Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break. ~ William Shakespeare
I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately. Finding the courage to start this blog came, in large measure, due to the memory of my friend Lara.
How do I describe my friend Lara (or as I called her, “My La”), to you? For some people, words simply aren’t enough; but I will try, for My La is worth the effort. Fair warning: this post is LONG. Really long. But when you are writing to honor someone’s life, ample time must be granted. Shortcuts are insulting. Brevity is offensive. So find a comfy corner. Stretch your attention span. Grab a libation and settle in for what I hope will be a special encounter between you and my friend Lara.
Lara and I met in college. This is us on campus, celebrating the first blooms of spring. She’s in pink. I’m in yellow.
This is what I wish you to know about her:
Lara was the personification of these words: strong, bold, passionate, sassy, confident, beautiful, smart, moxie, fiery.
Have you ever ACTUALLY seen a woman STRUT? Well, if you’d known Lara you would have. Lara didn’t walk, she sort of rolled, sauntered, cruised. Indeed, it was a strut. With her shoulders thrown back, her long brown hair flowing and her cowboy boots pounding the ground with sass and frass, Lara was one of the most dazzlingly self-aware, dazzling, empowered, wise women I’ve ever known. These are NOT adjectives often used to describe a young woman in college. For most of us it takes another 20 years, IF we are lucky, for even one of these superlatives to be ascribed to us. But not Lara. She had it DOWN, even back then.
Lara was no joke. She knew who she was and she never compromised herself. She didn’t suffer from that often female habit of worrying what people thought of her or if they liked her, for Miss Thang knew that if they didn’t like her, well then screw ‘em. They had no sense. HA! I loved that about her.
Lara was a bad-ass…in the best sense of the word.
Lara was fierce and fearless. Period.
Lara carried a flask and could drink anyone under the table. Vodka and Cranberry. Jack and Jim, Daniels and Beam. Pick your poison. You’ve lost before you even started.
Lara could have been a professional pool player. She was THAT good.
Lara knew her power as a woman. She embraced that power and never made excuses or tried to diminish it. She owned it. Powerful stuff for a doll so young.
Lara reminded me, physically, of the actress Ellen Barkin. She had a slight Presley-esque lopsided curl to her upper lip. Her eyes crinkled when she smiled. She had that type of confidence and presence that a truly beautiful woman possesses, even though she wasn’t what you’d call a classic beauty. There is also a bit of the country music star Gretchen Wilson in her too. That no-nonsense, down-to-earth, no BS, don’t MAKE me slap you with my words, cowgirl in My La.
But the truth is that Lara’s deepest beauty was to be found in her passion, her heart, her words and her truth. And in the way she loved. Lara loved hard. Her friends. Her family. Her lovers.
Some of my favorite Lara memories are of her strutting into the college pub where the pool tables were, that sly-sexy-lopsided smile of hers powered at 1000, daring the boys to challenge her to a game. And they always did. Silly boys. How could they resist this Southern Belle whose slight southern drawl belied her kick-ass ways? How could they resist her sparking eyes and golden skin and her, “Come on. You know you want to” gaze? And while they were spinning in her glory, falling dizzy hard for her wit and charm and beauty, she was kicking their A**ES at pool. Poor boys. They never had a chance. Never knew what hit them. We, her friends, would just sit back and enjoy the show. And that girl knew how to put on a show.
Lara was a brilliant writer. Poetry was her true love. It’s what she studied in school and was her life’s work. Her book of poetry was published posthumously; a copy signed by her mother is one of my most treasured possessions. Her appreciation for words was not reserved for just the union between pen and paper but also, and this was my fav part, it fueled her gift for being able to ZING someone with a well-placed “BOOM-on-no-she-DIDN’T-just-say-that.”
Lara did not suffer fools lightly. And why should she? You had to be on your game to keep up with her; to be her friend; to earn her respect. Not everyone may have appreciated THAT side to her, as is often the case with strong, outspoken, confident women. She could be intimidating. For ME, it was what I loved most about her. Her fierce commitment to the truth. Her willingness to go cowboy boot toe to toe with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Brash? Maybe, at times. But always honest and always fair and always with that devilish twinkle in her eye that let you know that SHE knew it was never a fair fight. She won just by strutting into the room.
Let’s be clear: Lara’s fierceness was NEVER mean spirited or hurtful. She simply walked, nay, strutted, in the truth. And as we know, the truth can hurt. But at her core, Lara was one of the most thoughtful, sensitive, loving, caring people I knew. Like all of us, Lara had her insecurities too. I consider it a true honor that I was one of the few people allowed to see that side of her, for it only added to the amazing grace that was her heart, spirit and inner twinkle.
One Halloween our group of friends decided to dress up as one another. There was NO question as to WHO would go as Lara: Me. We shared the same thick brown waist length hair and passion for wearing one too many bracelets. I borrowed one of her signature thrift-store dresses and practiced my best lip curl. “Being Lara” was a blast. I walked a bit taller (even tho I was in fact already taller than her in actual inches to begin with). There may have even been some strutting going on. I’m pretty sure I even had some swagger. Being Lara meant that I knew my power, my grace, my beauty, my strength. I felt like a superhero! And even when the dress came off, returned to its owner and I was back to being me, the essence of Lara remained with me. Once you’d experienced the “World According to Lara”, it’s not possible to go back to being a mere mortal. Now that I think of it, Lara didn’t go as any of us that Halloween. I’m sure it would have been a letdown for her. I’m still not sure WHO she was supposed to be. Based on her all black military MTV rocker chic ensemble, my best guess is that she was an extra from the Rhythm Nation. She was about two years ahead of that nation actually being formed by Miss Jackson.
Lara was always one of my biggest cheerleaders in college. She was always telling me how amazing she thought I was, how beautiful and strong and smart I was in her eyes. My guess is that this is not the norm for most young women in college. I hope I am wrong though. To have a gal pal who is supportive and encouraging and nurturing, who sees the best in us and demands that we live up to that expectation, is indeed a gift I wish for all young women.
The truth is, just by being my friend, Lara made me feel special. Because she had such high standards in terms of people and who she chose to spend her time with, I felt that by her claiming me as one of her nearest and dearest, it was PROOF that I was worthy. Lara’s closest friend in college was Leigh. I often felt like I was the kid sister, tagging along with the older cool girls on campus (even though we were all just months apart in age and I was a good few inches taller – lol). Lucky me, to be part of this fabulous trio! Leigh and Lara. Lara and Leigh. Always together.
Lara and Leigh graduated a year before me (I had taken a year off between high school and college and thus was a year behind them). I remember feeling so lost without them my senior year. It was a year that brought many challenges my way on campus and every day I wished that they were still there with me to support and bolster me during some of my darkest moments.
As is often the case with life and friends, we went our separate ways after college. Leigh to NY, Lara home to North Carolina and I to Europe for work and then back to SF. Leigh and Lara for sure stayed in touch. Lara and I exchanged many lengthy hand written letters over the years. 10-12 pagers. An art form we both savored. In the late 90’s, Lara invited me to her wedding. I didn’t go because of same lame reason. Probably work or money or just being so wrapped up in my own life. I regret that decision now. I figured I’d have time to visit with her…one day…someday.
It was through Leigh, around 2007, I would learn Lara had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I remember Leigh saying, “I know she would love to hear from you”. I KNEW I should call Lara; I knew I should reach out. But I didn’t. I simply couldn’t bear it. I’d never been faced with a situation like that with someone so close to me. And in this first test of, “Lulu, what are you REALLY made of?” I failed. I didn’t know what to say to her. I didn’t want to hear weakness or pain in her voice; in the voice of someone I remembered as being so strong and powerful and effervescent. I was afraid I would fall apart on the phone, break down in sobs, and make her feel worse. I didn’t want her to have to end up comforting me. I didn’t trust myself to be able to sound happy and positive. I was simply afraid of her illness. It paralyzed me into non-action.
The real truth is this: I didn’t want the first time we’d spoken since college to be because she might be dying. I convinced myself that if I didn’t call her it would mean that nothing had changed; if we didn’t talk about her illness then maybe that meant she wasn’t actually sick. And so time went by, and as more time went by I thought, “Well, I can’t call NOW. How am I going to explain not calling the minute I learned she was ill?” I thought, “Well, she’ll get better and I’ll call her THEN”. So I waited. And I never called. I continued to send holiday cards as did she, neither of is mentioning her illness, but I will never forgive myself for not being there for her in her time of need. I knew that she knew I loved her and I even imagined that she understood my silence (later her husband would confirm that for me) but I made the mistake putting my OWN issues with her illness ahead of doing the right thing. I regret my behavior with all of my heart and soul. It’s a regret that doubles me over in brutal shame and disgrace to this day. I was not the friend I would have wanted someone to be to me. I was not the friend she deserved.
When I learned from Leigh in May of 2011 that Lara had taken a turn for the worse and was in hospice care, I literally fell to the ground and cried for three days and nights. My body ached from crying. Grief raged inside of me. I wanted to rip the world to shreds and throw it at the sun till it burned into little pieces. I was having trouble just catching my breath. A few times I collapsed on the floor, rocking back and forth, sobbing, banging my fists against my legs.
A few days later, late in the evening, came word that Lara had taken her last breath. It was in the form of a slightly cryptic email, the sender clearly not feeling able to just say it clearly. I had to ask them by reply, “Can you be clear? Is she gone? Has she died?”. It was brutal. My first reaction was a heaving gut-wrenching howl that ripped through my body. I flung myself across my bed and buried my cries into my pillow and pounded the bed with my fists. And then it started to rain…a rain that was not in the forecast. I sat up on my bed and looked out my window up at the dark black sky. I saw a cloud pass in front of the moon. I felt a wash of calm come over me. A clarity of mind and spirit. And peace. And then the cloud passed and the rain stopped. I am not religious but it was what I imagine many who are describe as a sign from above that all is as it should be. It was the most astonishing occurrence. Lara was gone, the skies cried and for the first time in 3 days, I was at peace…at least for a while. Proof positive that in death, as in life, Lara’s power and light remained steady and strong. I’ve no doubt that cloud and those few minutes of rain were Lara, making her entrance, strutting on in and causing a seismic shift and making everyone take notice.
Lara was 45 when she died. She doubled the life expectancy the doctors gave her. I’m not surprised. Not one damn bit and yet, how can it be that a woman so vibrant and strong and committed to life, so full of gusto and swagger and saunter and kick-ass awesomeness was GONE?
Lara left behind a loving and devoted husband, and two children, age 12 and age 8 at the time of her death. They are blessed to have her blood fueling their hearts. She was a warrior for her friends so you can only imagine what type of devotion and pride she felt for her children.
Now it’s just Leigh and Me. I imagine that every conversation, every hug, every laugh and giggle, every glass raised, every memory recalled, from now until forever, will start and end with our La as its glorious centerpiece.
Lara’s birthday falls within a day or two of Thanksgiving every year. I think that is fitting. I am forever thankful for my dear, sweet, shining, gorgeous, proud, talented, loving friend. I am eternally thankful for her cowboy boot strutting, poetry writing, sassing and frassing, pool playing, flask carrying, badass ways. She died three days before my birthday. That seems fitting too. A reminder as I gripe about getting older that I am blessed to be able to see another year, a blessing My La was stripped of.
I am not one who believes that everything happens for a reason. Sure, it’s a noble notion but until someone can explain to me why death comes early for some, I’m not buying it. However, I DO believe everything that happens has a lesson in it. For me, the death of Lara has taught me, in a brutal knife to the heart lesson, that life is short. Tomorrow is not promised. Make an effort to stay in touch with those you love beyond holiday cards. Pick up the phone. Send them a card, an email. Make time NOW. Don’t wait for a special occasion. End every conversation with, “I love you”. Don’t let time get away. Nothing is more important than nurturing the relationships with those you love. Nothing. And when someone you love is sick, don’t worry about how it affects YOU. Don’t get tangled up in YOUR issues and how hard it is for YOU. That is the height of selfishness and hubris. Get over yourself and pick up the damn phone. I have learned these lessons the hard way. Please don’t make the same mistakes I did. I challenge you to think of someone you’ve been meaning to call, write, reach out to and do it NOW. Right now. Let them know you are thinking of them. Now. Do it. Have courage.
I write now for Lara because she no longer can. Her memory guides my pen. Her life gives me the words. Her death gives me the courage…because I now understand how precious time is and how fragile life is.
Dear sweet friend, Lara, I miss you to the moon and back a thousand times. With passion, truth, conviction and beauty, you ruled the world. With grace, courage, dignity and a fist bump to the rain clouds, you departed. While those who knew and loved you feel as if we may never smile again, all we have to do is think of you, our La, our favorite memories of yesteryear or simply gaze at your photo or sing your sweet name and slowly the smiles will come, the heart will mend and the love that is you, our La, will renew, restore and guide us back to happiness.
So raise your glass (Beam or Daniels if you dare) and join me in a toast to My La. Forever may she strut! xo lulu
She is Gone
You can shed tears that she is gone,
or you can smile because she has lived.
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back,
or you can open your eyes and see all she’s left.
Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her,
or you can be full of the love you shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.
You can remember her only that she is gone,
or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind,
be empty and turn your back.
Or you can do what she’d want:
smile, open your eyes, love and go on. ~ David Harkins