What do you do when your very first and best friend passes away too early?

First Friend I Had, First Friend I Let Go

What do you do when your very first and best friend passes away too early?

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I’m not sure how to start this story of my first, and for many years, best friend. Well, I don’t know how to start, middle or finish it, but I know what I want it to feel like.

I want it to feel like a tribute to my cousin, Stephie Jo. I want it to say all the things that made her wonderful. That made me look up to her for so many years and want to be her. I don’t want to mention her passing for the moment because I’m not ready to. I want to send my love to her. I want to celebrate her.

Stephanie was a year older than me (hey, you used to like to claim that year when we were younger, so you keep it now that we have arrived in the dirty 30s). I remember being jealous of my gorgeous cousin. Here’s the breakdown:

She had long blonde hair, she had a Texas accent, and she started shaving her legs and wearing makeup before me. I mean, yeah, how could I not be jealous?! Also, she didn’t have to pluck her eyebrows to get them shaped perfectly. I have two caterpillars on my face, and they need to be tamed often. It didn’t seem fair.

Stephanie never rubbed it in, and even though it was probably a drag to hang out with her lesser cool cousin, she never let me know that. In fact, the plan for many years was that Stephanie and I were going to live in mansions side by side while we attended college and got married. Apparently we didn’t assign the correct people to work on that project because I do not have the address of our mansions. That is extremely embarrassing if it was I who was supposed to be in charge.

I loved our catch-up conversations. I’m sure from the outside they sounded like a speed dating round. Sometimes she would ask a question, then forget I was answering it and ask a different one. Sometimes she would ask the same one over. And sometimes there was just a lot of “Huh?” “Wha?” It was part of her Texas charm to be able to do this and not get under my skin. Very few people in this world could do that to me without getting severely on my nerves. She was one.

Because of Stephanie, I will forever smile whenever I hear the song “Big Pimpin’” by Jay Z. You see, I was going with her to Wall Lake when she was 8 months pregnant with her oldest. She was blasting that song, singing and dancing to it with her big ol’ belly. “Big Pimpin’” in a maternity swimsuit is hard to pull off, but she did it.

I remember at our wedding we were trying to get rid of the battery-operated water fountains we had purchased for the middle of the tables. We tried to give them to everyone. Someone eventually made their way to Stephanie to ask if she would want or could take one. She said something along the lines of, “No, I can’t take care of it. I don’t have a green thumb.” That story always makes me smile…always. Really, the rocks didn’t require a thumb of any color to keep alive.

There are many more flashes of things we did that run through my head. Rebellious kid stuff I don’t want to get grounded for or pass on to others, so I can’t share. I am blessed for those memories. I am blessed for her in my life. I am blessed for my life.

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I tend to have a lot of friendships that ebb and flow. It’s not for lack of caring or loving that causes this, but a preoccupation. A “there are not enough hours in the day” feeling that makes choices about time and effort inevitable.

I think my regret will always be that our friendship was ebbing at the time I lost her, my friend from birth. I always knew it was going to come back and we would be there for each other again. I knew whatever was going on would get better and we would be closer. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

But it won’t work like that. Not ever again. And it is a hard lesson not to get that chance.

Though it’s been two years since she passed, strangely, it still feels like yesterday. This is the time of year when it hurts again. The rest of the year I pretend it’s just one of our “off” times where we haven’t talked in awhile, but this time of year? I remember the truth. I remember what it was like to hear the news, and I remember trying to say goodbye.

If I could tell her anything after these two years, it would be that she is and was so loved. I wish I could see her face as she watches her beautiful children excelling in sports and school, learning to drive, and finding themselves. I know the smile I would see. The smile with tears streaming down — the same one that Stephie Jo flashed me after I made my walk down the aisle as a married woman. I was fine until I got to her arms, and then I joined her in tears of happiness and disbelief.

That is what I see when I think of her, and it’s so beautiful it hurts.