I met Helen when I was in college. She and her husband, Bob, lived close to campus and had Baha'i gatherings every Sunday. She made a huge pot of Chili and I came because the dorm cafeteria didn't serve a meal on Sunday nights. I was checking into the Baha'i Faith and liked it, but the people seemed too nice. I didn't think my odd sense of humor and quirkiness would be accepted. Then I met Bob and Helen.
Bob and Helen were smart, funny, and as weird as me. Maybe weirder. I "officially" became a Baha'i in their apartment. There's no formal ceremony, I just needed a pen to complete an enrollment card. Helen searched frantically for one and yelled at Bob to help. He did a handstand and pens fell out of his pockets.
For the next few years I spent more time with Helen than anyone else. She stood by me through one of the hardest periods of my life. My parents were angry because all three children became Baha'is, and most of all, because I wanted to marry George, who was black. Because the Baha'i Faith is based on unity, we couldn't get married without their consent. Helen understood because she had gone through the same thing. Long before I ever met either Helen or George, they were engaged.
Helen, George & another friend Susan. Helen and George might have been "a couple" here...not sure.
I don't know why it was not awkward for me to be friends with George's ex-fiancé. Maybe because by the time I met George it was long over and she was married. Or maybe it was simply Helen. She was so matter of fact that they weren't meant to be together, and George and I were. She offered thoughts about his mother that eased my fear, and we analyzed the potential my parents had of agreeing to the marriage. No matter how difficult things became, Helen could find the one tiny glimmer of hope. She made me feel like everything would be okay.
When my parents gave their blessing, Helen was one of the first people I called. We screamed, and laughed and cried together.
When I think about Helen, I picture us sitting in the kitchen scheming. We were like Lucy and Ethel from TV's "I Love Lucy", but our schemes weren't about how to fool our husbands. They were about how to raise children without racial prejudice, or how to empower daughters while we were still trying to empower ourselves, or how to use the talents we were born with to help bring world peace. While in the middle of a conversation about the nature of human existence, Bob would come home and execute flips across the living room.
After a few years we both moved to different towns and Helen and I rarely saw each other. When we did, it took less than a minute to feel as if we had never been apart. Maybe that's why we didn't try harder to stay in touch. It didn't feel necessary, but now I regret it. Our last real time together was a couple years ago. She came to my mother-in-law's house in Florida to spend Thanksgiving with the family. George's father had passed that Spring and his mother was having a hard time. His mom invited Helen and she accepted, leaving her own family's celebration to be with us.
Helen was as energetic and upbeat as she had always been, maybe more so. She was eating healthy, had lost weight, and was exercising...something she had once sworn against. She was excited about "Soul Miners", the children's theater project she and her daughter, Heidi were doing. They were using theater to help children identify and develop qualities like love, compassion, courage, and justice. We talked about me coming to do a mime workshop, but that never happened. When the doctors found she had cancer again I got an email. It was in her liver and spine and she had to decide if she was going to prepare to die, or do everything she could to live.
There was a time we talked a lot about death. She was there when I had my first miscarriage. We read what the Baha'i Writings said about the next world, and how wonderful it was. At the time I longed to go because my daughter was there. She was in no hurry because her daughter was here. She listened without judging, helping me find reasons for living.
Helen decided to fight the cancer. She wasn't ready to give up. The last time we spoke she didn't want to talk about her treatment. She said it was going fine, but it was hard. She'd rather talk about other things. She was concerned about my mother in law's depression, and how my brother was dealing with the death his daughter. She was elated with the news about my son winning a national playwriting competition, told me how much she loved my writing, and we talked about how happy we were with our daughters...both writers and amazing mothers. We swapped stories about our incredible grandchildren.
A few weeks ago, there was an update on Helen's "CarePages" from Heidi asking for prayers as her mother transition from this world to the next. I prayed, and cried and had fitful dreams. I woke up the next day and looked for emails and at HeidiBeth's Facebook page. Heidi had put the same message on Facebook and messages of love and support were pouring in. All day I checked and there was no further news. I went to bed the next night and prayed more. In the morning there was still no news, and then I laughed. I imagined tiptoeing up to Helen's bed to see if she was still breathing. She'd open one eye, twitch her nose, and whisper "I'm not dead yet..."
I believed it possible she might surprise us all and live, and if that happened I vowed I would be a better friend. I'd take vacation days and go visit. I'd call her every day and learn how to do skype. I'd make sure she knew how much her friendship meant to me.
When I told my husband she passed, he said Helen was the most positive person he'd ever known. I remembered a scene from Monty Python's "Life of Brian". Rows and rows of condemned men, strung up on crosses were singing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life..."
My friend Helen, and her beloved Heidi.
I miss knowing you are here.
I've never learned the fine art of embedding stuff here...here is the YouTube link to the Monty Python scene: