It was the fall of 1971, and three friends left Birmingham to attend Auburn University. Our parents drove us because we didn’t have cars. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. Two of us ended up lodging in the oldest dorm on campus— the kind with community bathrooms and cold showers. The third amiga got lucky and landed a spot in a newer dorm with larger hot water heaters and. . . air conditioning! While Jenny and I sweated in front of a box fan, Donna enjoyed refreshing “bought” air. We were envious. Donna also ended up with a stranger for a roommate. This girl hailed from Georgia, pronouncing pecan “pee’ kan” instead of “pe kahn'”. We were wary at first. Yet, soon we realized that out of a risky roommate crap-shoot Donna had been handed a gem.
She had peanut butter brown hair and eyes to match, pronounced cheekbones and an enchanting cupid’s bow upper lip. Since one of her legs was a little bit longer than the other, she stood slightly akilter. The first time I met her she was wearing an orange-red polo shirt with navy blue polyester slacks, and her curly hair was pulled back on either side with tortoise shell barrettes. When she smiled, the small gap between her front teeth showed. She was friendly and funny and we caved in to her charm. Now it was four amigas.
For two years, we traveled as a pack, then Donna left to experience North Carolina, and we were three. Jenny graduated, Debbie married, and I stayed on for graduate school— we were a different three. After a time, I married a classmate, and we were back to four.
Couple friendships seldom work out, but this one did. Even after Pat and Debbie moved away to start a hog farm, we visited each other, eating hamburgers and drinking cold sweet tea. When Jon and I graduated and moved to the Midwest, we would still come to see them when we made our semi-annual treks back to Alabama. In time, there were six, and conversations became more difficult to sustain, but we just shrugged and laughed. They moved a couple more times and had more children; we moved a couple more times and had more children. Visits with them were rare, but we kept in touch. Each of my children owns a quilt she made.
Debbie was always making things. Originally an art major, she brought color into our lives long before Pinterest existed. In the early days, she made Christmas cookies that looked like the four of us, and unique Christmas ornaments. She made me a felt figure of the Little Prince that hung on my tree for years. She painted and drew. She gardened. She listened to the operas her father had loved. And she read, sharing her literary discoveries with me. Sometimes those discoveries were picture books. In the later years, they were poems.
I was searching for something yesterday, and came across a familiar packet tied with an orange-red ribbon. It contained the correspondence between us the year before she died of a brain tumor at 45. I sat down and read every letter. Sometimes, it was hard to make out what she had written. She couldn’t retrieve words that she knew she knew, and would substitute others, trying to express deep thoughts with a dwindling vocabulary. She never failed to say she loved me. Near the end, she became more and more emphatic about it: “I do not know what to say to you. All I can say—I love you, love you, love you. I can’t say any more. I will love you.”
Back then I considered the repetition a side-effect of her illness. But I was wrong. Time was short; words and breath were scarce. Despite terrible pain, she was pounding home a message she considered vitally important. Later, she sent me another message, a paraphrase of the words of Christ to His friends in John 16:22: “So you will have pain now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Debbie, I’m looking forward to it. Happy Valentine’s Day! I love, love, love you!