Mountains of sadness, valleys of light

My friend Sandy died this week.

Being a writer and all, I was going to craft some grand opening line about it.

But there is no way to couch it in anything softer or more eloquent.

So there it is.

I hired Sandy in 1990 at the San Antonio Business Journal. And through these last 21 years we’ve been friends and colleagues — weaving in and out of each other’s lives as journalists, moms, wives, friends. I left the Business Journal for a long time and returned  in 2007 when Sandy had her second bout with cancer and needed a double mastectomy.

“Could you come and do my job while I have surgery and recover?” she asked.

I did. And she recovered. And I never left.

For the first time in years, we worked side-by-side. I’m not going to lie. This created some conflict. We had very different working styles. But we loved nothing more than finding a good story to tell and envisioning how that would look and feel on the printed page.

And we were extremely honest with one another. I’d say: “You are my friend. I love you. I don’t want you to have cancer. But you’re driving me crazy.”

And she’d say: “You’re hurting my feelings.”

And we’d talk. And work it out. And we’d meet in the lunch room and talk and laugh about our kids.

So when the breast cancer metastasized in her liver. We both knew it wasn’t good. On many of the drives into work she’d say things like: “I’m only going to last until February.” or “Here’s what I want at my memorial. I need to tell you.”

She fought like a special forces soldier — enduring hair loss, chemotherapy, nausea, ridiculous edema, mouth sores. We told her not to worry about work. She worried about work. She loved her job and it helped keep her going.

Sandy’s body started shutting down about two weeks ago. And during these past 14 days, I’ve experienced such incredible support.

People say it takes a village to raise a child.

Well then, it takes a tribe to bury a friend.

For months, Debi Pfitzenmaier had been organizing Sandy’s need for meals, rides, medicines and more through an online site called LotsaHelpingHands. Jeanne Janes cleaned Sandy’s house. On top of that, our management at the San Antonio Business Journal always said to Sandy and those who helped her: “Do what you have to do. No questions asked.”

And this week, Sanchez family friend Kathy Elkins sat at the hospital and quietly helped Sandy deal with all of the awful stuff in a way that was beautiful and dignified. And Debi and friend Andi Rodriguez and I traded texts about Sandy’s kids and husband, meals, tissues, financial papers signed, lawyers consulted, house cleaning, dog food and more.

And as Sandy slowly slipped away, people all over San Antonio — Sandy’s friends and family, my friends, acquaintances, colleagues, social media peeps all pitched in with some form of sympathy and condolence.I can’t name them all because there are far too many. But you know who you are. And we love you all for it.

Our own families picked up the burden in our homes, driving children to school, cleaning the house, coordinating after-school activities so that we could help the Sanchez family

Emails, Facebook messages, voicemails, phone calls. They were all beautiful. Nan Palmero met me at Starbucks one day to load the operating system on Sandy’s BlackBerry so that she could talk to her mother (Sandy had dropped the phone in the hospital). At work, Sandy’s colleagues crafted anecdotes about what it was like to work with her. The graphic designers in our office created gorgeous programs for Sandy’s memorial and our business manager and publisher worked overtime to make sure her paperwork was all in order.

In between, I received heartfelt direct messages and voicemails from my BMPR team: Brenda Munoz, Brett Baker, Nan Palmero, Joe Ruiz, Sean Wood — who all stepped in to take execute Thursday’s event without me. Messages from the kindhearted Dale Blasingame and the most wonderful Dawn Cole, Victor Landa, Nancy Espey, Susan Price. Friend and freelancer Shari Biediger wrote a poignant blogpost http://sbiediger.wordpress.com/ about Sandy. Alison Beshur just showed up at the Sanchez house with plates, cups, napkins, and tissues. Kim Hernandez let me sob in her office. Lisa Owens offered to donate to a journalism scholarship. Danny Charbel, who doesn’t do well with sadness, kept trying to make me smile by creating new puns — one of my favorite pasttimes. Express News reporter Elaine Ayala wrote a beautiful story about Sandy.

And the night before the memorial, Debi, Andi and I were in the back laundry room of the house — as family and friends all congregated in the kitchen and living room —  hanging with Sandy’s daughter Alicia and her boyfriend and Sandy’s husband Jose — trying to move forward with the worldly responsibilities of writing an obituary, creating a memorial program and sorting through bank paperwork, trying to secure a place for a reception and finding a caterer or food.

Thursday morning, the obit appeared in the paper, Andi secured the VFW for the reception for THAT DAY, Debi sent out the clarion call to volunteers to bring food. And food appeared. Lots of it. Friends and family wrote last minute tributes. Twenty minutes before the memorial, we realized there was a photo montage on the computer, but no projector or projector screen. Nan Palmero again dropped everything and drove down a projector and hooked it up. Shelley Rae Cook scurried around and found a projector screen in the ceramics room of Southwest School of Art. And Melinda Hart delivered 250 pink roses and hand separated them up until 10:15 a.m. — when the memorial finally started. The Reeds took half of my reflections and delivered them as though they’d been practicing for weeks.

Somehow it all came together. And I think all would agree that the most beautiful part of the ceremony was when Sandy’s husband Jose and her daughter Alicia sang The Wedding Ring, a song Jose had written about Sandy. It was sweet and quiet and it made my heart weep.

Today, Saturday, I woke up. In my inbox was an email from an address I didn’t recognize. It was a note from @icybluequest, a woman named Elizabeth in Austin who I never have met in person, but with whom I felt a connection instantly on Twitter this past year.

And she said something to the effect of:

I’m sorry you’re sad.

I’m sorry your friend died.

And it’s weird because I don’t really know you.

But I drew you a picture.

“So while I cannot speak to the beauty of this image, I can attest to the fact that it was a gorgeous afternoon outside sitting on a blanket drawing this for you and honoring your loss,” she said.

That picture is the art for this blog. And it blows me away because it is such a stunning gesture. And it looks like how my heart feels: all scarred with sadness, but smoothed out with bright, happy memories and shadowed with nooks and crannies of dusty feelings of guilt and lots more.

So thank you to the village, the tribe and the people who have helped ease the pain.

Please know that every word of condolence, every kind gesture matters.

Because my friend Sandy died. But life goes on because of all of you.

~ by Donna J. Tuttle on January 29, 2011.

14 Responses to “Mountains of sadness, valleys of light”

  1. The most beautiful memorials are those most deeply felt. And this is a beautiful memorial – to your friend, Sandy. To your friends & associates, real and virtual. To life.

    I truly believe we live forever in memories. You’ve done that for your friend.

  2. Donna, you are a precious soul who gives so generously of your heart and laughter to all those around you. I’m glad you are experiencing the same in return. I’m holding you and Sandy’s family in my prayers. Lots of love…

  3. So sorry for the loss of your friend. My wife went through something very similar recently with the loss of her co-worker, Mary Ann Villarreal. The woman, just like your friend, was a fighter. And an example to us all. May they rest in peace.

    • Thank you Dave. I’m sorry for your wife’s loss also. Losing people at work is so hard because sometimes we see them more than family. I appreciate your taking time to send condolences.

  4. We work in a business full of jaded cynics that often delights in that jaded cynicism. OK, maybe that’s just me. But it really is amazing to see that when one of us hurts, we all hurt. And then we pick each other up. It’s hard to know the depth of another person’s sorrow but it’s easy to see the heights they are lifted to by the love of their family & friends. From your words it’s clear that Sandy was loved. It’s also clear that a lot of people love you, me included.

  5. You certainly have a way with words Donna. It’s obvious that Sandy left the world a bit better than how she found it, and I’m glad you shared this with me and everyone who reads this. I’ll keep working on the puns… and the happy/sad thing. In the meantime, stay strong, friend. It can only get easier from here.

  6. Watery eyes made it hard for me to get through this. Your gratitude, Donna, in the face of misery and pain is perhaps what got you through. And it warms my heart to know that Sandy got through it feeling the helping presence of you and so many others.

  7. And I love, love the painting.

  8. You give such a picture of real human friendship, complicated and wonderful. I am sorry for your loss. Thankful for you. Reading about this whole community of people- the unity fuels my faith in humanity. With great love in my heart,
    Elizabeth

  9. You are amazing as Sandy always proclaimed. She knew your heart and your spirit and she would be so honored to know that you told her story. I am going to miss her and I can’t thank you enough for telling me about her being in hospice. I got to tell her goodbye and it meant so much to me … to thank her … to tell her I loved her. You were an angel to, not just Sandy, but to so many of us who grieve for our friend.

  10. Such a beautiful piece of art: the painting, your writing, and who you are as a woman, Donna! I’ve always been amazed at the relationships that #bmpr has created and your recent experience shows that this group of people can move mountains.
    Thanks for sharing this story and thanks for sharing yourself with the rest of us….we are so blessed!

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