I lost a friend on Monday.
Her name is Rosella Clemmons Washington. A jazz singer, mother, wife, sister and friend and one of the most joyful people I have ever known.
The truth is, though, that I let her go 18 months ago. I let my new job, my life, her life, our schedules, get in the way of seeing each other. And now, I will not see her again until I die. And I am so very sad that I was not a good friend. I was a lapsed friend.
Sure, I called. I left voice-mails. I sent email and posted on her Facebook page. So, I can try to convince myself that I reached out, I tried. But I didn’t persist. I didn’t insist. I did the polite thing — I didn’t want to intrude. But somewhere, deep in my bones, I knew Rosella was dying. And I should have just driven to her house, knocked on the door and fallen together with her into each others’ arms.
If I had, it wouldn’t have changed her outcome. Rosella had breast cancer. She beat it once but lost to it in the second round. She fought. Chemo and radiation every week. Every day was long and longer. She stopped singing, silencing a voice that was so rich, so full, so beautiful that I really believe she is in the heavenly choir, tuning up for her first performance right now.
We met at work 30 years ago. For 15 of those years, we talked, laughed, celebrated our birthdays, cried, ate out, dined in at each other’s houses. She was at my daughter’s wedding; she sang Ave Maria from the balcony with no mike. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I was at her wedding and the birth and death of her first child, her daughter, Debra Rose. She was pregnant with her son the same year my daughter was pregnant with hers.
Cyndy and I were there when Mark Isaiah was born 2 months early - touched his long, long fingers, nicknamed him ET and hugged the wonderful woman who was his Mom. Rosella used to hand me Mark Isaiah as soon as I came into the house saying, “he will only stay still for you.” When he was old enough to walk, little Mark would fling himself into my arms, running his still long, thin fingers through my hair, leaning in for hugs and laughing.
But once we moved to another county and Mark Isaiah started playing sports, Rosella and I had to work hard to find days that worked for both of us. My schedule was more flexible so I wrapped around hers, going to her house, having lunch with Mama Rose, listening to Rosella brag about her now rapidly growing son, and watching her eyes glow when she looked at him.
But time and tide continued to pull us further apart. I would go to a concert of hers and drop by to see her at her new home. Sometimes she would drive out to our house and sit on the deck and give me her wisdom and counsel. I was struggling at work, doing too much, being trivialized, feeling sorry for myself and not doing much more than complaining.
Rosella frequently opened these counseling sessions with her favorite line for her stubborn Irish friend, “Does God have to hit you with a 2 x 4 to get you to see what’s right?” Apparently, the answer was yes. My sister, and we knew somewhere back in time we had been sisters, was always right, always there to offer advice or consolation and always, always laughing.
So, when I called to sing her Happy Birthday in October of 2012, I got voice mail. I thought, okay, she’s busy. But she didn’t call back. When I called around the holidays to see if we could get together, I got voice mail again but I said I understood. Holidays, family…but somewhere in the back of my head, a mall voice whispered, “What if…?” I didn’t answer. I emailed her instead.
When I called in February and said I wanted to come and see her, there was no reply. When she finally did call back, she sounded so tired. She told me she was battling cancer again. I offered to take her to Philly for treatment but she had to go on weekdays and I was working. I offered to come up on a Saturday, sit with her, hold her…but she said she was not fit for any company after chemo and radiation. I told her I understood. I told her I would do what she wanted me to do but wanted to help.
But she said her friends were helping with the transportation and her church was helping her at home.
I told her I loved her. She said she loved me too. And I never heard her voice again.
This morning, I sit here knowing that I should have shoved aside all my reservations, been impolite, driven up to her house and intruded. Because I might, just once more, have seen, held and hugged this woman who I loved and still love with all my heart.
Rosella’s death has taught me not to wait, not to be concerned about societal restrictions, not to lose another friend without having the chance to say, just one more time, how precious they are to me and how very much I love having them in my life.
Good by Rosella. I know God was glad to get you back home but I miss you, my sister.