Sunday, May 22, 2011

Best Friend

She's been my best friend for 34 years.

You could say we're joined at the hip, but it would be logistically impossible.  Julie Kayl is 4 ft. 9, and I'm 6 ft. 1.  In fact, sometimes when we're walking down the school hallway together, I become so impatient with her tiny little stride that I have to fight the urge to pick her up and carry her.  It would save so much time.

Back in 1977, I was a 22-year-old kid arriving at Grand Island Central Catholic to teach for the first time, and Julie was the English department head.

"Can you teach TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD?" she quizzed me.


We beamed at each other, and a friendship was born.

At the time, we didn't realize all that our friendship would endure.  Julie and her husband Pat would be part of our wedding, godparents to our oldest son Kenny, and the couple we most enjoyed sharing a table with at Applebees.  As well, Julie and I would prop each other up through the births of each other's children, the deaths of our parents, and two generations of kids at Central Catholic.

And then there was the tragic loss of the Kayls' 25-year-old son Eric.  After Eric died, it was a long time before Pat and Julie would recover enough to return to some semblance of themselves.  I remember sitting close to Julie on her living room sofa gripping her hand the day she called me about Eric.  We stared at each other in wordless shock, and I was afraid she would never come back to me as her laughing, joyful, sardonic self.

But she did.

"Eric leaves me dimes," she confided a few months later.  In fact, she collected hundreds of dimes which mysteriously appeared in the middle of the table, the seat of the car, or on the kitchen floor that had just been swept clean.  She told everybody about those dimes.  Even her students.

"Julie," I said uncomfortably, "I don't know that you want to tell just anyone about your dimes."

She stared at me in amazement.  "Why not?"

Because, I wanted to say, it sounds looney.  What if people think you're too crazy to teach their kids?

But every single person at Central Catholic adores Pat and Julie.

"The Kayls ARE Central Catholic," my husband says.

If Mrs. Kayl said her deceased son was sending dimes from Heaven, then by God, enough said.  There was no reason to believe otherwise.

Julie Kayl is the toughest human being I know.  Retinitis Pigmentosa has robbed her of her vision and stolen her very independent life from her.  But she has adapted gracefully to the dramatic changes in her life.  She can no longer drive, and her tunnel vision requires her to swing her head around like a little owl when it comes to keeping an eye on a classroom of kids.  But she lets nothing deter her from her job.  She hounds the most unmotivated pupil and showers her love on all her students.

Several years ago, she complained to me of a pressure in her chest whenever she walked very far, and two days later she called me from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Lincoln.

"I'm having triple by-pass heart surgery tomorrow," she said almost conversationally. 

I thought my own heart had stopped.  "I'm coming to Lincoln."

"No!" she said.  "It'll be fine.  I'll have Pat call you afterwards."

But I couldn't sit at home while my best friend was undergoing open heart surgery.  When I arrived at the hospital, her family had departed for the cafeteria, and Julie, alone in her room, was perched on her bed swallowed up in a hospital gown five sizes too big for her.

"Hi!" she greeted me as if we were meeting for lunch.  She was, in fact, diving right into a huge lettuce salad.  "Oh man," she sighed in bliss, "this is the best salad I've ever eaten in my life."

Somehow, I had expected her to be languishing away in bed devoid of energy, and instead, she was singing the praises of a hospital salad.  I hopped up next to her in bed, and it suddenly struck me how much she meant to me and how scared I was to lose her.

"Julie," I said, trying not to weep, "are you nervous for tomorrow?"

She waved her hand dismissively.  "Naaa.  If it doesn't work out, I'll go be with Eric."

But thank God, it did work out.  Her surgery the next morning was pronounced a success, and after Pat and her kids had visited her in I.C.U., the nurse allowed me to slip in for just a moment.

Connected to dozens of tubes and devices, Julie looked half her tiny self in her hospital bed.  "Hey there," she greeted me hoarsely.  "How are you?"

I manuevered my way around tubes and I.V.'s and bent down to hug her head.  "More importantly, how are YOU?"

She held my eye.  "I saw Eric."

I stared at her.  "When?"

She closed her eyes for a moment.  "Just a little while ago when I was waking up from surgery.  He was standing there, a little shadowy, smiling at me.  Then he went away."

I leaned close. "Are you okay?"

Her smile was dazzling.  "I'm perfect."

And she is.  She's always been perfect.

But now she and Pat are leaving.  None of us at Central Catholic ever thought they'd actually retire.  Pat's literally kept the building up around us.  Only Mr. Kayl is intimate with the guts of the boiler system and remembers what tile hides the leak in the gym ceiling.  The Kayls are the heart and soul of our school.  And Julie Kayl is my best friend.  Now she has the audacity to leave me.

"Will we still be friends?" I whined, feeling sorry for myself. 

"Absolutely not," she said with a poker face.  "I don't ever want another thing to do with you."

She can joke all she wants, but it won't be the same.  Never again will I dash across the hall to tell her what I just heard in the lounge or vent about a difficult student.

In the weeks before my mastectomy surgery, when I was feeling afraid, I'd step across the hall just to be reassured by her joyful smile.  I never told her what she did for me during that uncertain time when I was trying so hard to be brave at school.  On a difficult day, I'd only have to look at her sweet face across the hall to get my bearings.  Without ever saying a word or knowing how crucial her presence was to me, Julie's steadfast loyalty and absolute faith in things seen and unseen helped me through those weeks.

Thank God we have this summer.  We'll lounge in the sunshine out on the deck Pat built for Julie, and we'll gaze at her gorgeous garden.  She'll do her best to persuade me I really should start watching "American Idol", and we'll talk about her grandchildren and our favorite books.  And about Eric.

Basking in the sunshine, I will be grateful for my 34-year friendship with a tiny, remarkable woman who is every bit as important to me as my own sisters.

 Goodbye, Mrs. Kayl, and thank you, my friend.

You mean the world to me.