Wednesday, 23 November 2011


 It was this time last week that I lost a dear friend.  Whenever the subject line of an email is a person's name, particularly their full name, it isn't going to be good news.  Even so, I had to read it several times before it soaked in that my friend Joanne had died.  Yes, the Jo that commented on this blog, along with  her husband, Rick.

I'd not known of her diagnosis with breast cancer.  As the daughter of a cancer survivor I can believe that she was confident that she, too, would 'beat' it.  From what Rick says, I can't tell whether it was the cancer or the aggressive chemo that killed her, but in either case her passing has come as a very sad surprise.

Joanne was my oldest friend.  She knew me when I was a newlywed - the first time.  She knew me before I had haircuts.  She knew me before I had a college degree.  We stayed in touch for over 30 years, in spite of two big moves, across four and a half thousand miles.  Part of my history has vanished.

Bonnie, Joanne, Shelley, Rita
Yes, I know my eyes are closed, but this is Joanne's prettiest smile. 

We met when I was in my early 20s and had taken an exciting new job as a secretary.  I'd practiced my typing on a broken down second-hand typewriter for months to pass the test that would allow me to escape being a filing clerk.  Joanne worked in the office down the hall and our bosses both reported to the same woman.   She was a Northerner from Duluth, so not as in-your-face-outgoing as some of us Southerners; it took a while to get to know her.  At some point we started having our morning coffee break together and we carried on doing so for the next seven years.  Longer than the allotted 15 minute breaks, I must admit; our jobs were so soft back then!  So long as the work got done on time and everyone else got their breaks, no one much cared.  We talked about work, about family, shared our love of needlework, brainstormed solutions to various problems, swapped recipes.   Neither of us ever had children of our own and though we both grumbled about the trials of ex-wives and step-children, I give her full credit for sticking the course when I did not. For her perseverance, she enjoyed a more-than-20-year marriage and got the pleasure of three grand daughters.

Amazing how young we all looked, not to mention thin.  On reflection, the
hat was  probably a mistake, but the least of mistakes I made on the day.

When I mentioned being afraid of my dentist, she sent me to her brother-in-law, my first experience of pain-free dentistry.  I sent her to a great hair-dresser, at least until he became too expensive for either of us.  She 'listened me' through my first divorce and she told me about her first husband having ending his own life several years before she and I met.   She gave me a bunch of pillow cases she no longer used, having embroidered them with 'Mr & Mrs', wedding bells and other similar patterns.  I never minded that they were hand-me-downs but appreciated the neatness of her needlework.  (When I first took up cross-stitch she told me the back of my project was the biggest mess she ever saw; I took more pains after that!)  When I used her pillow cases I always thought about how hard her experience must have been and it made whatever I was disgruntled about seem a minor thing.  

Joanne was part of my second wedding and I was part of hers.  I still have the yellow porcelain rose she gave me on the occasion of her marriage to Rick.  It was not long after then that I changed jobs from being a secretary to being a professional.  Over the nine years of night school in which I finished both a bachelors and a master's degree, Joanne listened to me talk about my coursework and applauded my good grades.  My new job only took me one floor away, but I rarely had a coffee break anymore; if I did, I arranged to meet up with Joanne.    It was a real loss, not visiting with her daily, but I chalked it up to the cost of moving up in the world.

When I was leaving Oklahoma City for Salt Lake, I had an open house one day and called it a 'house cooling'.  My reasoning was that after two yard sales I still had loads of stuff still to get rid of and why not give it to people who came to say good-bye.  It seemed a good idea at the time, opposite to a house 'warming' where people brought one gifts.  Joanne was one of the few people who got lucky; she let me know she liked the knitting magazines she found in her take away bag. 

We exchanged small Christmas presents for several years. I think of my Mom when I put her Christmas ornaments on my tree each year. I also think of Joanne when I add the ones she made. Ever practical, they were plastic cross-stitched kits that posted well and arrived intact.   Joanne and her sister-in-law Nancy came over to England to visit not long after I moved here, when London was still an exciting place for me. They had the Tube figured out better on their own than I could explain it. I remember visiting the Portobello Road market and wandering a bit too far before I realised that dusk approached and I didn't like the area at all. In spite of being tired we all managed to walk a fair clip back to a more comfortable neighbourhood.

How does one characterise a friendship?  What are the gradations that apply:  closest, longest, most reliable, funniest, most interesting?   Joanne saw me through some of my most turbulent years.  I never knew her to be anything other than kind (except maybe about that cross-stitch).   Someone has described Joanne as 'gracious' and it's an excellent word for her.  She was always a calming and steady presence, ready to listen and ready to laugh.  She had a lovely laugh that made me feel I'd scored points if I gave her cause for it; we were both very serious by nature and any giggles that came along were better than champagne bubbles. 

I keep telling myself we weren't really that close, never on the phone to each other daily, never in and out of each other's houses, we sometimes went months without contact.  I shouldn't be that upset about her passing.  It hasn't worked. I've still soaked most of my hankerchiefs and lacked the energy to get on with anything useful for much of the past week.

These sorts of surprises tend to make me want to pat the ground around me, to make sure it's still there; to cast around to family and friends to make sure they are still there.  It wasn't but 10 days before her passing that I accidently sent an email to Joanne my friend, instead of Joanne my cousin, and got it back with a note telling about her Christmas baking plans.  I guess it was all a surprise for her, too.

I'm sad too, silly as it sounds, because I've lost not so much a faithful reader as a member of my mental audience.  Joanne was one of the people I always had in mind when writing here, sharing photos and such.  Whatever I publish from here on, it will be with some sadness that I didn't get to share it with Joanne.

Of course, however I feel about it, my loss is nothing compared with that of her husband, her mother, her siblings.   There will be the many people at the Monaco RV rallys throughout the Midwestern States who will be also be surprised and very sad to hear of her passing.  There are any number of people about whose death I would not have been surprised to hear; Joanne certainly wasn't on that list.  It just goes to show that we can never know which leaf clings tightest to the tree or which will next fall.    

So, what to do?  Not much I can do at this distance.  Contact another old friend in Oklahoma who still working our our old office; donate to the American Cancer Society as requested;  visit Joanne's Facebook page and save some more recent photos of her (whatever happens to FB accounts when they are dormant?); copy and save the obituary that appeared in the Oklahoma newspaper; keep in touch with Rick. 

Go for a walk around Tynemouth with a British friend I've known for most of my years here and enjoy her company, the fresh air and the beautiful autumn scenery.  Do the long list of things that are in front of me every day and even more so this time of year.  Wait for the healing that time and acceptance will eventually bring.

My friend Joanne with Buddy Joe, who also misses her.


Lindsay said...

so sorry for your loss. she sounds like a wonderful person.

Mary Beth said...

Condolences to you, Shelley. I have faced some terrible, horrific, losses and yet I still can't advise on handling grief. It's so different for each event and each person. I was just thinking of another friend who lost a special friend last week, too. I found this link for her. It might help you, too.

Take good care of yourself first and foremost.

Shelley said...

Lindsay - Hello there, lovely to hear from you. Joanne was exceptional and I'm lucky to have known her.

Mary Beth - Thanks so much for dropping by. That website you recommended looks wonderful. I shall certainly be recommending it to others as well.

Rick Stone said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I had managed to make it almost a whole day without crying but your beautiful words started the tears again. I ordered a headstone today and went back down to the cemetery to see how they had finished up the grave. After a week Buddy Joe and Bridgit Jeane are still looking for her.

Thank you for contacting Jan. She is mailing you a copy of the handout I had made up to give out at the service yesterday. (Burial was a private affair last Saturday.) Many people from the Health Dept was there, including Edd Rhodes. There is a new picture of her on my blog, at least one I had not used before.

Rick Stone said...

Sorry, but I have to add. I love these pictures you posted. The first ones were what Jo looked like when I first met her. The last picture was taken in her native Duluth, Minnesota, in front of Lake Superior.

Shelley said...

Rick, I'm so glad you like what I wrote. It costs me a lot to write it, but it was my way of saying good-bye since I couldn't be with you all.

Jane said...

Oh Shelley!
Havn't caught up with your blog for a while, so sorry to read of the passing of your friend. Dear friends keep us going, even if you dont see them or contact them all the time, you know they are there. So now there is just a blank space filled with sadness. You only have the blessing of remembering and reflecting on the fun, the friendship and support, which though great is not enough. Love and prayers. Jane

Sandra said...

Shelley, I am so sorry for the loss of your very dear and special friend Joanne. You have written a beautiful tribute to your friendship and sharing of life's milestones. I pray your grief will be replaced daily with the memories of joy that filled your times together. Joanee was, no doubt, blessed to call you friend as well. I love the pictures you have shared.