Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Every Mother’s Day, when so many people on Facebook post pictures and wish their mothers a happy day, I hurt for the children of mothers who died way too young. I’m sure it’s because of one child and one mother in particular. My beautiful young friend, Rachel, lost her mama when no child should lose a parent. I lost one of my dearest friends at the same time, when her mom, my friend, Mindy, was taken from us. Rachel was only 12 years old, and her brother, Brian, was 10, I think. There’s no way to put a positive spin on this. It sucked then. It does now. It always will.

Having said that, however, I have to say that when I think about Mindy, which I truly do every day, I don’t feel sadness. I don’t feel pain anymore. I have SO many wonderful memories that most of the time I’m smiling, and sometimes there’s even a snort-laugh. The girl was a riot.

Here’s the bad part of the story. Let’s just get it out of the way. When Mindy was 36 years old, she started feeling extremely tired, very sick and generally awful. She had all kinds of tests leading up to that horrible day when I heard the worst three words I have ever heard in my life, “I have leukemia.”

She didn’t just have leukemia. She had the worst, most aggressive form of it. The next 13 months were awful for her, and we lost her shortly after her 37th birthday in 2001. It blows me away that it was so long ago. I can’t believe it’s been 13 years because I could swear she was just here. Maybe it’s because she still is such a huge part of my life.

A number of years after she died, I made a major decision and then acted on it. My first thought after all those years was that I had to tell Mindy. After all that time, she was the first person I wanted to call. You don’t need to worry about me. I knew she was gone. But she was the first one I wanted to tell.

Ok, here’s some more sadness, but I’m going to tell it anyway, because it was also very meaningful to me. On what was to be her last night with us, I got up to her hospital room, hoping against hope that what I had heard wasn’t true. I walked into the room to see her family sitting around her bed, and I got a horrible kick in the gut when I realized I had gotten the correct information.

But in the middle of all that sadness, a lovely thing happened. All the things that you would expect to go through your head were going through mine…..how could this really be happening, how could we all go on without her, how could I be there for Rachel, what would the kids do without her, etc., etc. Rachel was sitting next to the bed and holding her mama’s hand. When she saw me, she reached out with her other hand, and I took it in mine. The symbolism of that moment had a powerful effect on me, as I realized I would always be connected to Mindy through Rachel. If ever there was a sign, that was mine. I knew then that as hard as it would be, we would be ok.

Not long before that night, I was beginning to accept that the worst might be happening. and it dawned on me that if Mindy’s ex-husband, Peter, was raising the kids, I might not be a part of their lives anymore. He had no obligation to me whatsoever. So after a fair amount of fretting over this, I toughened myself up; I took many, many deep breaths; and I called him. He was always just Mindy’s ex to me, and we weren’t friends, although I wouldn’t say we were enemies. He was just always her ex, and she was always my friend. So I didn’t know what to expect or how the conversation would go. I knew I needed to talk to him, and that’s about as far as I had thought it through at the moment.

It turned out we had a very long, serious and sometimes emotional heart-to-heart. We talked about the past, and we agreed we needed to move forward for the sake of the kids. I told him I wanted him to know that no matter what he might think, I would always be 100% supportive of him, and I meant it.

I won’t go into the rest of what we said, but when we hung up, I’d say we were friends, or if anything, we were a team, with both of us focused on what would be best for the kids. He said something that really touched me. “I know,” he said, “that every bit of compassion and kindness my children have is totally because of Mindy.”

And again, I knew we’d be ok. And we were.

Shortly after Mindy died, I had a dream about her. I don’t remember what it was about, except that we were so happy to see each other, and we gave each other a huge, wonderful hug. When I woke up, I was happy, and then I remembered why. I can’t describe the feeling that washed over me except to say it was a peace I don’t think I’d ever known. And you can believe whatever you want, but I know absolutely without a doubt that Mindy was telling me she was ok.

I really intended for this not to be sad or emotional, and I’m afraid I haven’t done a great job of that. So, I’m switching gears to tell you what a joy she was. Everyone who had ever met her loved her. It was that simple. You couldn’t help it. She had this amazing ability to laugh at herself. She was a beautiful, kind, talented, smart, lovely person, but she never took herself too seriously. She had an uncanny ability to be our own Lucy Ricardo. She spilled coffee everywhere and on everything, she often tripped over nothing, and she had these natural facial expressions that could make you double over laughing in an instant. At one of our fall festivals at the forest preserve, she dressed up as a jack-o-lantern and handed out candy. I’m not at all sure how this came about, but there she was, in pouring rain, handing out candy with this “why the hell am I doing this” expression, and everyone loved her.

Another thing that you just had to love about her…..she always meant to do things but never quite got around to them. Here’s a classic. The night before her wedding to Tom, she announced that she still needed to buy shoes. She was getting married HOURS later, and she hadn’t gotten around to buying shoes! So, on her wedding day, we were doing what all brides do. We were at the mall, trying to find some shoes to go with her gown. Only Mindy. When we told the salesperson she needed shoes for her wedding, the woman got very excited and asked when she was getting married. Mindy looked at her watch and said, “Uhhh, in about four hours.”

One of her finest moments was the night she was introduced to Father [can’t remember his name, so we’ll say] Joe at a fancy reception with lots of people around, and because they had another friend they called “Father,” she went along with what she thought was a joke and said, “Well, hello! I’m Mother Teresa!” Not long after that someone said, “Hey, Father Joe! How are things going at St. Matthew?”

It was hard to top that, but there was also the night we met Scott Studwell, who we learned after the fact was a former Illini football star who went on to play for the Vikings and was Pro All American for several years. Yeah, it was brutal. I think the words “So how long did it take you to come up with THAT name?” and “I bet you looked really cute with those horns on your head” were spoken. After I went home and told Dave, who informed me that he was, in fact, a huge football star, I called Mindy, and she picked up the phone groaning, “I know! My brother just told me the same thing!” [Side note: Scott Studwell was a very classy guy who thought the whole thing was hilarious.]

I could go on and on. I really could. And that doesn’t even count all the stories I can’t repeat here. She truly did brighten the world. There’s even a garden at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve in Mahomet that is dedicated to her, and the plaque reads:

Mindy Harrington Memorial Garden:
a symbol of the beauty she brought to the world

I’ve wanted to write about Mindy for a long time because she was so amazing and I was so lucky to be her friend. I’m also writing about her because knowing her changed me. Losing her broke me for a while, but it made me stronger in the end. My kids noticed I stopped sweating the small stuff. I realized that also. Since this happened, I’ve learned when I feel overwhelmed to compare what seems so awful at the moment to the day of the three horrible words. It’s amazing when I do that, how much doesn’t really matter, so I can save my strength for the really bad things, and let the others go. Losing her seemed to put everything into perspective for me, and my priorities were made right. I felt I owed it to her to live a better life.

And living my life, loving my people and doing what I can in my own small way to make the world better are top of the list. Laughing is right up there also, along with experiencing pure joy and appreciating every day I’m given.

Of course, you can’t see this, but I just started smiling as I reread that last paragraph. I realized I just described Mindy. I knew I carried her with me, but I didn’t realize until now just how much. What a great thing this is. Without really noticing, I managed to keep with me all the best things about her. And I have to say I’m pretty talented on the coffee spilling too!

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