There's So Much Cancer Cannot Kill: A Best Friend's Tribute
By Christy Cox
My sister Tracey had the privilege of having a best friend.
A true best friend.
She met Wendy the very first day of their freshman year at St. Joe's University in Philly. It was 1986 and they were both blessed: they were living in the best city in the best decade ever -- and they had each other.
They always had each other.
Through marriages, moves, highs and lows, their friendship remained a constant. It never grew tired. Never got old. It forgave easily. It was continuously renourished by the deep roots they first planted that fall in Philadelphia. As they grew up, it grew stronger.
Theirs was a steadfast, resilient bond.
And then Wendy got sick.
Wendy fought her cancer for seven years. We always figured she'd win because she always did. She kept coming back and refused to relinquish any joy. She resisted until the end, until she was just too tired to fight. And that's when her devastated best friend, my sister, bravely let her go.
This is the letter Tracey Mason wrote Wendy and gave her the last time she saw her, a few days before her best friend went home to heaven:
My Dearest Bench,
As I sit to write you this tribute, this testament of sorts, to a love and a friendship that few people experience, I do so with a level of sorrow that is so palpable and real that I feel its weight on my body and its truth in the very center of my being.
Simultaneously, I do so with a true, honest sense of gratitude and grace for the life we’ve shared, for all those beautiful hours.
I will never forget the look of shock and wonder on your face when you opened your dorm room door 34 years ago to my platinum-flock-of-seagulls-quaffed, 80’s-hell attired, Long-Island-accented self.
That evening, I invited you to a party I’d pre-arranged with friends I’d met during
orientation (shocking, I know). Little did I know that that was the beginning of the most
remarkable, sustained and enduring relationships I have ever known.
Throughout those wild, tumultuous and trying college years, we grew together as individuals and friends. We rocked, we rolled, we did excessively stupid things and had moments of true genius. We fought and cried, danced and dreamt, nursed broken hearts and lost innocence. We were young, pretty and naïve with a big, scary world in front of us and no idea how to approach it.
It felt like we’d live forever.
And now, as this awful disease continues to threaten to take you from this world, the lyrics to our freshman anthem, Forever Young, have taken on a whole new meaning. I am reminded that youth is, indeed, like diamonds in the sun and diamonds are forever. I recognize that you are my diamond – unbreakable and stunningly beautiful, and I will wear you – sparkling and substantial – for the rest of my life.
It never ceases to amaze me how time, a notion so precisely measured, so utterly quantifiable, often feels more like a concept. That the space of time between when we danced sweaty and stickily hair sprayed to New Order and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam and now, this sad and awkward time of forced maturity and adult steadfastness, was just a blip, just a single trip around the sun. It means that whether you live to 51 or 102, life never feels as long as it’s measured.
Yet, we can mark that time with albums stuffed with faded, yellowed polaroids, with
accomplishments made and failed, relationships lost and found, careers developed, countries explored. They are the pinpoints and flags on the map of life that give it color and texture, that become the building blocks of a life well-lived and that come to define the difference between a girl and a woman.
It all just seemed to come and go in a flash, moments and days, years and decades. And
through it all, we remained, bound by love and secrets, by trust and unfettered loyalty. People have said we regressed when we were together, collapsing from corporate executives to giggling schoolgirls with a single shot of tequila. And what a profound gift that’s been, being one another’s best and worst influences, being one another’s stress valves.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been more terrified than I was on the day you were diagnosed 7 years ago. It didn’t seem possible that you may not be there, that you may be more than a phone call or plane ride away, whenever I needed you.
Learning to live with that reality has been the biggest struggle of my life and I know I haven’t always handled it in the best way. I needed a playbook, a dusty, dog-eared reference book of ways to learn to accept something of which I was so unwilling, of how to handle it with elegance and class, like you have.
What I’ve learned instead is that love and grief are deeply intertwined and equally
extraordinary and beautiful. That grief is a powerful and fortified monument to love, a monument in front of which I will kneel, clutching the diamond that is my love for you, in sincere gratitude. For I am so grateful, for every minute Wendy, for every single second since that September evening in 1986.
I know you’re ready to leave the party and that, for all these years, I’ve always been the one begging you to stay for just ‘one more.’ But this time, Wen, this time I stand by the closet, holding your coat so you can slip more easily into it. I am calling your Uber, holding open your door. When you slip into the back seat and slide down the window to say goodnight, I will tell you I love you, so much, and let you pull away. Because, while you need to leave the party, I know you’ll never leave me.
Diamonds are forever.
The amazing Wendy Rothenberger passed away on February 1, 2020. She was 51 years old.