One More Tomorrow

One More Tomorrow

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

One More Tomorrow

When the heart grieves over what it has lost, the spirit rejoices over what it has left.

Sufi epigram

She was my “buddy pal”—a pet name coined by my daughter decades ago—a second mom to my kids, my should-have-been sister, my friend.

Relationships like this are not remarkable for women. We’re pretty blessed with the ability to identify good friends, nurture them, and keep them close to our hearts. Our friendships are going to last a lifetime. Isn’t that the rule?

So, during all those quick cups of decaf at the French Bakery, or through that whirlwind overnight to New York City when we promised ourselves over a bottle of lunchtime chardonnay that we would be back, or during those myriad late-night phone chats between us when nothing much of significance was ever exchanged, JoAnn and I always trusted we had more tomorrows.

JoAnn and I met at Chestnut Hill Academy on the first day of pre-first for our sons, Bryan and Eric, who are today grown men. I was in my customarily worn-out exercise tights and baggy T-shirt; she was dressed, and I mean dressed. Not overdone, just picture perfect in her smart Talbots suit with just the proper scarf, her hair and makeup flawless, and it was barely 8 AM. The little guys connected, and our friendship soon followed.

Through the years, JoAnn and I shared absolutely everything.

Cooking tricks—Jo taught me to roll parboiled noodles around the ricotta filling and lay the bundles side by side for lasagna. I taught her to whip a couple of egg whites into her mashed sweet potatoes and bake them in the oven.

Kid advice—when our children balked about attending church, Jo taught me to say, “If God gives us seven days, we can give him back one hour.” I taught her to substitute “honor bright” instead of “swear to God.”

Secrets—one of us had never tried pot, the other had.

Stuff—we shared her black lace shawl, my grandmother’s earrings, her packable travel coat, my Hermes scarf. Was that glitzy glitter bag hers, or mine? Who could remember? Who cared?

We shared our January birth month, and together we crossed over to our forties and into our fifties. She with a smile, and me not quite so thrilled. We lived through her son’s first speeding ticket and my son’s school demerits; we celebrated her twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and together we shed tears during my divorce.

And then it came out of the blue. The tests, the diagnosis, the radiation, the chemotherapy, the surgeries. For over two years of extensive cancer treatments, JoAnn continued her job as assistant to the president of our local bank.

During her chemotherapy treatments that often lasted several hours, I sat on a stool by her side, sometimes holding her hand as she dozed, other times turning the pages of the endless magazines we skimmed as I bantered about this new makeup or that new accessory.

Even when enduring the worst of the radiation and chemotherapy side effects, Jo would never forget to call and remind me to have the kids wear their slickers when rain was predicted. When she should have been asleep, the phone would ring late at night—just to remind me to sign the permission slip for the next day’s school trip. I guess we were taking care of each other for all our tomorrows.

The day JoAnn was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, I took her doctor aside and pleaded to be allowed to spend the night in her room. He reluctantly agreed. After her husband and kids kissed her good-bye, it was just the two of us. The horrific pain she had endured for many months was gone, so she had a brief respite from her suffering. That night we talked until sunrise, my best friend and me. No, we weren’t at a party, or at the theater, or out to dinner. We didn’t have our hair blown out, or faces made-up, or nails polished. I wasn’t in my little black “Audrey” dress, and she wasn’t in her favorite sapphire silk suit. We were just best friends who were treasuring the moment and, maybe, just maybe, for the first time we weren’t thinking about tomorrow.

A few short weeks later, JoAnn slipped into a coma and passed away. Hours after she died, I found myself in church at the St. Martin-in-the-Fields family service. As I sat alone in the pew, my mind swirled with memories.

I wasn’t concentrating on the sermon, or the prayers, and I don’t even remember seeing the collection plate pass by. All I could think about was that my best friend had died and I would never, ever feel connected with her again. If only I could feel her near me one last time. I closed my eyes and prayed hard for a signal.

“Please, God,” I prayed, “send me a sign, any sign that will prove to me that JoAnn will always be with me.”

Then just, as I opened my eyes, I heard the opening chords of the communion hymn: “You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord.” While I had been praying for a signal from Jo, out of the hundreds of possible hymns, the choir began to sing her absolutely most favorite hymn in the whole world.

I looked up at the altar and listened to every syllable of On Eagle’s Wings. As the familiar chorus, “And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” echoed throughout the church, I couldn’t stop my tears. God had heard me and had answered my prayer.

JoAnn was truly with me. I felt her presence, just as if she had been sitting next to me. Then, out of nowhere, a hand rested on my shoulder. I turned to my left and saw that a stranger had slid across the pew and had put her arm around me to comfort me.

It was exactly what JoAnn would have done.

We sat in silence until the choir sang the final refrain.

When it was our turn to receive communion, this stranger guided me down the church’s center aisle, her arm still around my shoulder. We knelt side by side at the communion rail as we received the bread and wine for communion.

Outside the church, after the service, in the crisp November breeze, we introduced ourselves. I explained to her that my best friend had died hours before, and that just as I had been praying for a sign, her hand had touched my shoulder. I told her what had affected me the most was that her act of comfort was exactly what JoAnn would have done. And for those brief moments, I had felt JoAnn had truly been with me and God had answered my prayer.

This stranger simply smiled and told me she was happy to have been sitting next to me in church this morning. We hugged and said good-bye—this new friend and I.

As I was driving home to face the first day without JoAnn in my life, the first thing that came to mind was the embroidered pillow I had given her many birthdays ago that she kept on her bed: “A friend is a gift you give yourself.” Indeed, JoAnn had been a gift to me, as was this stranger this morning in church.

It’s been over a year of tomorrows since JoAnn died. I still find myself stopping my car from automatically turning onto the street where she lived, or picking up the phone for one of our late night chats.

And, when these moments overwhelm me, I remember that Sunday morning in church. And then I am comforted in knowing that JoAnn’s spirit is only a prayer away and that she is truly with me through all my tomorrows.

LindaCarol Cherken

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