Excuse me for hijacking a love song to speak of a platonic friendship but I can’t stop hearing that refrain, round and round in my head, “How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”
It has been just over 24 hours since we learned that lifelong friends of ours died in a murder-suicide last week. Three people, father, mother, and adult child. The mother, Elena, was the best boss I ever had. One of the best friends, too.
What made Elena so special? She was a great listener. When you asked her counsel on something it was always sound but she mostly just listened until asked (what a great quality–I wish I had half as much of it as she did). She was unflappable. Calm, measured, reasonable. I can’t recall her *ever being upset with me, either as her subordinate at work nor as her friend. She just always had a smile.
When I first met Elena, her daughter had just been born. They knew at birth something was different about Carmina because her head was very large. The chromosomal abnormalities had yet to be worked out, but they knew. And I grieved with Elena the loss of hope that her daughter would be normal.
I was still single at the time, engaged to Noel, so this was a huge thing to me. Yet even in the midst of working through her grief, Elena got on with things at work and always had that beautiful smile.
Elena threw my bridal shower in Germany. She also had the most terrific farewell party for me ever after three years, at a wonderful Yugoslavian restaurant our families had discovered during our time in the Stuttgart area.
But before she did that, she enabled my farewell to take place by an act of servant-leadership that still astounds me to this day. We had been working up to the first Gulf War for months when my rotation date came into view, 15 January 1991. My husband, who is British, had his exit visa from Germany to the U.S. and had to get to the U.S. before February or else he would have to reapply for the visa. We received word that my relief, who was in Hawaii, had two months of classes to take before arriving in Stuttgart. She would be there in March.
As we went to a four section 24/7 watch, I realized I was going to have to stay in Stuttgart and send Noel to the States by himself where he would arrive in Norfolk with no house, no car, no job, no friends, and no driver’s license. As this reality dawned on me, I heard Elena saying to me, “No, that is not going to happen. I am going to put myself on the watchbill in your place. I can carry the pager one night out of four. Hopefully I won’t get called in too much. And I can do my day job as the chief of collections, too.”
I told her at the time and many times over the years that she proved to be the best friend forever with that unselfish act that allowed me to accompany my new husband to his new country! We literally landed on U.S. soil within hours of the bombing campaign beginning in Iraq to recapture the land of Kuwait. Things could have gone so much differently for me, for us.
When Elena returned to the States with her family, we stayed in touch, from one end of Virginia to the other. Our photo albums contain pictures from over the years–on the roof of the Norfolk Naval Base supply building for her husband Doug’s change of command. Me, at our house with Carmina on my lap. In the parking lot of a nearby hotel when they came down with Carmina for the Special Olympics. At the Pungo Strawberry Festival outside of Virginia Beach.
We visited them in Northern Virginia and worshipped with Elena at her lovely Catholic church. A lifelong Catholic believer, she spoke to me of her faith many times. Although we are Baptist, Elena and I seemed to share a simple faith that Jesus died to take our sins and to restore us to God when we trusted Him as our Saviour.
When they moved to the West Coast to be near Doug’s family, we didn’t see each other as much. Elena was to have stayed with us on a trip to a conference in Williamsburg, but she didn’t arrive as early as planned, so we had to settle for a lovely dinner with her at the Trellis up there.
The last time we spoke, I called Elena when the bomb went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, knowing Doug was running the marathon. Elena assured me he was safe . . .
We emailed or Facebooked after that, until yesterday and the dreadful news.
I can’t wrap my mind around a world without Elena in it. I am 57 and have known her since I was 30, almost half my life.
Elena, I miss you. I keep reaching for the phone to call you and ask for your counsel over what has happened. I will never forget you!