A Friend to Remember

By Jeffery Cohen

A Friend to Remember

Brenda and I were always best friends. Don’t ask me where we met. I really don’t recall, but it was probably in a library. A couple of bookworms like us were destined to squirm across each other’s paths eventually. Playing tag or hop scotch didn’t interest us. While other kids hung out at the local pizza parlor or nosed around at the corner sweet shop, our noses were buried deep in a book.

I lived at 61 Sycamore Street, and Brenda lived at 94 Marion Street, just around the corner, but the space between those two houses was miles apart. In fact, they were worlds apart.

Living in my house was like living in a shadow. Although there were plenty of windows, there was just never enough light and so, like a dusty houseplant forgotten in a corner, I choked as I struggled to grow.

My father was a truck driver who worked hard for a living, often coming home smelling of honest sweat and oil. There were days when he was just so tired he’d shuffle his feet as he dragged himself through the front door, collapsed on the couch, and in minutes be sound asleep.

My mother was a housewife who cooked and cleaned and took care of my two brothers and me. We were a handful, so between baking pies, scrubbing the tub, and making sure we didn’t kill each other, my mother’s days were pretty full, leaving little time to read. She would page through Life Magazine once in a while as my father read the daily paper. Then the television would go on, and the rest of the night would be devoted to Milton Berle’s clowning or the antics of I Love Lucy.

“Jeffery, just what do you think you’re doing?” my mother would ask. “You’re always hiding behind one book or another. Why don’t you go outside? Get some fresh air.” I sometimes wonder if I would have ever known about a white whale called Moby Dick or a barefoot boy named Tom Sawyer if it hadn’t been for my father. Late at night when everyone was deep in sleep, he would slip into my room and carefully push a small stack of books under my bed, then quietly creep back down the hall. Those books were the only light I had in the stale dark gray cloud that surrounded me. Maybe that’s why I spent so much time at Brenda’s house.

At Brenda’s, there was, as her mother would say with a shake of her head, “never a dull moment.” It was like being in the middle of a three-ring circus. The minute you walked through the front door, you expected to smell peanuts and popcorn. Instead of a calliope playing in the background, you might hear a Stravinsky symphony blaring from the stereo as Brenda’s father conducted each movement with a pencil he held as respectfully as if it were a maestro’s baton. His arms would flail wildly as he cocked his head back. With his eyes closed, he savored every note. Then there were days when the strains of Charlie Parker’s saxophone would climb up and down the scales and explode like a volcano, its smoldering notes rushing down in streams that would splash off the walls.

“What is that?” I asked as my ears followed the bounce of Bebop for the first time.

Brenda’s mother knelt down before me, looked me straight in the eye, and in a whisper that was as reverent as a prayer in a church chapel, she said, “That, my boy, is the Birdman.”

Neighbors politely referred to Brenda’s house as “unusual.” If my house was in a fog, then their house was like looking into the sun. There were sculptures perched on pedestals. Paintings hung on every wall with fiery oranges and sizzling yellows that made you wonder if you could go blind by staring at them for too long. The living room wallpaper was red! Red…with splashes of gold and turquoise and a print that depicted the “Seven Wonders of the World.”

Everywhere you looked, there were books – walls of shelved volumes that held everything from the perfectly worded classics to finger snapping beat poetry. There were piles of picture books with color photos of exotic places like Tibet or the Fiji Islands and stacks of storybooks, encyclopedias, novels, textbooks. Heaps of history and how-to books rose from every available table. It was just like being in a library, only you didn’t have to be quiet.

With a house like this, you’d think one would never leave it, but Brenda and her folks spent as much time outside as they did in, and how lucky I was to have been included. There were picnics of caviar and fried chicken, Norwegian sweet cheese and Russian cornbread arranged haphazardly around a silver candelabra set down on a chenille bedspread. Lawn-chaired nights were spent in the park where arias of “Madame Butterfly” echoed from the bandstand as lightning bugs flickered. There were plays and puppet shows, carnivals and concerts. Museums of every shape and size were offered up, from tiny closets with small town displays to the big city cathedrals of culture.

One afternoon, Brenda and I leaned against the cold stone walls of an Egyptian tomb at the Museum of Natural History while the rest of the city sweltered in a heat wave. We held hands, closed our eyes and wondered if life could ever be any better.

And so it went, through grade school, high school and finally, we were heading off to college. Brenda chose a school in the Midwest while I stayed on the East coast. We vowed to stay close, and did in the early days, but distance and time slowly pried us apart, and we eventually lost touch. There were days when Brenda and her family would cross my mind and I would promise myself that I would call, but somehow I never got around to it. Then one Mother’s Day the phone rang.

“Jeff, it’s Brenda.” In an instant the years had melted away, and we were just two kids back home again.

“How’s your family? Gosh, I miss them,” I sighed, waiting to hear the latest stories.

There was a hesitation, and then Brenda explained that her father had passed away five years earlier. “He died in his sleep. An aneurysm. It was a shock to everyone because he was always so healthy. It hit Mom pretty hard. You know how close they were. I just couldn’t imagine her living alone so, I decided to quit my job and move in with her.”

“How was that?” I asked, wondering if I could ever have made that kind of sacrifice.

“It was actually quite wonderful,” she explained. “We became constant companions. You know what a ball of energy my mother always was. So our lives became a whirlwind of non-stop activity. There wasn’t an opera we didn’t attend or a play that we didn’t view and symposiums and discussion groups. If we weren’t running to a concert or a lecture, we were at a gallery opening. And the countless hours we spent in museums. Mother was never more alive. I was never more alive. And then, one morning, without warning, my mother’s interest in all of it disappeared. It was all gone in an instant.

“Now she talked less, ate less, lived less. She no longer had the need to go anywhere, rarely leaving the house and then rarely leaving her room. The fire that once burned so wildly inside of her had been extinguished leaving behind smoldering ash. It was then that she explained to me that all she wanted to do was to join my father, and so she stopped eating and drinking.”

“I tried in every way possible to get her to change her mind. I even threatened to have her force fed if need be, but she just smiled at me and shook her head. She held my hand in hers and said that this was her last wish. She asked me to help her fulfill that wish, and so I sat at her bedside and watched her slowly fail. As the hours passed, the room got smaller and quieter. I could see the light that once danced in her eyes softly surrender its step. The pink in her complexion drained to white as her breathing became more labored until I knew the end was near. As the sunset began to reflect on the walls of the bedroom, surrounded by her paintings and sculptures and piles of books, I crawled into her bed, gently slid my arms around her small, fragile frame and held my cheek to hers. I kissed her forehead, ran my hand over the silky strands of her silvery hair and told her what a special mother she was to me. I told her I loved her. I told her how much I loved her.”

As Brenda recalled the words she’d whispered, she explained that her mother answered with a deep sigh. As the sun finally fell below the horizon, and the day closed its eyes, Brenda’s mother calmly let go of her daughter’s hand.

I covered the mouthpiece, took a deep breath, finally managing to say, “Brenda, are you OK?”

There was a long silence, and then she said in a calm and measured voice, “I will be…now that I’m able to share this with my best friend.”

About this writer

  • Jeffery Cohen

    Jeffery Cohen

    Freelance writer and newspaper columnist, Jeffery Cohen, has written for Sasee, Lifetime and Read, Learn, Write. He’s won awards in Women-On-Writing Contest, Vocabula’s Well Written Contest, National League of American Pen Women’s’ Keats Competition, Southern California Genealogy Competition, and Writer’s Weekly writing contest.

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2 Responses to “A Friend to Remember”

  1. Rose Ann says:

    Your essay is just beautiful. Made me cry…and that’s good :)

  2. Linda O'Connell says:

    Your writing goes straight to the heart. You certainly have a way with words.

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