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Marilyn

Since the COVID-19 Pandemic started in the last few weeks, I had not talked to Marilyn, my dear friend in California who had cancer.

“Hey girl, are you under house arrest?” I laughed.

“Judy, I’m in hospice at home for a week now. Both my sisters are here, and Katie is here with my two grandkids. They take turns sleeping with me. I have a bed set up in the great room. John still sleeps upstairs.”

Marilyn talked without taking a breath, as I tried to absorb all that she said.

“So, you’re in hospice? I thought you were in treatment at UCI Medical.”

“Yes. I love my doctor. He’s been great, but he said the chemo was making it worse, and I should go home. He told me there’s no cure, and he talked to Katie and John, and now everyone is on the same page. I’m in fifth stage hospice, so I can call a staff of people 24/7 who come to take care of me or be with me.”

Marilyn’s voice was animated, almost excited.

“They asked if I wanted a chaplain. I couldn’t think who I wanted to talk to—maybe an Indian Gandhi type. What would he say?

I laughed, remembering Marilyn went on spiritual retreats over the years.

“You know I’ve always been interested in different religions. Then I said, ‘Send me a rabbi.’”

“You asked for a rabbi?”

“And, Judy, she came today, a lady rabbi from L.A., and she was great. She told me her whole story, and I asked her to sing two songs that I knew from the Jewish religion.”

“The Mi Shebeirach,” I said. “The prayer for healing.”

“Yes,” Marilyn said. “She told me there is a sect of Jewish people who believe in the afterlife, and another group who don’t.”

I knew she was talking about the Messianic Jews, also known as Jews for Jesus, of which I am not one.

“Do you have a church, Marilyn? Didn’t Katie go to Trinity Methodist Preschool when my kids went to Temple Bat Yahm?” I asked.

“Yes, but we never went to church. I just didn’t believe it. I grew up Methodist, but I never went back,” she told me.

“Judy, I’m afraid of the darkness,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“You know… at the end,” she said.

“The rabbi told me that I have experienced the darkness before and to think back when it went black. And, Judy, remember when I was on that weird diet when I didn’t eat all day for weeks?”

“Yes.” I laughed. “You only drank chicken broth, and when you went out to dinner with Karen and me, you drank a beer, but you didn’t eat. You were worried that people would think you were eccentric because you didn’t eat. Remember what I said?”

“Yes. You said they don’t care.”

We laughed, and it felt good to laugh at the morbidity.

“But, Judy, it would go black sometimes.”

“It did? Because you didn’t have enough fuel?”

“Yes. So I remember the black, and I’m not afraid of it anymore because I know it.”

“Wow,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

She wanted to talk about dying and transitioning, but I didn’t know how. I just listened to her voice, enjoying her words over the phone. I wanted to be there to comfort her, but I lived across the country in Georgia.

“Judy, you remember Jennifer. You got into a fight with her about Trump.”

“Oh yeah. Gale and I ganged up on her. Tell her I said that Trump is doing a helluva job.”

I knew that Jennifer was there every day and had been driving Marilyn to chemo. That should have been my job. “Marilyn, I’m coming to see you. I want to help you.”

“No. Judy, don’t come now. The house is full. Both my sisters are here. There’re too many people. It’s not a good time,” she said.

After that phone call, I cried, knowing Marilyn was dying, and I would not see her again. As I walked around my pool that night, my mind churned trying to process what I had learned. She had called for a rabbi for her last rites. Did I influence that call?

When we lived in Newport Beach, California, her family had come to Shayne’s Bat Mitzvah when our girls were best friends in seventh grade. Maybe she was moved by that service and influenced to seek a rabbi in her dying days.

I had to sound the alarm to all my friends in Newport Beach who knew Marilyn. I called Gale, another friend in our group, and explained that Marilyn was in hospice.

“Judy, if you want to come to California, you can stay with me,” she said.

I was torn. Should I risk getting on an airplane and being stranded there during the COVID-19 lockdown? There were worse places to be stranded.

My son said, “Just go, Mom. If it will help you. Just go. Get on an airplane. You can come to L.A. and see me.”

“And sleep on the couch with you?” I laughed.

Brett had just moved to L. A. and was sleeping on his friend’s couch.

“Yeah,” he said.

Should I take the advice of a thirty-one-year-old, who thought like me when I was that age?

I called Karen, the psychologist in our group.

“Judy, just sing to her and pray for her,” she said in her lilting voice.

“No. That’s not enough,” I said.

“Would you feel better if you made a reservation on Delta for a future date?” she asked.

“Yeah, give Delta some more money to hold for you,” my daughter Shayne said when I told her Karen’s suggestion. Shayne was referring to the trips we cancelled on Delta and only got a credit and not a refund.

I continued to ask everyone, “What should I do?”

My husband Bob said. “I can’t tell you what to do, Judy. You know that.”

He was right. Only I could make the decision in my best interest, and in Marilyn’s best interest. Was I being selfish? Yes. I was.

My frustration grew as I remembered our first conversation about her illness. It was in January when she had pain, and she went to different doctors trying to get a diagnosis. It took a few weeks.

“Marilyn, I’m planning a girl’s trip,” I had said. “Meaning, I’m coming to L. A. to see all my girlfriends. I want to stay at Pelican Hill.”

“Oh yeah, Pelican Hill is a beautiful golf resort overlooking the ocean.” Marilyn had said.

“I know. I found a one bedroom suite for $500 a night for New Year’s, but I couldn’t talk Bob into it. He didn’t want to come back since we were just there in August when we saw you and John. So I’m coming by myself this time, and we’ll get together.”

“Don’t forget the cabins at Crystal Cove. It’s a state park now, but you have to book a year in advance.”

“There’s always the Little Inn by the Sea,” I said.

We laughed remembering the Little Inn on Newport Boulevard, a block off the beach. I stayed there when my girlfriends could not put me up or just to have my own place. It was small and old, offering a honey bun and coffee for breakfast, and beach equipment. You only had to cross the Boulevard. I had chosen a second-floor room where I could see the ocean through the many sailboat masts that blotted the sky. It was affordable for Newport Beach.

“Yeah, you better stay there first before you go to Pelican Hill,” Marilyn advised.

We had talked about face lifts and wrinkled skin. I asked her if she would get a face lift. Our friend Karen had gotten one the year before, and she looked great.

“I can’t imagine how that would improve my life.” Marilyn had said.

I told her I had lost ten pounds, and my skin was so wrinkled. Then she told me she had lost thirty pounds and her skin hung on her. I knew things were not good when I heard that.

“But, Judy, let me get through this before you come. I don’t want to be sick. Wait a few months.”

“Okay, but I want to see you,” I said.

Did I really want to see her that way?

I have known Marilyn for almost forty years. As newlyweds, Bob and I lived in Park Newport Apartments in Newport Beach, California. I played tennis with Donna Dodd who introduced us, and Marilyn and I have been friends since our daughters were in diapers. I was a flight attendant, and Donna and Marilyn sold real estate.

The three of us took long lunches at The Ritz in Fashion Island in the ’80s. A waitress bumped my head with her tray and gave me a champagne shampoo. We laughed, as I dried my hair with a napkin and continued the lunch. We ate salads and drank Dom Perignon, but it took hours.

I rolled into my new house in East Bluff at 5:00 p.m. that afternoon and lay down for a rest. Bob came in to remind me we had a holiday dinner party that night for his office, and I should get dressed.

“I’m not sure I can make it,” I said. “I’ve been drinking all afternoon.”

“So you can go out with your girlfriends, but you can’t go out with your husband,” he said.

“Okay, okay I’ll get up.”

I jumped into the shower, my hair stiff with the bubbly. It felt good to wash. Maybe I could sober up.

Those were the kind of girl gatherings we enjoyed in Newport Beach. No wonder I went back there every chance I got. My kids grew up on the beach, and the beaches of Southern California were my favorite because they felt like home. The Pacific had big waves, and the water was cold, only reaching seventy degrees in the summer, but my kids jumped in and boogie boarded. Kristy, my middle child, won a boogie board contest at Emerald Bay.

When we got there, along with Marilyn’s family, the contest had already begun. Kristy grabbed her board and ran out to the waves, riding one after another, not realizing she had crashed a contest.

As we set up our umbrella, the people next to us wanted us to move down so they could see their kids riding the waves. We moved a little further, but they still gave us the stink-eye.

When Kristy came dripping out of the water, carrying her board, the judges, sitting at the table, jumped up to give her a trophy. “You won second place. Congratulations.”

Kristy accepted the trophy with a surprised smile and came over to our camp. As she passed by the people who wanted us to move, they nodded their congratulations with smirky smiles.

Marilyn and I were housewives and taking the kids to the beach was a lifestyle. We arrived around 3:00 p.m. when most people were leaving, and the hottest part of the day was past. The kids swam in the crashing waves and built sand castles, using palm fronds that dotted the shore at Emerald Bay.

The bathroom had a million dollar view—up the many rustic steps to the toilets housed in two building that looked like shacks. That view from the railed balcony was unparalleled. As far as the eye could see—deep blue Pacific Ocean melded into blue skies dotted with seagulls. And on a clear day, Catalina Island loomed on the horizon, only twenty-six miles away.

At the end of the day, we walked up the steep wood stairway to the top of the cliff overlooking the ocean. The hand rails were full of splinters. My oldest, Shayne, caught a splinter deep in her hand causing it to bleed. From then on the beach was known as “Blood Beach.”

The kids were small—Brett was three, Kristy was seven, and Shayne was ten. After we climbed the stairs from “Blood Beach,” the playground was hard to resist. The kids climbed the jungle gym and flew high on the swings. Marilyn and I watched, maybe with a glass of wine, until the sun set. What a way to spend the day.

We showered off by the bath house and piled into the car for a ride to McDonalds for dinner with Marilyn and Katie in tow. Easy enough. Those were the days.

I remembered Bob and me smoking joints with John and Marilyn and cracking up at the name of the Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Ice Cream that we ate. Bob was surprised they smoked pot, too. “They didn’t seem the type,” he said.

John was a landscape architect and a sculptor in works of Alabaster. Some of his art was displayed in the local shops. Marilyn played her baby grand piano like a concert pianist, and she studied hypnosis to help people stop smoking.

Years later when Marilyn and I talked on the phone, she said she was moving a friend into the Oasis Senior Center.

“Why is she moving there?” I asked.

“Because she is a senior citizen, Judy, and so are we.”

“Oh, yeah. We are. When did that happen?”

“Not too long ago,” she replied.

More recently when we talked, before she got sick, she mentioned that the bus picked up the seniors and took them to the dispensary to get their marijuana.

“Wow. California is so different now,” I said. “We had to get it from Uncle David.”

The four of us got together often. I had a party one night, and Marilyn offered to keep Kristy and Shayne overnight with Katie because the nanny was there. She and John came for the party and as they were leaving, suddenly, Marilyn remembered she had given the nanny the next day off.

“Oh, my god. I have to get up with three kids in the morning after staying out half the night,” she said.

I felt bad because two of those kids were mine.

“Do you want me to come get them now so you don’t have to deal with it tomorrow?” I asked.

“No, they’re asleep. I’ll work it out.”

Our kids spent a lot of time together. Katie once broke her finger jumping on Shayne’s bed. They ran the “Camel Humps” on the Back Bay where Bob and I lived. These were trails made by pedestrians and kids on bikes along the cliff tops—little hills we named the “Camel Humps.”

After twenty years in that setting, Bob and I moved to Georgia, and the kids grew up. But I never lost my love of California. When Bob traveled, I got on an airplane and flew back to Newport Beach and stayed with Marilyn or Karen or Gale—whoever was willing to put me up.

The last time I saw Marilyn was our dinner at the Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach, one of our favorite restaurants. We came out to see our son Brett in a show in San Diego last August. We made a trip to Newport Beach to catch up with our friends, Karen and her new boyfriend, Gale and her long time live in boyfriend, and Marilyn and John, the old married couple like us.

It is my hope that this Pandemic fog lifts soon so I can go see my friend who lives in California, and who is in hospice.

 

Marilyn passed away last Sunday afternoon.

About the Author
Judy Benowitz is a creative writer in Cartersville, Georgia with an MA in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University, in Georgia where she was Who’s Who among Students in American Universities and Colleges in 2016. She is the 2015 Creative Writing Contest winner in The Georgia Writers Museum, and her stories appear in GRITS (Girls Raised in the South), the Atlanta Jewish Times, and the Georgia Writers Association among others.
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