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 npr.com:
"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.'"