Every Christmas for nearly thirty years now, there comes a time, generally when I am listening to Christmas music on the radio, or sometimes on Christmas Day itself, when something happens that reminds me of my friend Brigitte.
I expect that will be the case even more now.
Brigitte and I became friends in elementary school. We were in the same 4-H group, we shared classes together, we camped together, we shared crushes and secrets and sillinesses, sleepovers, and all the other things that young girls share. And then, around the time that school started for our eighth grade year, Brigitte told us all that her mother was getting married, and they would all be moving to El Paso, Texas.
They moved on Christmas Day.
I remember going over to her house for one last visit on the day that she left. We mainly hung out in Brigitte's living room with two of her step-brothers-to-be, chatting about this and that. We were listening to the radio and complaining about the fact that there wasn't anything on any station that wasn't Christmas related. We wanted to listen to our favorite pop tunes, a little Debbie Gibson or Cyndi Lauper perhaps, but instead it was all White Christmas and Feliz Navidad. SO Lame.
Is it funny that this is the only real memory I have of that visit? I'm sure we talked and laughed about other things. I'm sure we exchanged addresses, and I'm sure we hugged each other when it was time to go. I don't think I cried then, but I remember lying in bed that night, thinking about how far it was to El Paso, and crying & crying.
I wouldn't see Brigitte again until I was 40 years old. We wrote back and forth regularly for years and years though. Again (still) we shared all the details of our crushes, some secrets, some of our deeply held thoughts and feelings. Our life paths ended up being fairly different. She went to UTEP, I went to SUU. She got in involved in theatre, I got involved in SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise). She married a great guy and had three great boys, I went on a great mission and got a graduate degree (that put me on the path to my own great life). Eventually our letters got more and more sporadic until they stopped completely.
Thankfully, due to the (sometimes mixed) blessing of Facebook, we reconnected again. By then, Brigitte's eldest son was one of the stars of his high school marching band, and I was a mother to a brand fresh baby girl. Once again we kept track of each other, this time through status updates and photos, as well as quick notes here and there. Some time ago, I read with concern that she had contracted Bells Palsy. Then, quite a bit later, she shared the unhappy news that the Bells Palsy had been a misdiagnosis, that her symptoms had been caused by a malignant tumor on her saliva gland. So hard.
Brigitte determined to go through her surgery and treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Center in Salt Lake City, where she would have the support of family (her mother having moved back to Utah in the intervening years), and access to cutting edge medical care. That afforded me the opportunity to visit her without the difficulty of air travel and lodging issues, and I took advantage. We set up the date, determining to meet at the Huntsman on a "chemo morning", giving us the ability to visit for several hours while Brigitte sat hooked up to IVs delivering the cancer-fighting medicine.
As I contemplated the visit, I was a little bit apprehensive. It had been well over twenty years since I had seen Brigitte, and our lives had taken very different turns. She had endured major surgery on her throat, making her voice raspy and sometimes difficult to understand. I worried that we wouldn't find anything to talk about, that we wouldn't be able to understand each other, that it would be an awkward situation for me, or (more importantly) a painful one for her. I did take some comfort when a mutual friend from the old days determined to join us, but then I worried that it would be the two of us talking, while Brigitte sat there mutely, a third wheel or something.
As usual, my fears turned out to be completely unfounded.
(When will I ever learn?)
I arrived in the infusion center (a few minutes ahead of our friend, whose name is Becky), where Brigitte was waiting for me. I recognized Miguel (her husband) from the pictures that we had exchanged over the years, and Brigitte introduced us. I was immediately impressed with how solicitous he was of Brigitte, as well as the love and respect that they obviously shared. Brigitte and I chatted easily and comfortably, catching one another up on the events in our extended family, reliving some old times and good memories, and sharing a few thoughts. Soon Becky joined us, with additional memories that had slipped our minds, and another perspective that made the whole situation that much more enjoyable.
I remember at one point, realizing that the tables had turned, knowing that although I had gone to the hospital in hopes of raising Brigitte's spirits and giving her courage for her fight, the reality was that the more time we spent together, the more I felt myself being buoyed up by Brigitte's honest caring and love, as well as her good heart. It surprised me, made me feel a little bit guilty, and a whole lot more grateful.
All too soon, the multi-hour treatment had ended and it was time for Brigitte and Miguel to meet with one of her oncologists. I left the hospital feeling mostly calm and at peace, but at the same time wondering what twists and turns Brigitte was in for health-wise, and how everything would shake out.
There isn't an easy way to say this. A few months later, I received word that things weren't shaking out well, and a few weeks after that, on December 21, Brigitte passed away.
As I've watched Brigitte's facebook wall fill up with comments and condolences by people I never have and probably never will meet, it's been sobering and difficult, but at the same time encouraging to realize that all these people knew the same Brigitte that I knew, even all these years later. Her generosity, love, kindness, sincerity, and compassion are a common thread that continues to run through all the contributions, and encourages me to strive for the same.
I think back on a letter exchange that Brigitte and I had, back when we were in high school. At the time Brigitte was not attending LDS church services in El Paso, and I had (hopefully tactfully) asked her why she had made that decision. When she wrote back, she said that when she had attended her LDS ward, she had felt very keenly that the others her age didn't really want her there or like her. So, eventually she determined to go where she would find more acceptance.
To be clear: In telling this story, it is not my intention to point fingers or pass judgement on anyone involved. I wasn't there, so I have no business saying anything about that part of it.
The story is on my mind now because I find it incredibly heartening to know that a girl who had the experience that Brigitte described, grew up to be the woman that Brigitte was. From all that I can gather, as well as from my own personal experience, Brigitte is a woman who will be remembered for the unconditional love and kindness that she shared wherever she went and with whomever she met.
If there's a better legacy to leave, I don't know what it is.
Although I do have some (very blurry and old) pictures of Brigitte in my scrapbooks, I lifted the two posted here from her facebook page.