Last year my dear friend Miriam Cohen and I celebrated milestone birthdays in different cities. She turned 80 in Manhattan, and I celebrated my 50th in Boston. The year I met her had also been a milestone birthday for me – my 25th. I was working as an administrative assistant at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and trying – maybe not as hard as I should have – to finish my master’s degree at Columbia. Miriam worked upstairs from me in the Office of Student Life.
I don’t exactly remember how I met Miriam, much the same way I don’t remember when I didn’t know her. I do remember I was deep in the doldrums – no degree yet, no more boyfriend, no apartment. One by one those things got fixed, slowly, sometimes painfully. With each step forward there was Miriam cheering me on. “You’re young and you’re beautiful and you can’t be bothered.” The last time she said this to me was on my 50th birthday.
It was the late 1980s when I finally hunkered down and finished my thesis. I moved on from the seminary, but I stayed connected with Miriam. We both thought it was a hoot that she and her husband, Joseph, had a place at a Catskills bungalow colony. It was a sweet little place where I slept late, ate a lot (Miriam was a wonderful cook) and read books.
Joseph had been living with cancer for a few years. One day she called to cancel our lunch date; Joseph was in the hospital. I told her I’d keep her company until her sisters arrived. She never liked to impose, but when she accepted my offer I knew Joseph was dying. We sat for hours outside his room chatting and crying. Each time Miriam checked on him, she removed his oxygen mask to kiss him.
After Joseph died, we’d frequently met for Chinese food on Broadway, where we would people watch our way through dinner. If a Sunday began to feel too dreary for either of us, we’d get on the crosstown bus and go to a museum. Dinner, museum, movie – it was a comfortable, familiar routine that we wrapped ourselves in like a fleece blanket.
When I married Ken, I relocated to Baltimore. I was still homesick for New York and frequently visited, almost always staying with Miriam on the Upper West Side. At night, we’d lie in her bed and watch television. “Are you happy?” She only had to ask me once to hear the answer she wanted.
Miriam never had children of her own, so I sent her cards on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day because that’s what Joseph did. “You were my only Valentine this year,” she once told me. And, of course, there were the birthdays. We both understood that while she wasn’t my mother, she was family.
The last time I saw my dear friend was at Anna’s bat mitzvah, almost four years ago. She steeled herself and came alone. I saw what a hardship it was for her to get to Boston and didn’t send her an invitation to Adam’s bar mitzvah last year. I knew that was the wrong thing to do when she wrote how much she enjoyed reading a midrash I had constructed for Adam’s big day. “Thank you for the pleasure your columns provide,” she wrote to me. I had no right to decide that she wasn’t up to traveling to Boston.
On Miriam’s 80th birthday I sent her flowers. On the telephone, I promised that we would celebrate “our big fat Jewish birthdays” in style with dinner and a show.
Late March came and I had an opportunity to travel to Spain with Ken and Adam. My friend understood. Of course, I couldn’t pass up Spain. She waited patiently. More excuses. There was Passover, the end of the school year. I was packing Adam up for camp, trying to squirrel away money for our big night on the town.
There was always an excuse.
This past August 4 I was on my way back home from Hartford. My sister and I had gone down to check on my mother. This meant grocery shopping, taking Mom for a manicure and throwing out some of her endless clutter without her noticing. I was exhausted and so my sister volunteered to drive back. Halfway home my cell phone rang. It was Miriam’s niece. I had never met her, but Miriam always talked about her with great affection. “When did she die?” I asked.
But the heartbreak of this story is not what you think it is. Yes, I should not have put off seeing my friend. But more important, I should have remembered that we were always happy just to be in each other’s company, doing little things like people-watching at our favorite Chinese restaurant on Broadway.
For the rest of my life I will repent the sad, shameful truth that I passed up something that would have been so joyously simple because I made it so overwhelmingly complicated.