Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Runaround Sue

I met Tammy in 1st grade and we hit it off immediately. We lived in a small neighborhood with it’s own elementary school and everyone walked. Some days I would walk home for lunch and Tammy would go with me. Other times, she’d come over after school to play. We were inseparable back then – if you saw one of us, the other was sure to be nearby. We giggled and talked and sent notes to boys – the “Do you like me? Check yes/no/maybe” variety. Sometimes we had to sit on opposites sides of the room so we couldn’t chatter away during class, but it never really stopped us. We learned the sign language alphabet and kept on talking, albeit silently.

We both loved to read, even at such an early age, and we could often be found in the school library, both of us engrossed in books, not talking to each other (it was the only time we were silent), but even then, a bond was evident.

The first time I ever got in trouble in school, Tammy was there. It was in first grade and we were outside at recess, standing by one of the big gray metal doors and talking about books or boys or sleepover parties. We noticed that some kids had carved their names in the paint of the door, and we thought it would be a great idea to do the same. We found a pop-top nearby (remember those?) and got started. Of course, carving our names wasn’t enough. We wanted to really make a statement. That statement? “Gina and Tammy love Donny Osmond.” We got as far as Gina and Tammy love Donny before the principal, Mrs. Carson caught us. We had to go to her office and get a lecture about damaging property, but nothing worse – we were still young enough not to know better. When she caught us, though, a boy named Donny was standing nearby and she naturally assumed that he was involved. I can remember sitting in her office, Tammy and I as cool as cucumbers and Donny crying hysterically. For some reason, he was wearing a big sombrero edged in little red pom-poms and I can remember Tammy and I looking at each other and trying not to laugh as those pom-poms shook while he cried.

We were two peas in a pod, and looking back, I am sometimes surprised that I wasn’t jealous of Tammy. She was the one that all the boys wanted and all the girls wanted to be. She was tiny and blond and cute. We used to play Wizard of Oz at recess and Tammy always got to be Dorothy. She was always picked first for things. She was loved. But I never felt like second fiddle with Tammy – we were too close for that.

As we got older, Tammy kept her title of The Cute One. She was a princess without the attitude. She was the first to get boobs, the first to get her period, the first to have a boyfriend. She educated the rest of us in all things womanly. While she often had the boys attention, she never wanted it all for herself. She was always making matches, diverting some boy’s attention from her to one of her friends. She truly wanted everyone to be happy.

She was there for most of the milestones of my life. She fixed me up with my first boyfriend. She gave me advice on my first kiss. She covered for me when I needed her to. As we got older, we stayed close and our interests stayed the same. We still loved to read and constantly traded books. We wrote bad poetry and cried on each other’s shoulder. On my 13th birthday, she bought me my fist diary and I still remember how much I loved it. It wasn’t anything I ever thought I wanted, but it was one of the best gifts I ever got. She knew me.

In high school we drifted a bit. We stayed friends, but not best friends. We started hanging out with slightly different crowds. She was a cheerleader. I was a majorette. Her new best friend was a Mean Girl type and sometimes Tammy got caught up in that. But mainly, we stayed pretty close.

We had times when things got between us. The biggest was that she was Eric’s prom date. She was one of the girls that believed the worst of me. Actually, she never really accused me of anything, like some others did, but she never defended me either. Or even asked my side. It took me a whole to forgive that, but forgive her I did. I started to realize that even thought Tammy seemed to be the It Girl, she was just as insecure and wounded as the rest of us, if not more. As we got older, I realized that her life was different than mine in ways you don’t see when you are a child.

The other big thing that came between us was a boy. I started dating Bill during our senior year. Bill and Tammy were very good friends. It didn’t’ bother me, though – one of my own best friends, Milo, was a boy. What did bother me was that Tammy seemed territorial about Bill. And she seemed to want to rub their friendship in my face. Her locker was exactly opposite of mine – they were back to back. I couldn’t see her, but I could hear her. And she knew it. So she was always saying, “Biiiiilllll this” and “Biiiiillll that.” Her mother did some sewing and she fixed Bill’s jacket. And Tammy waited until Bill was scheduled to be out of school for a wrestling match and she wore it! Bill was actually pretty mad at her for that. Not that she wore it, but what she was implying. He always made it clear to me that they were just friends, and I believed him. I had no reason not to – if we weren’t in school, or at sporting events, or sleeping, we were together. There was no opportunity. And also – I truly trusted him, and he trusted me. It was then that I started feeling a little sorry for Tammy. I knew that her insecurities were driving her behavior, but it still hurt that someone I was once so close to was trying to hurt me. Of course, we still hadn’t totally recovered from the Eric thing, so I’m sure that didn’t help either.

It was a while before we really got past it. We were still nice to each other, we talked and laughed and danced and partied, but it wasn’t the same until the following year. I was home from college and so was Milo, so I went to his house for the evening. It turned into an impromptu party and Tammy showed up. After we had a few beers and got to talking, we realized how stupid it was to throw away a friendship like ours and we made up for real. I didn’t see her much, since I was away, but when I came home, we usually ended up together at some point.

After I left partyschool and moved home for a semester, I saw Tammy regularly. She and my friends Tee and Amos and I used to go out every weekend. Even after I moved to the city, I used to come home often and we’d all hit the clubs. It was around this time that something about Tammy started to change. She wasn’t the happy-go-lucky girl we always knew. She became very quiet, and seemed depressed. She didn’t smile much and she sighed a lot. She lost the sparkle in her eye. She always seemed distracted. Her movements became slow.

We all wondered what was going on and worried about her constantly. We didn’t know if there was something secret going on in her life that made her so depressed. When we asked, she claimed everything was normal and she was fine.

After a while, her parents took her to a psychiatrist and she ended up on anti-depressants. We kept waiting for them to kick in, but they never did. We kept worrying and she kept insisting she was fine. But she wasn’t fine. She was very much not fine. It turned out that Tammy had a brain tumor and that was the reason for her behavior change.

It was unfathomable to us. Sure – people get cancer, people get brain tumors, but not the people you know. Not the people you love. Not beautiful, sparkling, happy girls in their early twenties. Not Tammy.

We couldn’t believe it and we didn’t know how to deal with it. We didn’t know what to do or what to say. At first, I think we all acted like nothing was wrong, but it was Tammy who changed that. She knew that we could not continue normally because things weren’t normal. She introduced us to the big, nasty, son-of-a-bitch of an elephant in the room and only then were we able to be as normal as we were going to get.

We still got together and went out to eat and went dancing – Tammy always liked oldies and we’d be the youngest ones in the room. But in between, there were surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy. We laughed about our lives and jobs and stupid guys. And Tammy helped us laugh at cancer and wigs and turbans. When I went to visit her in the hospital after an only somewhat successful surgery, it was Tammy who made me feel better and not vice versa. But once she got me past the initial shock of what I was seeing, and once she made me realize that it was OK to feel like I did and OK that I could do nothing, she helped me realize that I could help – by telling her stories and dirty jokes and making fun of the nurses and making vaguely pornographic balloon animals from latex gloves.

It was shortly after that surgery that it became clear that there was little else to be done for Tammy. Part of the tumor was inoperable and no amount of chemo or radiation would help it. There were some fundraisers to help pay for some new experimental and herbal type treatments, but it was around this time that Tammy started talking about dying. No one knew what to say or how to react, but we all realized that she was dealing with things the best she could. In the beginning, we all played the “think positive, you’ll get better” game, but eventually we just listened to her and watched her get more fragile and then called each other afterwards and cried.

Tammy’s last birthday was September 23rd, 1991. She was twenty-three.

There was a big birthday party that year – a rented hall, food, cake, gifts and a DJ. So many people came and Tammy was thrilled. The atmosphere was a happy one, but it was almost a desperate happiness. We all knew deep down that we were celebrating more than just her birthday that night – we were celebrating her life. We were happy and sad and confused and angry. But mostly we were happy because Tammy was happy. The DJ played lots of oldies for Tammy and we danced the night away. The very last dance I shared with Tammy was to the song Runaround Sue. To this day when I hear that song, my heart breaks a little. But every September 23rd, I listen to it nonetheless, to remember that night, all of us spinning each other around the dance floor, everyone laughing while, for the couple of minutes while that song played, we forgot what was coming.

It came not long after that night. It came too soon. Years and years too soon. And even though we were prepared for it, we weren’t ready. You’re never ready.

Happy 40th Birthday, Tammy. I hope you’re dancing…

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Irene said...

Wow, what a sweet and touching and heartbreaking story. You wrote an amazing and honest tribute to your friend. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Carol said...

That was absolutely beautiful.

Magical Balloon-dude Dale said...

The story touched my heart.

Glowstars said...

That was honest, and beautiful and touched my heart.

meno said...

how sweet. Thanks for sharing that story.

I am a Tornado ~ proven fact! said...

That was very sad, and beautiful.

Thanks for sharing.

Amy said...

I actually heard the song after reading this post last week and I got teary.

old man neill said...

Beautiful story...very touching.