Funeral for a Friend – Remembering Liz

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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. 

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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.”

Returning For the First Time

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Take me to your favorite place to go

Show me the reasons why you love it so.

Teach me what is special here

Is the food to your liking? Do you like talking

With the locals who know

The inside and outside, the when and the where?

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Now make me fall in love with this space, too

I want to claim it as my own along with you.

Introduce me to the ghosts who keep the secrets

Of hidden treasure places, and brush familiar faces.

Let’s walk a worn path like you used to do

Tell me what you’ve done here, without regrets.

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Please tell me what I can change or must do

Allowing me to stay in this holy place with you

Forever? Is this a choice or only a dream’s hell?

Separation creates deep yearning and shallow returning.

If distance is measured by time and wealth is true

Then I have a lot of nothing, so I must manage it well.

Dear Kim Kardashian…

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Hi Kim – I know you’re busy keeping your name and photo in every media outlet around the globe and how exhausting that must be for you.  But, can I have a minute for a little bit of girl talk?  Honestly, I don’t understand how you became a celebrity for no better reason than your mother leaking a sex video of you to the world. You became an amateur porn star and a household name because of this. You call her a “momager” as in a mom-manager. I call her a “pomp” as in a mom-pimp. Nevertheless, this should not have led to uncountable piles of money. But, somehow it did. As the mother of two daughters myself, I get nervous when my girls prance around in their underwear (I’m looking at you, thongs) in the privacy of their own home. The thought of them showing their nips and bits to the world makes me queasy. The fact that you do and your mother along with the rest of the free world seems to be OK with it makes me worry about the decline of civilization. Don’t get me wrong; I am a firm believer in the beauty and power of a naked woman. We are spectacular creatures! I just think that a little goes a long way in the public arena.

             Horsey’s Got Back

I must admit that I do, however, owe you a debt of gratitude for the one seemingly impossible thing that you have done to better our culture….you have made big butts fashionable, even desirable! This is slightly short of being a miracle in my book. On behalf of my big ol’ bouncy ass, I thank you most sincerely. That being said, the reason for the rest of your fame and fortune remains a mystery to me.

I suppose it is tempting if you are fed a steady diet of being told how sexy and beautiful you are to want to show your stuff to the world. One could think that their extraordinary body parts make every man want them and every woman hate them. Maybe the insecure feel this way about you, but I just smell the stench of narcissism. I have never met you, and doubt that I ever will. For all I know you may be a shy, darling lady with impeccable manners. Maybe. I’m actually willing to give you the benefit of the doubt because I owe you for allowing me to feel like a hottie again in a tight skirt.

So, does this make us “frienemies”?

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Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep….Or Not

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It’s sometime between 2:15 and 3:30 in the morning. The exact time doesn’t matter, neither does the date, the only thing that matters is the fact that I’m awake and trying to not look at the clock. Nothing good will come from me knowing the exact time. All that will happen is that I will start the little brain game that we all play where we tell ourselves that “if I go to sleep right now, I will still get 5 hours of sleep, and that’ll be enough.” We all know how this game ends. You are not going to sleep any time soon, and you lost.

Why am I awake? I am a notoriously sound sleeper, and have been all of my life. Even the torture of menopause doesn’t keep me from falling back asleep after I slip out of bed for a quick pee (or three) during the night. When I was a young child, I actually slept through the sirens from a fire truck that came to our house when my brother climbed up a backyard tree and got stuck. I was so disappointed that I missed the joy of seeing him trapped in the limbs and the exciting process of his release. When I was a new mother, I worried that I would not wake up if my baby cried in the night. Naturally, that wasn’t a problem, I’d be sitting upright with my feet on the floor ready to attend to my child’s need at the slightest peep. Even then, I could calm the infant and go back to bed and fall asleep until the next peep.

What’s changed? What force is powerful enough to keep me from my peaceful slumber? The answer is a middle-aged husband who snores like it is his job and has restless leg syndrome. He wasn’t always a challenging sleep partner, but since his sixth decade of life, he has transformed into snoring, twitching mess. Granted that I am no prize during the evenings, I am often a full-bladdered, clammy, sweaty mess myself. But, I lay motionless and for the most part, quietly on my side of the bed. But there’s a silver lining to this storm cloud since I am running hot I don’t mind so much when the covers are violently yanked off of me as he goes into an alligator roll with the sheet and blanket. I’ve learned to avoid getting thrashed I need to get as far away from him as I can on our king-sized bed. Thank goodness for my ability to lay with ninja-like stillness along the edge of the mattress, otherwise, I’d be on the floor next to the bed. Here’s an illustration…

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Here are a few of the sounds that I hear next to me:

A bassoon warming up before a performance

A Canadian goose warning the flock

A truck stuck in second gear on a gravel road

A bear growling because you are too close to a cub

Hail hitting the pavement

An arcade gun firing at the moving ducks target

A hand saw trying to cut down a thick tree trunk

Each night I am audibly assaulted by a variety of sounds at varying decibels in no particular order that can last for hours. I have screwed up the foam earplugs and shoved them so deeply into my ears I am surprised I don’t sneeze them out. They help, but only a little. He will wear the clear nasal strips. They help, but only a little. Even if I were able to buffer the roaring, remember this is a two-prong attack, the flinging and kicking knows no boundaries.

Every once in a while, the rumble and the rhumba stop. In a cruel twist of fate, I’ve learned that the slightest movement on my part will rustle the slumbering man and bring back the funk. It’s like sleeping with someone while they rehearse their part in the off-Broadway production of “Stomp.”

So there I am night after night not looking at the clock, trying to not move, and wondering if I’d go to jail for beating him with my down pillow.

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Belief

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horses-68aToday is both Good Friday for the Christian believers and the start of Passover for the Jewish faith.  A busy weekend ahead for those who practice their faiths.  Both Jews and Christians share many basic beliefs and have a fair amount of overlap.  I think that both Easter and Passover are times of renewal and celebrations of freedom.  I would rather find the common ground than pick apart each other over the differences.

A few years ago, I had the joy of learning from a teacher who knows her history and her religions very well and teaches both brilliantly.  She had us write our Personal Professions of Faith.  This was a powerful exercise of self-awareness and I encourage you to give it a try!

Here’s mine –

I believe in many things. I believe in things that I don’t understand. I have changed my mind about what I believe as I live through more experiences and years. I think that with a limited mind and an open heart it is important to be flexible.

I believe that God is Time – a continuum that has always been and will always be. I believe that God is Goodness, Mercy, Compassion, and Hope. I believe that humanity has souls and these souls are the unseen places where God exists within us. I believe God gave us Free Will and that we choose our actions. We may be inspired, but ultimately we decide what we will do. I believe that God is not a grand Puppet Master – controlling neither human behavior, nor the weather. I believe that both bad things can happen to good people and good things can happen to bad people – but in either case – God isn’t to be blamed.

I believe in miracles, I have seen them. I believe in prayer, I have had them heard. I believe in karma, I have experienced it from both directions. I believe that souls continue to exist after the body dies, although, I take a “wait and see” attitude before I can give any definite answers about the afterlife business. Because of Fred the cat, I could believe in reincarnation. I want to believe that there is Heaven because I like the idea of it so much and it makes me happy to think I’ll be reunited with my loved ones again. I don’t believe in Hell as a location but I know that if it is and I end up there, I will know many, many people.

I believe in showing up, speaking up, and standing up for what will help make a situation better for someone. I believe it is never too late to do the right thing.

I believe in the healing powers of a hot bath and a good laugh.

I believe that we are our own saviors. We can create and live in our own Heavens or Hells. I believe that God is known through mediation, prayer, experiencing nature, acts of kindness, bravery, listening to music, and living with a dog.   I believe in Hard Work and Happy Endings.

I believe that are many roads that lead to Holiness and that I shouldn’t be too quick to judge others whose paths are different path than mine. Except for the cults and the crazies, those I judge because those aren’t true paths to holiness and destroy more than they create.

I believe somehow Love weaves everyone together.EndCap2

Cowgirl Strong

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“Cowgirl is an attitude, really; a pioneer spirit, a special American breed of courage. The cowgirl faces life head on, lives by her own lights and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands. They speak up. They defend the things they hold dear.  A cowgirl might be a rancher, or a barrel racer, or an actress.  But she’s just as likely to be a checker at the local Winn Dixie, a full-time mother, a banker, an attorney, or an astronaut.” 

Dale Evans was a hell of a gal! She was a progressive thinker for her time. She knew women were strong and capable. She and Buttercup were always second to Roy and Trigger and there’s no doubt that she was paid less, too. Not only was she a great beauty, but I also suspect that she was the brains behind the success of her husband, Roy Rogers.

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Howdy World!

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Well, well, well, look at who has joined the Blogging Community…ME!

This is my first effort, so mistakes will be made.  That’s just too damn bad.  Luckily, I can use commas and apostrophes along with the best of them, so your pain will not be too great.  Also, I will correctly use the words “their”, “they’re” and “there”.  You’re welcome! 

What’s with all the horse talk?  Like every female in my age bracket, I LOVE horses. What is that age bracket, you ask?  None of your damn business.  You’ll be able to get a good enough idea of my generation by what and how I write.  Oh, back to the horses…

I have been fascinated by the grace, power and beauty of horses my entire life. Although I am a city dweller, I crave being outdoors.  I find myself drawn to the image (get it?) of horses running and the freedom that expresses.  So, too my thoughts will gallop across this blog.

I hope you will ride along with me!

My Muse

My Muse, Lucas