My former college roommate had called me at work six months before and we talked for an hour.
She had been undergoing aggressive chemotherapy at Duke for the breast cancer that had recurred.
When she and I met in college in some Spring-quarter Freshman course, we connected instantly.
When we moved in together our Sophomore year, she joked about how everyone on our dorm room floor must think us an odd couple.
She, sexually abused by her father. Me with such a normal family you’d have thought we’d been painted.
She had come home one day at the age of 16 to find an ambulance in the driveway.
Her mother had dropped dead of a brain hemorrhage in the middle of a fight with her brother.
She never forgave her stepmother for marrying her father.
Not for the usual “he’s mine and you can’t have him” stereotype of fathers and daughters and stepmothers.
But, because her stepmother had been her mother’s best friend.
“She had to have known about my father’s abuse of me.”
“My mother must have told her.”
“But, she married him anyway.”
She told me about going through old photo albums and noticing that, at about the age of 6, her mother had started dressing her in ugly clothes.
We agreed it must have been her mother’s vain attempt to protect her from her father’s sexual attentions.
“I can forgive her for not leaving him.”
“That was so rarely done in those days.”
“But, why couldn’t she have confronted him?”
“It must have been because she was completely financially dependent on him.”
Questions that would never be answered with her mother’s early death.
She was fun-loving, outgoing, mischievous, daring.
I was shy, quiet, straight as the day is long.
She had womanly curves. I had boyishly thin everything.
The only clothes we could share were shoes. We were both size 7.
I had never had a sister and warmed to the idea of talking clothes, make-up and boyfriends.
She taught me how to put on eyeliner.
I’d worn glasses from the age of 10 until I graduated from high school.
Only six months into wearing contacts, I knew nothing about eye makeup.
She warned me the first night after we moved into our dorm room that she snored.
“It will sound like I’m dying.”
“I’m not dying.”
“I’m just snoring.”
“Don’t wake me up.”
“It won’t help and I won’t get any sleep.”
She was right.
Had she not warned me, I would certainly have waked her up out of fear for her health.
As it was, I woke up, listened to be sure she was breathing, and went back to sleep.
The night I first spoke to the boy who would become my husband, for three hours, from 11:30 at night until 2:30 in the morning, her comment the next morning was, “You guys seemed to have a lot to talk about.”
On our first date, two weeks later, I came down to the reception desk, where Roomie was working, to find her talking to my blind date.
It seems she had dated one of his fraternity brothers. She approved.
Her birthday was December 8.
She said she always felt like she got cheated at Christmas because she’d just had a birthday.
Over the years, she moved from East Lansing, where we’d met at Michigan State University, to Ann Arbor, home of our pledged rivals, the University of Michigan, where, as it happened, my parents had met in college.
I moved to Washington, DC to be near that boy on the phone, now my husband of 45 years.
We each made the trek between Michigan and Virginia from time to time.
It always seemed like we’d just seen each other yesterday.
She came to Washington, as a surprise, when I graduated from college.
We visited Michigan one Memorial Day Weekend marked by an unexpected snowstorm, in which we wrapped our son’s shoes in trashbags so he could play in the snow.
Six months after that call to my office, I realized that not only had I not heard from her again in all that time, the last time I had talked with her, she was scared, the only time I’d ever known her to be scared.
The first time the breast cancer appeared, three years before, she had researched the best breast cancer doctors available.
They lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan. U. of M’s medical school is highly regarded.
But, she was frustrated by her HMO, which, ultimately dictated which doctor she could use, not one of her top choices.
This time, she enrolled in an experimental treatment program at Duke.
I called. Her husband answered.
He came to the point quickly.
“Can I come see her?”
“Only if you come right away.”
“Tell her I’m coming.”
I told my husband and he and our son got in the car for the 12-hour trip to Ann Arbor.
It was Memorial Day weekend.
My husband said,
“We are going to Niagara Falls on the way home.”
“I don’t want you to be sad on Memorial Day weekend for the rest of your life.”
“I want you to have something to be happy about when you remember Roomie.”
When we got to Ann Arbor, we went straight to her house.
When her husband had asked to keep her at home, surrounded by her three children, the doctor had agreed.
“There is nothing more we can do for her at a hospital.”
“You may take her home.”
She had just slipped into a coma.
“She knows you’re coming. She will hear you,” her husband assured me.
I spoke to her for about half an hour, reminded her how much she meant to me and said good-bye.
Her husband called me the next morning to tell me she had just died.
I keep a postcard next to my desk that is full of daffodils in front of Niagara Falls, and think of Roomie every time I see it.
I miss you, Roomie.
Carol Covin, Granny-Guru