I have no picture with me. Hard copy photos of my life before the road are stored far away. I remember a particular photo I took in Yellowstone of my friend Linda sporting a chemo cap from two summers ago but that year’s photos got lost in the electric universe. Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer just over two years ago. From what I can tell from here she didn’t have a chance. I’ll save my inventory of friends, family and co-workers dead of breast cancer for another day. The numbers stagger. The closeness of these women to my life is unbearable. Someone recently told me they thought this cancer was one of the more survivable ones. From where I sit it does not appear to be true.
My friendship with Linda had an awkward start. It’s funny even today. A previous husband and I were avid boaters 25 years ago. In 1992 we moved to Montana. We were young. Pretty soon we met some boaters. One of my favorites was Paul. Paul was very safety conscious and had tremendously developed leadership and communication skills. His wife, Linda, didn’t boat so I rarely saw her those first few months. But I did meet her right off. Our paths would cross in what was then a very small Helena (smaller still when you consider the youthful professional bracket) and she would always say hello. She was always very nice and friendly. I had no idea who she was. I would make panicked aimless conversation and wonder why this person knew my name. Over and over I had to ask her name or ask my husband, “Who is that person?” He would always say, “Paul’s wife.” It wasn’t like Linda was an average person with nondescript looks. Linda was a tall dutch blond with a sweet voice tinged by her mother’s midwestern accent. She was taller than me. You’d think I could remember this person. But Linda wasn’t the only person this happened with. I do this still. There are scores of people I cannot get entered in the databanks but rarely do they wind up becoming integral parts of my life.
I remember the moment Linda turned into a human being for me. She became real when I showed up at a gay rights rally in our state capitol rotunda one cold day. This was probably the fall of 1992 or winter of 1993. Gay rights were just beginning to be spoken about and the gathering was not enormous. Political activism was new to me. The small scale of Montana politics gives a person a chance to make a difference or at least be heard. I knew nobody. Or so I thought. Then Linda came over and said hello. Again. She would not let me forget her. The thing was Linda was also fairly new to town and did not know many people either. Now the jolt of kinship and subversiveness (of the dominant straight paradigm) welded her face and name into my consciousness. We were now friends and she was no longer just ‘Paul’s wife.’
I hadn’t had many female friends by this time in my life. Being an only daughter and spending my youth in engineering school, rock climbing and boating made me more comfortable with men. Linda was one of my early female gateway friends. One of her great gifts was accepting people as they are. She never took it personally that I could not remember who she was. She was comfortable with my disinterest in home and children. We had little in common but a love of the outdoors and liberal politics. And food. We liked food. It turned out to be more than enough.
Paul and Linda and my former husband and I were all actively interested in wolf reintroduction to the Northern Rockies and Yellowstone in particular. The four of us talked about this issue many times over dinners and on boating trips. Soon we were vacationing together and taking week long float trips in Idaho and Montana. When the wolves were set free in Yellowstone (20 years ago this winter) we were among the first to make the pilgrimage to see them. Paul’s unbounded enthusiasm and love of wild life watching infected us all. He was so enthusiastic one time he parked too close to a snow bank and bounded out of the Subaru and left the three of us stuck inside. The child protection lock kept the driver’s side passenger stuck, too. Paul was out watching the wolves for a good twenty minutes while Linda, Hunter and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Surely he would notice he’d trapped us all in? No. Eventually he came back wondering why we hadn’t bothered to join him.
I could go on and on. I guess I will. When I was 32 I tore my ACL. The ACL is a ligament in the knee. Paul had torn his just the year before and I knew I was in for a long haul of surgery and rehab the moment it happened. I remember thinking when I heard the pop that this is a life changing event: pay attention. My life was changed but not for the worse. After I made it through the months of rehab a wise Rolfer suggested I take up trail running as a means of developing the balance and reflexes diminished by the injury. I hated running roads in Helena. And winter running. Ugh. Trail running? I wonder what that’s like? One sunny day in August I started running and walking the Helena Ridge trail. This almost 8 mile long trail undulates on a long gentle descent into Helena from a parking lot out of town. I found it pretty easy to do the trail and it turned into a gateway drug of long distance running.
I told Linda pretty quickly about this new thing. Linda had always been a runner and now she wanted to try this, too. Soon Linda and I were running the trail two or three times a week. Next thing we knew our beloved friend Kris asked to join us. The three of us continued with our regular ridge runs until we turned into actual runners. One day one of us said, “Oprah did a marathon. We could do one too.” Then Kris brought her friend Dori in. Or Dori came and then we thought up a marathon. Winter was leaning in and the ridge was fast becoming unrunnable, or so we thought. There were now four of us and we were branching out. The trails and dirt roads of Helena became our training ground. Linda was the steadiest most even tempered person of the four. She was always ready to drive, walk, run, eat…whatever helped the group needed for group success Linda was ready to provide.
One of our long standing frustrations and points of humor was that only Dori lost weight while we trained for our first marathon. None of the rest of us lost an ounce. Linda gained weight. unknown to us and her there was a reason. Linda became pregnant in the midst of our training regime. I remember where I was when she told me. Linda and Paul had been back in Eugene, Oregon visiting family. While there Linda completed her first twenty mile training run, solo, and she did it by running back and forth on a one mile stretch (with a hill in the middle). We were sitting at the deli in the Real Food Store and she was telling me about how she did this mind numbingly boring 20 mile run all by herself and unknowingly pregnant to boot. That’s how mentally tough she was. Linda had endurance and grit.
I remember being happy and sad. Linda and Paul really wanted a child so it was great news. Me, being happily childless, selfishly pondered the change in our relationship with a child on the way. Immature, yes, but the truth. I feared the loss of my running companion, my friend with time to do what we liked to do, the loss of connection because I wasn’t a mother. Immediately I was sad because our little running group (five now with the inclusion of my workmate and now friend, Berna) had lost one of its steadiest runners on the cusp of our first marathon. But while Linda stopped running the big miles with us she stayed by our sides mentally and physically and carried us through to the finish of the Portland marathon. She was there with Paul and her baby bulge cheering us all on to the finish. And now I am crying. Dori, Kris, Berna and I all finished our first marathon under the loving gaze and happy cheers of Linda.
Next up in this too long memorial is the birth of Emma. Paul and Linda asked me to participate in the birth of their baby. I had attended the birth of another friend’s baby and I guess the rumor on the street was I had comported myself well. That and Pail and Linda loved me and I loved them. I was blown away when they asked. It was one of the greatest gifts I ever received. Linda in the act of giving birth was transformed into a goddess. She was beyond this world in her power and presence. I stood between her legs and held one end of a towel while she pulled on the other while Paul supported her shoulders and talked to her. I saw light radiate from her face. She was on fire. I was using every fiber in my body and all my mental strength to keep hold of the towel as she pulled and screamed. I saw the other part of her. The inside, the spirit, the soul..whatever you call it, it was beyond the physical realm, it transcended her body and mine. We were connected. There was light all around. And then there was Emma. Emma born into that light and love.
This Sunday is Emma’s fifteenth birthday. I take great comfort in knowing that there is more to Linda than her physical body. She and Paul shared Emma’s birth with me and allowed me to see something beyond the physical act of giving birth. I saw love and eternity. I saw Linda’s foreverness. She is here with us all and she will always be in our hearts cheering us onward until we meet again. And I know that what I saw in Linda is in all of us. We are all connected.
That’s enough for now. I love you Linda. I love you Paul. I love you Emma. I wish I could be there with you now.
P.S. Linda went on to run and run and run. We finished many more long runs and marathons together.