Let me paint for you a picture of a woman I have come to love deeply, a complex woman whose attitude denied death its wrangling grasp for over four years. It is fitting that on this particular June day, the third day of summer, the clouds are hanging gray and heavy. It seems that they, too, mourn Victoria’s passing. She died only two days ago with unexpected suddenness. It was the first day of summer, her favorite season of the year. It is incomprehensible that I wrote her obituary this morning. Her obituary.
I discovered another realm when she zoomed into my life seven years ago. No pedestrian vehicle would suit this dynamic woman; she bought and customized a silver Mustang convertible with racing stripes. That car, quite literally, roared as it signaled her comings and goings. The wittiest 5-foot two inches of life’s richest drama I had ever met, Victoria simply loved life. She purchased the property just footsteps from my home, and I smiled that life had brought me this vibrant new neighbor. With zest and passion, Victoria transformed the front cottage into her own seaside retreat. It mattered not to her that we live 40 minutes from the ocean. With paint, New England-style furnishings, and seashells aplenty, she brought the ocean to her. I was soon to learn that this was characteristic of Victoria. Nothing was too big a job for this woman; there was nothing that she couldn’t do. “Carla, I have to tell you something!” she’d say with her eyes all aglow. “Guess what I’m gonna do?” She would proceed to tell me every last glorious well-spun detail of her plans. And then, before I knew it, she would have made it happen. That was Victoria; that was the effervescent woman I came to call, quite simply, my “V.”
At the time I met Victoria, her long brunette hair was dyed a shockingly wonderful shade of blonde. I was mesmerized. Victoria was everything I wasn’t; she was wild, hysterically funny, intensely witty, brazenly loud, flamboyant, and full of fun. On one of our shopping excursions we chose the same clothes as a lark. When Victoria wore hers, she became a racy runway model aglitter with bangles, baubles, and innate pizazz. Even on the few occasions when I give it a try, I’m not naturally a showy, bejeweled type. So, when I donned my matching clothes, I simply had the look of the dressed-up-girl-next-door. We would laugh at that basic, yet wonderfully obvious, difference between us. It was easy to adore this woman who could transform a simple outfit into something spectacular simply by being herself. She knew how to put on the perfect touches, the wide-brimmed hat, the come-hither shoes, the turquoise, silver, and gold, yet it was much more than that. Victoria, irrepressible Victoria, had incomparable style. I can envision her now as I saw her this past Easter morning standing in her front yard. Quintessential Victoria. Skintight daffodil-yellow dress. A floppy broad-rimmed daffodil hat festooned with flowers. She waved at me to inspect her presence with a brilliant smile and wicked sashay. Oh, the way that woman pranced and posed in her stiletto heels. So remarkable. So Victoria.
Scanning back through my years with her, my eyes are filled with tears. Goodness, how I loved–LOVE–that woman. She sometimes drove me crazy (as passionate, stubborn folks are wont to do), and I think I sometimes drove her crazy, too. She’d pat the space on her white (always white) couch and say, “Sit a moment, Carla, just be still would ya? You work too much. You work too hard. You’re going to work yourself to death. You gotta learn to play. Let’s go to Tahoe, okay?” I am sobbing rivers as I write, because I never did go with her. Not once did I make the time to pack my bags and flee with her, yet she never stopped inviting me. But off went Victoria–to Lake Tahoe, Hawaii, Australia, Texas, Nantucket, Chicago, and many spaces in between. This wild and wonderful woman adored her Siamese cat, LuLu, so much that she took her to Hawaii–and on walks up the path between our homes in a fashionable translucent handbag. Yes, that woman, that abundantly spirited woman, knew how to live. I think there is a lesson or two in there for me somewhere.
Captivated by her boldness and the sheer magnitude of her presence, I asked Victoria, soon after I met her, to participate in a research interview project I had begun. As we settled into chairs in my front room, a tape recorder between us and my list of interview questions nestled on my lap, I could not help but be mesmerized by her presence. With a fascinating, almost stunningly intense joie de vivre, I was drawn in. I listened to her story, the recorder our quiet witness, and I fell in love. Who could not love this woman who had been through so much, yet persevered with a gleam in her eyes and a wild spirit in her heart. The interview done, she turned her attention onto me. “Uh, oh,” I remember thinking, “this is one woman who wants to know everything.” Through the wee hours of the night, we shared and grew closer as each minute passed. I learned so much through my friendship with Victoria, and I will never forget one lesson she taught me that night. “Carla,” she said with her intense gaze focused straight into mine, “I have to tell you something.” Incisively summing up my history, she declared, “You trust too easily.” Just out of a long relationship that had left me hurting and confused, I peered back at her with the heartfelt curiosity of a child. “What do you mean? It’s good to trust. It’s GOOD.” “Well,” she told me in her firm, raised-in-Chicago-way, “You don’t give everyone keys to your house, do you? It’s the same thing with trust. People have to earn your trust, Carla. You just don’t give it to them. They have to really, really earn it and deserve it. Remember that. Just like the keys to your house.” I smiled and said with honesty, “But, I don’t lock the doors to my house, either.” She laughed, her pearly white teeth flashing in the soft evening light, and shook her head at me. I realize that I truly learned a few lessons from that talk. I’ve remembered to lock my doors for years, and I now strive to discern when someone has earned my trust. Thank you, my beautiful Victoria.
When she was diagnosed with her illness over four years ago, it took her a full month to use the word cancer in my presence. One shimmering late spring day she spoke the words “lung cancer” once and warned me not to speak those words in her presence. Victoria theorized that, if she didn’t say the word “cancer,” she would stave off the course of the disease. I was on board with her theory. We quietly agreed, from that day forward, that we would fight her fight together. With characteristic aplomb, Victoria cautioned, “This isn’t going to do me in. I am going to beat this.” Soon after, I hosted an uplifting party for Victoria; it was attended by nearly forty women who came to offer love and support. Victoria was heartened, and her spirits were lifted. The battle was on. Even through her worst days of chemotherapy, Victoria’s attitude remained largely undaunted. There were ups and downs, and months of respite when the disease seemed in remission. When one form of chemotherapy failed, she resolved to find another and another. And she did. When most of one lung was removed and scars scathed her body, she said, “I’ll wear a bikini come summer.” And she did. Even on her worst of days, she’d say with a smile, “Let me regale you with a story…” And she did–again and again.
Victoria shared my world, our world, for too short a time. Her irrepressible presence graced my table many a time, whether with a bounty of guests for Christmas and Thanksgiving or a quiet dinner for two. We held parties together where charades and had us, quite literally, rolling on the floor. We baked cookies together, suntanned together, and shared a sisterhood that went beyond time. She would turn to me with her troubles, and I would turn to her with mine. It was just this past May that Victoria sat with me in the sunshine at private memorial with a close group of friends following my own mother’s death. It was her presence that changed the somber occasion to one of remarkable sweetness, and we could feel my mother beaming down upon us from above. Victoria brought lightness to the day; she helped me smile and made sure I did not crumble. From family woes to tales of boyfriends and work, oh, what secrets–both wondrous and sad–did we share. She’d laugh at me as I told my lengthy, circuitous stories, and she would bring my digressive multi-themed tales back on track. “Oh, Carla,” she’d cry out, “I don’t know if anyone can ever follow you! Keep to one topic–or at least two–at a time. Please!” We would laugh out loud knowing that she, Victoria, was the queen of telling stories. Oh, Victoria knew how to weave a glorious tale with flair. Before your very eyes, this larger than life woman would create a magical story that brought the most unremarkable event to technicolor life. From start to finish, Victoria had you with every word.
Beyond the attitude, the charm, and the charisma, Victoria knew how to love. She loved fiercely and intensely. She took pride in being a remarkable woman, a loving mother to her grown sons, and a beautiful friend. The morning before she died, I had the privilege of tidying her home in preparation for a visit from one of her sons. As she lay on the couch, LuLu ever close at one corner, she chatted as I swept and wiped. She wanted her tiny seaside cottage to be lovely and free of evidence of her illness. I could see from her eyes that she was in pain, and she dozed off as I folded her laundry. I smoothed the white t-shirts and sweaters that had been basic parts of her wardrobe for the last two weeks. It was quiet and peaceful but for the hum of the oxygen machine. I was not ready to let her go, but—in retrospect—the signs were right in front of me. Her life-loving attitude was waning, and I did not want to see. As I brought her fresh peaches for a snack, she awoke. “Carla,” she whispered, “Am I going to make it? Will I make it through this?” I had seen her come out of worse before, and I smiled. “You know, V, I keep on praying. I hope God keeps hearing my prayers. You keep strong. I’ll never stop hoping that you’ll beat this yet.” As I left, I kissed her forehead and told her that I loved her. She, ever gracious, thanked me for being her friend.
The precious, white-trimmed cottage across the way is dark and dim. My friend, my gorgeous Victoria, is gone. The French doors are no longer cast wide open with the white sheer curtains flowing in the breeze. The silver Mustang sits; there is no Victoria to take the wheel. The tiny vineyard out front, started from just three potted vines I had given her after her diagnosis four years back, reminds me of her spirit–indomitable, vibrant, and somewhat wild.
Victoria, my world will never be the same; how blessed I have been to know you. As I told you by text only a few days ago, you brought brilliant light into my world. It was just two months ago that I presented you with a “magic healing bracelet” adorned with bright turquoise. Silly me, I actually believed it might work. It was a mere few weeks ago that you gave to me a plaque that pronounced, “A faithful friend is a treasure. BFF.” Thank you, my dear friend. I miss you so.