This was the story people kept asking for at the Shiva, so here goes:
There were a group of us starting Colgate University in 1985. I don’t know quite how the group formed, but this person knew that person who roomed with this other person and so forth. Probably about a dozen of us all together. Each had his or her own personality of course. I was a talker, big talker. Stella was a listener, a big listener. So I guess talkers and listeners naturally need each other. So we ended up being friends. Whatever was going on at school, I always needed to give an opinion. And Stella always enjoyed listening to it. (Not, of course, necessarily agreeing with it.) So along with a few other friends, some of whom have been following these posts, we tended to “hang out” together.
The Summer after our second year, something horrible happened. My Dad was out for a bike ride (he was an avid bike rider,) and he had a massive brain aneurism while riding down a very steep hill. He ended up being airlifted to a trauma center where a team of doctors worked round the clock to try and save his life.
After the surgery, my Dad fell into a coma for a very long time. We practically lived at the hospital. It was a bleak period, but one day I got an unexpected letter from Stella. She had heard about what had happened and I don’t remember exactly what the letter said, but it was a life preserver for me. She knew just the right words to bring comfort to me during a very rough time.
I returned to school for my Junior year and was a bit out of control. O.K., a lot out of control. I was a mess. But through it all, Stella was there. She used to wake me up with a few Tylenol and a glass of water. I would ask her how bad I had been and who I needed to apologize to. She would give it to me straight, but without any judgement. She would tell me what I needed to do and then gently make sure I got to class. During a storm of a semester, she was my rock. No matter what I did, she was always there for me.
But in the Spring, she left for Japan to study at a University there for a few months.
About a week after she left, I shocked myself by going to the Post Office and buying an airmail letter.
The reason this was shocking was that the last letter I had written was probably no more than:
“Dear Uncle Bob, thank you for the Bar Mitzvah present. I use it all the time.
(written under parental threats to return said gift if minimally acceptable letter was not written.)
But there I was, voluntarily writing a real letter with lots and lots of words, and sending it to Japan. There was nothing heavy in it, just descriptions of things going on around Colgate. I knew it would take about a week for a letter to travel each way. But the day after I mailed the letter, I was surprised to find one from her, waiting in my box at the post office (there was no Facebook, IM, texts, or e-mail then. I think it was so long ago we still thought digital watches were pretty cool.)
She wrote me that she was very worried about me and made me promise to try and stay out of trouble until she got back. I still remember reading that letter and smiling.
And then, I shocked myself again my writing the next day. And the next one. And the next one.
Friends would drop by in the evening to grab me to go out for some beers. And more often than not, I would tell them I couldn’t go because I had a letter to write. When they didn’t believe me they would open the door and see me on my sofa writing yet another letter. They really didn’t know what to make out of me because this was indeed a radical personality change. Letter writing was not typically near the top of my evening priorities.
But for every letter I wrote, another one came from Japan. Some of those letters were two or three pages. But they were just like the talks we used to have, conversations between friends. Just this time they were written and answers to specific questions took two weeks.
But one night that changed. I don’t know how I got up the gumption to do this, but I actually wrote that I found myself missing her and that I was rather fond of her and that maybe…. perhaps… we might consider taking our relationship to another level when she returned.
I dropped the letter in the box and instantly regretted it. What if my letter scared her away and I lost our whole friendship?
But not only is it a federal crime to tamper with a mailbox in America, it’s also really hard to do. So the letter was sent and I returned to my room knowing that I would have to wait two weeks to find out her reaction.
But something amazing happened. About two days later I received a letter from her saying almost identical things to what I wrote! She actually missed me! Wow!
I read the letter over and over again and walked all over campus with a big cheesy grin on my face. When friends (who already thought I had gotten a bit weird) asked why I was so happy, I proudly told them that I was dating Stella.
“Did she come home from Japan early?”
“But then how are you dating her?”
“I just am.”
And they would just scratch the heads in confusion and walk away wondering what in the world I was talking about.
And all that happened twenty-five years ago.
Incidentally, after the Summer I was an exchange student at the University of Nigeria so the first year we were a couple, we were only in the same country for three months.
But until the time she passed away, Stella remained my rock and my comfort. The person I could always talk to and who would always listen. The person whose words could turn away some of the darkest clouds and whose smile could warm my heart, no matter what was going on.
And so while I find myself always surrounded by friends — the best friends a person could have — I am also alone and adrift and yearning for something I can no longer have.
Except when I close my eyes and dream.