“We are not taught to be thinkers, but reflectors of our culture. Let’s teach our children to be thinkers.” ~Fresco
My friend, Brenda, showed up in my dreams last night seriously concerned about the state of the World and the disease of divisiveness infecting our youth. I agreed with her but argued that I alone cannot change the world. Her response: Nonsense. She’s a force to be reckoned with, even in spirit.
There is a tremendous call right now for adults across the globe to step up and teach the children that they do not need to continue the legacy of hate and division that today’s leaders perpetuate. All adults – not just parents – must protect and save our children.
This is a story about a promise I made and my memory of Brenda and all she held dear. It seems especially important to share it again as one example of how each of us can start where we are and do what we can. The book I’ve chosen again this year for the “older” kids on my list is The Water Keeper, a brilliant and moving novel by Charles Martin about grace and redemption for achingly real characters pulled into the dark and dangerous world of modern-day slavery. Trafficking.
Twelve hours before Brenda died she called to tell me she was in Heaven.
“You’re there now?” I asked, slightly distracted with scissors in one hand, tape in the other. I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder thinking I’d continue to wrap Christmas presents while we bantered about the gorgeous male nurses who administered chemotherapy in Colorado Springs Medical Center. The young men were a favorite subject for Brenda and the tales she weaved were hysterical.
A weak, throaty laugh echoed through the phone, “I do believe I am.”
The words, although breathless, hung in the air like a solemn, heavy mist. I dropped the wrapping paraphernalia, held the phone tight against my ear and walked outside to our deck. For just a moment, I tilted my head and looked into the cloudless aqua blue sky – a mirrored reflection of the water – expecting to see my dear friend waving. “Hey…” I began, stumbling over my thoughts, “everything okay today?”
“Picture this,” she began, “I’m tucked into an over-sized arm chair by a big picture window watching fat white snowflakes silently fall from the sky. Next to me is a fire blazing in a huge stone fireplace and I’m holding a steaming mug of that jasmine tea you sent me and…” she paused, took a short breath, “I’m surrounded by books and books and books.”
“Oh, it really is heaven, Bren,” I closed my eyes against the wheezy softness of her voice. Just last week her voice had been robust and full of laughter. The tropical paradise before me disappeared and I imagined I was right there with her.
“I’m choosing books for my kids,” she sighed, “well…the proprietor is choosing books; I’m just describing the children. I can’t seem to find my strength today. But I called… I called now because I need to ask you to promise…” The words faded between us.
Brenda’s kids were not actually her kids. Rather, they were her friends’ kids, at last count –18 in all — including mine, from ages 2 to 17. Each year at Christmas and on respective birthdays and graduations, each child would receive an age appropriate, award-winning book with Brenda’s personalized inscription. It was in my kitchen that she’d thought up this tradition. “Books,” she beamed, “are the doorways to the world!” I could picture her, eight years earlier, her smile lighting the room. Now, the enormity of her courage – laced with Chemo, fighting cancer, yet still concerned about her kids – it bruised my soul.
I cleared the sob from my throat, “Brenda, whatever favor you need, consider it done.”
“Lynn, I can’t tell you what the favor is just now. There are too many parts, but I’ll have Michael send it to you in an email.”
“Okay…” I could hear the whine in my voice and willed it away, “but how will I know what….”
“You’ll know,” she interrupted, a slip in comportment so foreign for Brenda that it stunned me.
A fear of imminent loss closed around me like a dark tunnel blocking the sun. I wanted to fight with her, chase the seriousness from her voice and words. Hadn’t we talked endless hours over the last eight months about her strength, her will to live, her young age of 60 and the importance, or lack thereof, of breasts? What about the pros and cons of shopping for new breasts and the fun she’d have interviewing men on the perfect size and shape? Our weekly phone conversations always included the future, her pending visit to our home on Sunset Beach in Oahu as soon as she had the strength to travel. I wanted to scream at her, “Buy the ticket now, Brenda!” but the words stuck in my throat.
“Hey beach broad… you there?” This was her new tag name for me and hearing the wheezy voice attempt humor made me laugh.
“I’m here. I’m here… just rolling over to tan the other side,” I choked out, “So… what are you reading?” This was always the absolute second question of every conversation.
“Reading?” she sighed audibly, “Everything I possibly can.” A long, silent pause filled the phone line and seemed to stop the breeze. “I have to go now,” she continued, breathless, with just a slight laugh that felt like a kiss against my ear, “I’m on someone else’s phone, and the angels are restless. Plus,” she coughed, “God invited me to dinner and I have to decide what I’m going to wear.”
“Funny. Sticking with the theme of the day, I see. I love you, Bren. Hey…I’ll call you tomorrow morning… see how that dinner date went.”
“Yeah,” she laughed, sweet, full, hearty; the sound of Brenda, “Love you too.”
I held the phone close to my chest and let the dial tone drone into a maddening beep. Even then, I was reluctant to disconnect, to give in to the sense that I would never speak with my lovely friend again. Instead, I sat down on the steps with my memories.
On the day we met, I was busy corralling and cajoling four young children and a baby at a fast-food restaurant. Brenda was at the table next to us reading Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays. The fourth or fifth time I apologized for the noise level, Brenda got up from her table and sat down with us. She spoke very quietly until one by one; each child – even the baby – stopped chattering, and sat captivated as she recited a Hans Christian Anderson story.
Days later our home became her second home and she visited often at odd hours. We talked books, analyzed the work of the masters, laughed over love scenes. Her weakness was a good romance novel, but she grew serious when she talked about the importance of children knowing the magic of sitting still with a story and letting their imaginations soar. She loved all of our children, but paid special attention to our foster kids and spent endless hours engaging them in conversations about books or organizing special reading days where she would sit with them in a circle and read with all the gusto of a skilled actress. When those children left our home, Brenda made sure each of them had their very own book to take on their journeys.
We were unlikely friends, Brenda and I. I was a military wife, a young mother, a struggling author, full of creative energy and love and not much else. Brenda was nineteen years my senior, held a PhD in Philosophy and Education and Masters’ Degrees in Computer Technology, Theology and Mathematics. She was also the mother of a grown son and the widow of a Navy pilot who took his own life.
I was fascinated with Brenda, but I often felt inadequate as a friend. In quiet moments, usually over wine, I would allude to our differences. What did she see in me? The first time I broached the subject she waved her hand through the air and referred to her varied degrees as an addictive hobby. She was philosophical with the sorrow aspect, stating simply that our lives are pre-planned and this was her lot. “You teach me about being real and how to hurt and how to love. Everything else is pointless,” she announced. After that one speech, the subject was off limits. Then she stared at me, straight on, with serious, thoughtful eyes and asked me what book I was reading.
This was our glue then and now: books, words, and children.
I sat on the porch step until the orange ball of sun set and the ocean glittered into the night.
When the phone rang at 4:00 AM the next morning, Michael, Brenda’s son, apologized for the early hour and went on to explain that his mother insisted I be the first one he called. Through my tears, I told him how sorry I was and asked if he needed anything, but the conversation was blurry and surreal. Just before he hung up he said, “Check your email.”
This is what it said:
My dearest friend, the promise I asked of you has to do with the long document attached to this email. Here it is: please continue sending books to my kids. I’ve written a little something for each year, for each child, with all the pertinent birth date information and addresses, but please find more children to add each year. Everyone at age 18 or upon graduation from high school should receive Dr. Seuss’, “Oh! The Places You Will Go!” Thank you, forever.
P.S. my dinner date was heavenly. God says hi. All my love, Bren.
Most of the original kids are grown now, but I continue to keep my promise and send books to a growing special list of children each year.
by Lynnette Bukowski
© 2021 All Rights as Revised