies, walk back up the steep of their driveway in the mid-afternoon heat. They would come over and we would go swimming in the neighbor's pool, my mother complaining to Yvonne, Yvonne sympathizing and laughing.
That's what I'll always remember most about Yvonne: her laugh. Her laugh that would fill up the room and this, too: the way she would look at us, like we were her daughters too, the way her eyes filled up with love that would make us want to snuggle into her arms. We knew how much she loved us, and I carry that with me.
She was with us in those last moments before we moved to Wisconsin and when we went back for a visit over winter break, we stayed at her house. Every time we went back, we would see her, and watch her family as it shifted and changed.
She had breast cancer when we were living in the Midwest, many years ago. And that first time, she beat it. But it came back, and this time, it had invaded so much of her body. When we drove down, those fourteen hours in the hot car, just me and my mother, who I wasn't getting along with as well as we should have, snippy and irritable, tired and bracing ourselves. We needed to be alone to process it, but there we were, in between rough sheets and on stiff beds, stuck in the car as the landscape got a little more beautiful. People could only visit her three times a day in half hour windows of time. Her husband, her daughter and grandson, other friends and family, we all waited together in this little room, sometimes in a bigger room with so many people, so much worry, so many lumps in throats and tears brimming, shamefully held back. And Yvonne couldn't talk--she had tubes everywhere and looked so much like a woman flattened by this cancer. We would talk to each other, tell her things, whisper how much we loved her, and she would look at us with gluey eyes, focusing sometimes, in the good moments.
There was the last time, as there always has to be a last time, and the tubes were still in. I held her hand to my chest and I cried. She hadn't been told that there was nothing more they could do, that she had any where between twenty four hours and a month (she took two weeks of that month), but I think she knew. When I said good-bye and she mouthed these words through the tubes, she knew: I love you.
She died something like a week later. I found out at night, after I had finished my shift at the bookstore, the first day of my graduate program that would eventually earn me my teaching license. I sat on my mattress in my one bedroom apartment in St Paul and I cried.
I remember, too, weeks earlier, staying with K in Winona, where he lived at the time, and learning that Yvonne was sick, that we had to go say good-bye. It was spring and muggy; a thunderstorm was rolling in. The rain was pelting and the mosquitoes were biting. I walked to the lake and I cried, and I cried, and K followed me (I was so oblivious to where I was going) and he held me so tight as I pounded my fists on his chest and thought that thing everyone thinks when facing this kind of tragedy: Why why why?
There are all kinds of love in this world. There is the obligatory love to family--the I-love-you-because-I-have-to kind of love, the frustrated love of people who were too tired to do anything else, the kind of love that blooms from frustration, and there is bigger, better love. There is the love I have when I think of my parents, my sister (see, obligatory, but also bigger), and the love you have for people who don't have DNA in common with you, but they are family anyway. Yvonne. K, too. Aunt Susan, who wasn't really an aunt (and we didn't know that until we were much older).
And, of course, Kelly. Kelly is my Yvonne, as Yvonne was to my mother. Kelly is more than just a best friend, which seems such a trivial way of putting it--she is the kind of person I'd trust with any parcel of information I have to give, the person my kids will call "Aunt Kelly," the person who will sign my marriage certificate as I signed hers, the person I carry with me where ever I go.
I didn't realize this when I did it, but I asked Kelly to start something with me, and maybe she'll say no, and that's OK, but I thought--hey, there are interesting possibilities when two women collaborate--and I asked her on this very day, this day when we all should step back and quietly remember--women who mean so much.
And my question, before I go: who is your Yvonne, as Yvonne is to my mother, or Yvonne is to me?
3 hours ago