I am no stranger to death. On average, I attend two funerals per year. Some years there are more, and some years pass by without any. I’ve said goodbye to many friends, relatives and in-laws. Some of these deaths were expected, but too many times the death was sudden. A year ago I buried one of my closest, dearest, oldest friends and this was different, the last straw, the one too many, the deepest cut. This was the one that changed everything.
Today marks the first year anniversary (Yahrzeit) of my friend, Liz. Elizabeth Cummings Browning has been my friend since our college days. We were fire and ice. We shared everything. We met at age 18 and Liz was 53 when she died. We build a lot of memories in the years between. She died from complications from behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia along with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease. These horrific diseases robbed her of behavioral and motor functioning.
Hers was the first family to just fold me into the mix. They accepted me for no better reason than I was a friend of Liz’s. The entire tribe (mom, dad, Liz and her 9 siblings) accepted me “as is” and treated me like one of their own. This inclusion into a loving family circle was a profound experience for me. It showed me that I could be loved and valued without criticism. The way I thought or acted was just fine and I didn’t need to watch my words to be a part of a lively, cross-firing conversation.
There are a few things in this world that will always trigger memories of Liz for me. The first are the Girl Scout cookie, Thin Mints. Oh, how that girl loved Thin Mints! We happily consumed many a sleeve of them together every Spring. I continued to send her a box of Thin Mints with her birthday gift for many years. This year, on her birthday last March, I ate two tear-stained Thin Mints (one for her, one for me) and toasted her memory.
The next item is a particular brand of hair gel. Liz was obsessive about her hair. It always looked great, but she was particular about the styling products that she used. One time we met in Kansas City for some weekend event and we shared a hotel room. I forgot to bring my array of hair care items, so I asked to borrow hers. She told me that this was the best hair gel, so I used it. As long as this product continues to be marketed, I will buy it for no other reason than it will forever remind me of Liz.
Lastly, there’s Liz’s favorite dish from her favorite restaurant in St. Louis, Cunnetto’s. This is a family-owned Italian place that has big portions for a small price and the food is delicious. Liz would always order the Tortellini con Burro and introduced it to me on one of our many dinners there over the years. It’s a simple dish, homemade tortellini in a buttery Parmesan sauce. There may be a hint of chicken stock, but all I know is that like the hair gel, it was the best! Cunnetto’s removed this item from their menu several years ago, but I still order it every time and there is always someone in the kitchen who remembers how to make it while I remember Liz enjoying it.
These are the happy little pieces of Liz’s life and times that I hang onto in my memory.
I had the honor of delivering this eulogy during Liz’s funeral:
My name is Renee Bauer Soffer and I shouldn’t be here today. None of us should. This death came too soon. I am not done being her friend.
Liz literally burst into my life one Saturday night in October 1979. We were freshmen at Rockhurst College and knew each other from a few mutual friends. Liz had been wronged by one of these acquaintances in an episode involving a boy and she needed to rant. As many of you in this room know – all too well – few people could throw down a rant like Liz. So I let her into my dorm room, opened a couple of beers, and I listened. This night forged a friendship that has lasted more than 34 years. Or 415 months. Or 12,623 days. This number includes today because I am not done being her friend.
Liz and I enjoyed college life and we were together for every Delt frat party, foose-ball tournament, late night run for Gates BBQ, Minsky’s for pizza, coffee at the Classic Cup, or just driving back and forth from Kansas City to St. Louis for visits home. Liz spent one semester in Rome. I couldn’t wait for her to get back from being so far away (which seemed even longer and farther away because we didn’t have cell phones, texts, or FaceTime). We wrote postcards to each other and we would cram as many words as we could onto them.
By our Senior year, we had formed a merry band of friends – Tim Curry, Susan Lahey, Kelly Babson, Liz and me. We have memories of those times that will bring happiness to us for all of our days.
After college Liz moved back to St. Louis. There we continued our journey and friendship. I married first. My husband is the “Kirby” that some of you have been hearing Liz refer to in recent months whenever she needed a name for a man either random or familiar. The real Kirby said he was “uncomfortably flattered”. (Perhaps some names are unusual enough to be dementia-proof). So there was Liz, my maid of honor, at the reception writing down the chords to our favorite Anita Baker song on a cocktail napkin so our band could play it while she sang for our first dance. During this time, Liz sang at every talent night, happy hour, or cover band that she could find. I was her roadie, her confidant and her groupie.
Then Liz met Dan. After a couple of dates, she was falling in love. Liz would smile her sly half grin whenever she would tell me about Dan and say, “I’m a lucky girl!”
A couple of years later, I stood next to Liz as she married Dan. She was wearing my grandmother’s antique crystal necklace as her “something borrowed”, but the sparkle came from her eyes as she sang to her groom that beautiful afternoon 23 years ago.
The next several years were filled with us having babies alternately and getting on with the everyday business of life, jobs, kids, pets, and husbands. Liz took to being a mom with a protective ferocity that would rival a lioness. Being mom to Nathan and Elsa gave Liz purpose and joy. Every time we spoke about her kids, Liz would say, “I’m a lucky Mom!”
Then the Cummings-Browning family moved “up North” to Minnesota. Our conversations and visits spread out over time, but our mutual love and friendship never seemed to fade. We could always just catch right back up with each other’s lives and talk as if no time had passed. At least this was true until Liz came under the grips of the horrible diseases that pulled her away from all of us.
Liz was a complicated girl – despite her beauty and talents, she was self-conscious and worried about what others thought. She was obsessive about her hair (which never looked anything less than perfect). Liz would deflect compliments – she was kind and humble. But when she took the stage, she was in complete control. She owned it, she was fearless. Liz knew she had been blessed with a talent that made her unique. She didn’t have to tell you that she was a musical genius… she would just let you hear this for yourself.
The only thing she loved more than performing was being with her family. She was equally fearless when it came to defending a loved one as she was in front of an audience. She stood up for the weak, she had a short fuse for injustices. She would tirelessly fight until she knew everyone had what they needed.
She wanted her voice to be heard. Maybe this was due to the fact that Liz was in the middle sector of siblings. Maybe Liz just knew she had the gifts to express herself in a special way. I think Liz’s spot as a middle child actually gave her a very caring heart. There were always those who were older, and those who were younger, and even one with special needs – each unique and dearly loved by Liz. I have been made a better person by learning from Liz’s compassionate example when she was with her sister Joanne. I have always been grateful for being folded into the Cummings family. I have been to more Cummings Family reunions than any of my own family. From Liz’s dear mom and gentle dad I learned that no matter how small the table might be, there was always room for one more.
I hope Liz forgave me, but I never really understood her obsession with performing. Singing and playing the piano were not just hobbies for Liz. She was driven to be on a stage and I felt she would compromise too much to make this happen. It was only in the last year that I understood how Liz needed to play music the same way that I needed to breathe air. It sustained her. It was her essence.
My devoted friend Liz is taking my secrets with her today, but I kept a secret from her. When I saw her last spring, I knew she was incurably sick and that the next time we were together, she wouldn’t remember me. We rode around in my car singing along to the radio (except for when she didn’t remember the words) and I was patient while Liz – the ever-diligent passenger – corrected the other drivers. We told each other how happy we were to be together. Then the Elton John classic song, “Funeral for a Friend” came on the radio. I somehow managed to show no emotion while Liz happily hummed along, but my heart broke into a million pieces in that moment. There were visible physical changes to her beautiful appearance. There was emptiness in her eyes. Her voice sounded different when she searched for the right word. But her laugh sounded the same. That day was the last time I saw Liz.
I know she always wanted to vacation in Hawaii. She never made the trip. I was lucky enough to have gone there twice and I happen to have a smooth lava stone that I collected from a beach. There is a tradition in which visitors leave behind a stone on the gravesite to show the departed loved one that their memory is permanent – like stone. I will leave this stone for Liz so that she will always know that I am not done being her friend.
I’d like to end these thoughts with words from a song from the musical “Wicked” –
“It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime,
so let me say before we part –
so much of me is made of what I learned from you,
you’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end,
I know you have rewritten mine by being my friend.
Like a ship blown from its mooring by a wind off the sea,
like a seed dropped by a skybird in a distant wood.
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But, because I knew you,
because I knew you,
I have been changed for good.”