“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
……from Winnie the Pooh
I know I need to eat.
My stomach, hollow, aches with emptiness…sensations that mimic the anguish teeming in my soul, in my heart.
My brain is active, as though on steroids. Memories flash repeatedly since I received the call…the five of us at recess in fourth grade dodging a ball, jumping rope, and participating in some ridiculous antic of squeezing each other around the waist until we nearly faint; then a quick recollection of our intramural basketball league, practicing in a decrepit gym attached to the Town Hall, with team names we coined like, “Have Ball Will Travel”; or standing in an outstretched line of maroon caps and gowns, slowly snaking its way into a full auditorium for high school graduation…straining to see the other four, together up ahead, seemed like miles in front of me, because they were fortunate to share the same height…immediately, I recall the loneliness I felt, because as everyone knew, we were inseparable; followed by a flash to years later in a shared cottage on Cape Cod, a vacation we scraped our dollars together to afford…us ‘working-class gals‘ of little means…spending a weekend at the beach with our infants and young children…faces young, unlined, pretty; next image brings glimpses of gatherings at Darel and Charlie’s place…an enormous home he built by hand in the small, sports-rival town bordering ours…doors wide open each weekend to us raucous party-goers; and numerous dinners at the Fontaine’s suburban ‘farm’ where Pam might be serving a piece of a cow you had unknowingly patted on the head the day before…memories that once brought comfort and smiles, now heavy with loss and pain, carry a wound I have no clue how to heal.
It was 1974, a year after we married, when Dennis and I moved due to a job offer he received at a college in central Maine. Pam and Jim hauled our things up from Massachusetts in a truck, staying several days to help us unpack and hang pictures on the wall. My first experience of navigating life without my treasured friends, no longer living just down the street. There were no cell phones back then, and long distance calls were costly…instead we wrote long, detailed letters to one another, many I still possess. Remembering that first year, I felt lost, alone; far away from my kin, the ‘Great Five‘, a name bestowed on us in grade school that stuck throughout our lives.
A few months later, Pam and her family were off to Florida to start a new life, Penny fell in love with a Cape Cod fella and moved to Dennisport, followed some years later by Darel, and eventually DeDe, who loved being near the ocean even more than the rest of us. Life went on…seeing each other sporadically… in pairs, or perhaps a rare threesome, never the five of us…until our 50th birthday.
Everyone trekked to my home on an island in Maine to gather for the first time without partners, kids, or pets…no distractions…to reunite and celebrate our fiftieth year on the planet together.
That weekend began twenty years of annual visits…mostly to Pam’s beach home in Florida…spending a week to ten days immersed in gossip, laughter, some playful teasing…sprinkled with an occasional disagreement or a moment of well-intentioned feedback, always interspersed with the darkest of secrets.
In the evenings we danced together, belting out old 50’s and 60’s tunes, as we emptied bottles of wine, transformed into microphones. Our days were indulged in mutual favorites: lying in the sun on the beach, relaxing trips to a spa, or consuming large quantities of incredible food…yummy appetizers served in platters overwhelmed with assorted cheeses, salami, mixed olives, and fresh baked bread, lovingly prepared by Pam…and dinners out every night at local restaurants along the main drag of New Smyrna Beach.
The first year we gathered in Florida, Pam hired a ‘butler’…a playful, handsome ‘dude‘ who prepared our meals and on request, drew our whirlpool baths. He carried chairs across the road to the sandy shore for us each morning, and turned down our sheets at night, leaving behind bits of chocolate on our pillows. Later in the week, he invited a friend, who gave each of us massages under a tent on the waterfront. Indulgence on overload!
These flashbacks continue to roll like a feature film in my mind as I dribble spoonfuls of yogurt into a bowl, add slivers of almond and a tablespoon of maple syrup, in an attempt to give my appetite a shove.
I look up, and across the room, see Dennis typing on his laptop. His face is red, eyes are sad, tears dripping onto the keyboard. He has been so attentive to my grieving, he has, until now, held in his own.
DeDe first met Dennis in the summer of 1972, when we double-dated to Misquamicut Beach, on what would be our second date.
He was missing her, too.
I left my breakfast on the counter to give him a hug…noting an email on his laptop, written to Pam, Darel and Penny…the remaining members of the “Five”, expressing his tortured feelings over the loss of our shared friend.
On a Sunday evening, August 28th 2022, Diane Marie DeStratis Connors passed away after a year-long, relentless struggle with uterine cancer.
This is how I will remember her….
De was a force to be reckoned with. A tough Massachusetts ‘broad‘, spirited and feisty. Sometimes stubborn and excitable…dramatic and demanding.
Being an extrovert, Diane loved concerts, night clubs, parties…the more crowded the better. She embodied the cliche’…men were drawn to her like a magnet‘…she wasn’t just cute, or even pretty…she was gorgeous, striking! Her hair, as a young woman, was an ebony color with a slight wave, her eyes a deep, penetrating blue…the kind of beauty other girls envied.
De was health conscious and physically strong…preached the value of exercise and probiotics…always touting the latest homeopathic supplement she had discovered. She was physically active her entire life…arguably, the best female athlete ever at Leicester High…excelling at softball and basketball. Making this outrageous cancer diagnosis even more of a puzzle.
She was a voracious reader. Wise. Self-educated. A prolific poet.
Diane was a fierce mother. Insistent about her children’s physical well-being and health…to the point where I wondered, as their young years unfolded, if she were actually going to breast feed those kiddos until they graduated high school?!! Determined to secure their happiness and success, she was adamant they would attend college and paved that path with conscious ways of providing opportunities along the way. Proud of the incredibly accomplished, solid, loving adults they had become, she spoke often of how much she admired her daughter and son…and how deeply she loved them.
Her grandchildren were her passion. Nothing made her happier. Nothing gave her more pleasure than the joy she saw reflected back at her from all five of them…and they embody the essence of who she was…sweet, adorable, engaging and beautiful.
Grandkids were her soul, her children her pride and joy, her friends…companions for life.
DeDe was a nurturer. A caretaker. She authentically cared about your well-being. Two years ago, right by my side as I recovered from a fractured ankle. She dropped everything, drove to Maine …and proceeded to make my meals, manage my medications, shower me, dress me, and wouldn’t leave until Dennis returned from a business trip.
She did the same when my heart was broken, or my life was off-kilter….a steadfast presence, with me during a separation, a divorce, the loss of my parents, and more recently celebrated with gusto the birth of my first grandchild.
I could count on her like no one else, for over sixty-five years.
I cannot begin to imagine a life that does not include her.
Gone are my future plans with her: the hope of frequent stays at our new condo…one of the primary reasons we are upgrading from one bedroom to two…imagining our forays to the local beaches, perusing the Old Port shops, dinners shared at the fabulous restaurants that dot the harbor; the anticipation of a week together next winter in Florida; the assumed excitement of sharing time with each other’s grandkids; planning a Great Five reunion this year. The possibilities, now no longer possible.
Selfishly, I don’t want to live without her.
I feel abandoned, afraid. I’m irritable and lost…and sad…sad beyond measure, crying multiple times a day.
I ask myself, is my profound grief a blessing, a testament to how much she was loved?
And…where has she gone?
I look for a sign. I want to feel her touch from the other side.
Was that her speaking to me when I found the heart rock last week at the lake, with a line clearly dividing it in half? Was she the heron that landed on the shore beside me? Or the hummingbird hovering outside the window? Did she leave that penny on the sidewalk?
Losing a friend, especially one of this longevity, I am keenly aware of my own mortality, struggling to find strength or purpose. And…I know DeDe is mystically kicking my butt, nudging me toward the life that awaits me when my tears dry and I can lift my head again toward the light.
What sustains and keeps me buoyant are friends and family who graciously walk this journey with me.
Like Elise who is in constant contact…granting me permission to feel what I am feeling, sending ‘gigantic hugs, love and warmth’, telling me she’s ‘got’ me, and inviting us for dinner last night…knowing it would be a welcome, nurturing experience to share an evening with her and Shaun, two women we intensely love.
My sister, Theresa, who checks in on me, and whose voice expresses not only her own love for De, but her understanding of my sorrow…joining me at the wake.
Micki, who through her calls and texts, expresses an understanding of pain given a recent unspeakable loss of her own…and invites me to participate in a spiritual ceremony to honor DeDe when she visits in October from Houston.
Greg and Leslie, who were with us at a lake house in the woods of Maine when I received news that I was losing my sweet friend…gave me space to process my feelings, cried with me…sat beside me on Friday, holding my hand in a pew at the funeral…and intently listened to precious memories shared by me and Darel, another member of G5, at the private reception that followed the burial.
Our son, John, came from Boston to be our primary support…made hotel reservations in Worcester, drove us to every event over the two days of mourning, and held me outside of the church as we sobbed in each other’s arms. Diane was a second mother to him.
And Dennis, my pillar and rock, who has multiple times over the past few weeks yanked me from an abyss of gloom, catching and holding me with his empathic words of wisdom breathing new energy and sage advice into my tattered soul.
Dreading the inevitable day we would lose one of the ‘Five’, the texts and phone conversations between Penny, Pam, Darel and I, have been life preservers, keeping each other afloat, as we all sank in grief.
A quote sent from a friend…“grief is love struggling toward acceptance”…sounds about right. I’ve visited every stage of grief, at least twice, but can’t sit very long yet with acceptance…not yet.
From my spirit sister, Maggie…“those whom we love and lose are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are”…in this thought, I find hope and solace.
And yet another friend shared…“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”
What I do know…when the clouds of sorrow part…I will hold gratitude for having been abundantly blessed. I have held hands, throughout my life, with four warrior women, beloved sisters to my soul, a cohort on whom I could rely and depend…whose love was solid, bonds unwavering… loyal and trusted friends…with whom I spent the most cherished moments of my life.
The women who have shared my history since we were nine years old.
Together, we lift our DeDe toward the heavens in hope that one day we will be again united. Rest in peace, our beloved…
TGF…forever…and ever…and ever…