My best friend, Donna, passed away two years ago tomorrow, and her struggle with life in her last few years is what inspired me to start writing my first novel, THE TO-HELL-AND-BACK CLUB.
If Donna was alive today, she’d have been well-qualified to join that fictitious club! Below is a condensed version of what I read at her funeral. I’d like to share the kind of person Donna was—the person I was lucky enough to call my best friend.
I met Donna thirty years ago when our husbands played on the local men’s softball team. We were both new to our small town, and instantly connected. We shared the joys of motherhood, the sadness of leaving our girlfriends behind from where we’d moved, and our feeling overwhelmed at times in our mid-twenties with businesses to run and young kids to raise. Donna became the sister I never had.
I remember when she first got Leukemia, twenty-five years ago. I got a call at work, telling me Donna would likely not survive the day. Hah, those Doctors didn’t know Donna! As bleak as her outcome looked for a long time after that, what pulled her through were their young sons. She didn’t want anyone else raising them and fought like crazy to get better.
Donna had many good years after that and we had a lot of good times. Not only did we take trips as couples, going fishing, snowmobiling and even to the Cayman Islands, but Donna and I went on well over two dozen trips with our friends Sandy and Sharon. Those trips cemented a bond between us four like nothing else could.
Donnas’ determination and strong will could be frustrating at times, especially these last years when she was suffering physically and emotionally. Many of us felt upset that we couldn’t help her—she wasn’t admitting she needed help and sure wasn't allowing us to help. That determination of hers showed through right to the end though when her husband was trying to feed her the night before she passed away. Even though Donna could no longer open her eyes, had trouble moving, and was fading in and out… big surprise, she insisted on feeding herself. I watched her husband put the spoon in her hand and hold the bowl up to her, allowing Donna the little bit of control she had left of her life.
That same night, when I walked in the bedroom to visit her, she said weakly, “Well, Jill, I have some good news and some bad news.”
I laughed through my tears and said, “Really, Donna, what possible good news could you have at this point?”
“I’m still alive.” She replied. Positive to the very end.
When I think of what drew me to Donna the list is short but important: She had a good sense of humor, was nice, thoughtful, a very loyal friend and a great listener. And she was a great cheerleader, always encouraging me to do things even if she couldn’t make herself do them. Friendships usually have their ebb and flow times, but in the end, I always think of a particular situation I had with Donna years ago when three of us couples went to the Cayman Islands.
There was a storm brewing one day, and the beach was clearing out quickly. The dark waves got bigger and bigger, and although just about everyone else had the common sense to leave the beach, the six of us were young and foolish. I’m pretty sure it was the men’s idea to try swimming into the gigantic waves. So we did. The men went out as far as they could, Donna, our friend Denise, and me stayed closer to shore.
It didn’t matter. Those rolling waves and undercurrent knocked us down time and time again as we tried holding hands and standing up. We had sand packed into every crevice of our body from the strong force of the storm but it didn’t bother us, we were having fun. I was a little nervous since both Denise and Donna confessed they weren’t exactly strong swimmers. I can’t tell you how many times our legs got knocked out from underneath us, and I had one of them on each side as I tried to drag their laughing, sorry, bodies closer to safety.
Just as I was thinking we’ve got to stop this before someone gets hurt, a fierce wave knocked me down, sucked under and away from Denise and Donna as the undercurrent pulled me out. I was sure that was it for me! Suddenly I felt arms fumbling around me, reaching for me and dragging me to safety. Donna and Denise, the not-so-strong swimmers, had managed to get to me and pull me in. Just like friends do, reaching for each other when they're down, when waves of life threaten to destroy us, girlfriends have a strength that rivals the ocean to reach out and keep us from drowning, lifting us back up when we need it most. I’ll always wish I could have done that more for Donna.