Wednesday, November 10, 2010


My mother called at 8 am this morning, and uncharacteristically got straight to the point: "I wanted to tell you that I am leaving for Florida today," she said. Cathy, her closest living friend, had died in her sleep. Mom was going to the funeral.

I held back my own tears and asked mom how she was doing. "There aren't many people you can call friend," she said, her voice catching. Cathy's daughter had come to the house to tell my mother. That's how close they were. This wasn't news she would be given over the phone.

I haven't seen Cathy in several years, but during my childhood, she was a constant presence in our lives. She was tiny, with strawberry blonde hair. Her husband, a burly firefighter that we called "Mr. Mickey," was my father's lifelong best friend. He looked like John Wayne and would often threaten to put mustard on our toes and eat them. They lived a block away from us. I remember many Sunday dinners in their Tudor home, and happy hours sitting in their living room, which had stone walls like a castle, listening to the adults talk about the old days. Watching Mickey fall asleep in the den during 60 Minutes. Trips to Loehman's and drives into the city for this outing or that Irish-American fundraiser.

I remember Cathy sitting at the counter in her kitchen, smoking and drinking coffee. Her wedding album was a favorite, because she had a winter wedding and wore a velvet gown, which seemed so exotic to me. Cathy had five children, one after the other, and we all went to high school together. She encouraged my writing. "You should write a book about us, about the crowd," she said. "The crowd," was what they called their group of friends, who had hung around together in an ice cream parlor in the South Bronx, and spent weekends in the Catskills.

One night, Cathy and my mother sat drinking Sambuca in our living room, arguing about politics. "You'll talk different in the morning, Mary, when you're sober," said Cathy. A line that was repeated endlessly over the years.

I feel sad for Cathy's family, and for my mother. Her other best friend died just months after Mom lost her husband at 52. Her mother died last September. And also (because it's always all about me), I'm thinking, hey, my life is likely 3/4 over, so I better get in gear.

I started on this train of thought watching "The Big C," where Laura Linney plays a woman in her 40s who is dying of cancer, desperately trying to enjoy the things she should have been enjoying all along. Then yesterday morning, this Nora Ephron interview on NPR hit home. She made a good argument for doing the things you love all the time, right now, because you might not get that many more chances. Here's an excerpt lifted from

"You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can't put things off thinking you'll get to them someday," she says. "If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I'm very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it."

For Ephron, there was a moment that helped bring that realization vividly home. She was with friends, playing a round of "What would your last meal be?"

(Her pick, by the way: a Nate & Al's hot dog.)

"But (my friend) Judy was dying of throat cancer, and she said, 'I can't even have my last meal.' And that's what you have to know is, if you're serious about it, have it now," Ephron says. "Have it tonight, have it all the time, so that when you're lying on your deathbed you're not thinking, 'Oh I should have had more Nate & Al's hot dogs.'"


  1. Beautiful and thought-provoking, Christina, and I'm sorry for your loss (and your mother's loss).

    I think about the "live each day as if it were your last" advice all the time. The problem is paying for it! (Oh, and making sure someone will take good care of the kids while I'm doing this stuff.) Like, I want to travel France and India before I luxury, more precisely...but I can honestly say we're not in an acceptable financial and childcare position for that right now.

    However, I agree we should stay attuned to the realistic luxuries and dreams (and favorite foods, however terrible for us), and think about how we can work them into our lives sooner rather than too late.

    The velvet wedding dress sounds marvelous.

  2. These are darkly luminous waters that we would all do well to swim in.

  3. I feel like I can see Cathy and the crowd through this post, and I'm glad you wrote about them.

  4. My mom has a crowd, too, and their time is coming.

    I just wanted to say that, in addition to the idea that you should do things you enjoy while you can, you should enjoy whatever it is you can do.

    You won't be laying around in a hospital bed bemoaning the fact that you could have eaten more hot dogs if you've eaten so many hot dogs your heart pops long before you get there.

    But finding peace and joy in banal, necessary, everyday moments will give you the same charge as a hot dog if you're aware of how fleeting time is. Waiting in your car at the stoplight on the way to pick up your kids can be a magic moment if you inhabit it fully. You're doing something that in ten years you'd give anything to do again! Every moment is literally like this. You just have to stop your racing mind long enough to feel it.

    One of the best things about kids is this idea has gone from an ideal to reality for me. Every moment of childhood I share with my daughter is more sweet because I remember how my own childhood is long gone, but we get to share this one together.

  5. Christina, this is beautiful.

    I hope you'll write more about the crowd.

  6. I'm so sorry for you mom's loss.

    The last part of your post reminded me of blogger Maggie Mason and her Life List. She's kind of made a blogging business out of it, but her intention is pretty inspiring. I've made a list, and it's weird how it works - I've begun to see more opportunities to do things that I want to do.

  7. Lovely post. About age 50, you start to see the horizon, realize you won't live forever, and that your life (which zoomed by so far) is realistically probably more than half over. Do your bucket list now, have the hot dog, stop obsessing about your throw pillows (and just about everything else) and definitely give up on the idea that you can make anybody do anything, including your kids. My mom died a month ago, after 42 years of working and 5 years of retirement. My greatest sadness is not for my loss but that she didn't have many, many more years of freedom and fun. Some thoughts about grieving are at and more about my mom at (read older posts).

  8. Thanks, Christina. As Warren Zevon said, facing his own mortality, "Enjoy every sandwich." We had a lot of considering mortality just about a year ago, two funerals unbearably unfair and painful, one that was...funny in ways there's not enough space here to describe. I don't know that I was able to DO anything differently, but now I know a little more about life.
    I recently realized that I only ever really had one thing that I wanted-to be a mom. That was my only goal, I'm doing it, but what do I do next?

  9. Well said, my friend. You have articulated some of what has been on my mind lately. Thank you.

  10. sorry for your and your mom's loss, Christina-I think everyone's family has "a crowd" so most of us can relate and when someone who is close in age to your parents passes away-it is a wake up call that they will not be there forever and neither will we. Tell people that you love them-try to let the bad ones go and try to live every moment and not obsess about the small things.

  11. Having watched my close friend/roommate grieve his father's sudden death, and now hearing of the suicide of an acquaintance, I too have been thinking a lot about mortality lately.

    Which has resulted in my trying NOT to sweat the small stuff (work and relationship drama, mostly), celebrate the awesome stuff (my best friend in the world is moving back to our home city after three years in California), and do the things that make me happy (listen to music, read, participate in NaNoWriMo, and dance dance dance).

    I'm so sorry for your mom's loss. It alters the way you think about life, doesn't it?

  12. It's always been clear to me that it's about: being with your friends; as much time as possible with your kids if you have them; and love if you can find it. Even way before I had kids, as a teenager, I saw this.

    Close seconds for me are sex and drugs, but if you're gonna listen to me, which you really should, drugs must get jettisoned by all involved parties when they start hoping for missed periods. Shame though.

    And tied for third are music and art and travel and food. Are there other things that really matter? Truth is I never cared much for food. I only include it on the tied-for-third list because I know I'm wrong. That is, food clearly belongs, by popular vote.

    Don't think I'm missing anything. And I know I'm right about the firsts. I won't hear any arguments about "personal truths."