“Love people, not things. Use things, not people.”
So many variations of this theme are on the internet, but it all boils down to the same truth. Our connection to each other — rather than our acquisition of stuff –is what matters.
Love is what sustains us, and stuff can’t love you back.
In this moment, as Day #17 of my no-shopping year slips into another dark night, I’m feeling this acutely. I just learned someone I love is gone.
I met Linnea at a weekend retreat for women at a posh resort in the Catskill Mountains. I’d driven three hours from my home in the middle of upstate New York, but she’d flown in from Santa Monica, CA to attend. She was fierce, a tall slender woman with a cute nose, flawless skin and hair in a battle-ready take-no-prisoners shade of red.
She scared the hell out of me when I first saw her in line at the registration desk, chatting with her BFF BF (Best Friends Forever Blonde Friend). Both wore black turtlenecks, skinny jeans, leather motorcycle jackets slung over their shoulders. In comparison, I felt like Mrs. Super-Dowdy-McDowd-Dowd with my sensible pageboy, cardigan sweater and LL Bean black pants.
Standing right behind Linnea I nearly turned and ran out of that resort. She looked like a former Cheerleading Squad Captain and I’d been the loser Editor of the Yearbook, so I was clearly retreat-ing out of my league; if I left now I’d avoid the humiliation of not fitting in, not having anything in common with this superior specimen of chromosomal perfection or anyone else for that matter.
Don’t judge a woman by her looks — or by her previous career (an actress with an IMDB listing and a couple of guest appearances on shows I actually recognized from the eighties). During the first workshop Linnea was in tears as she explained how her chronic lateness pretty much derailed her shot at a recurring role on a TV series.
She was open, warm, brash, unafraid to speak out for herself or for the quieter women at the conference who gathered around like teens idolizing a rock star. It wasn’t just her looks. The underdogs among us recognized that beneath the ‘hear me roar’ fiery-redhead exterior, Linnea was golden, a giver and a listener, an interpreter of the many ways in which women sabotage themselves, and a guide on how to move past that and honor our deep bright spirit.
I recognized in Linnea the woman I wanted to be when she spoke out during a moment in which I hesitated. She saw what was going on, stood up for someone who wasn’t being treated fairly, seized the attention of everyone in the room, and corrected that mistake. She wasn’t bitchy or whiny or pushy; she was steady, firm, and loving in the act of redressing this wrong.
I got to know her better over time as we returned to the retreat in subsequent years, and in between we talked over the phone and kept in close touch on Facebook. I learned she was a marriage and family therapist whose interests lay in empowering women, particularly young women. One year at the retreat she gave a workshop on overcoming negative talk. As I was working in public radio at the time, I invited her on a show I co-hosted and co-produced. Her interview on making the negative positive, one step at a time, hit closer to home than I’d realized.
As our friendship grew, our phone conversations sometimes ran two hours, and I learned about her complex childhood, her early marriage, her career as the youngest editor at a legendary fashion magazine, and her own relationship struggles. Since she called from California, often the 3-hour time difference didn’t jell with my schedule. I missed several calls over the years and wasn’t always good at returning them.
And that’s where my sharpest grief cuts deepest.
Back in March 2017 I was in Seattle for a wedding when Linnea called, and I answered in the middle of a busy moment. She sounded quiet and told me she had news. I was distracted and brusque: “Hey, I can’t talk now but I’ll call you when I get back home.”
I didn’t. I forgot about that call.
March stretched into April, April into the summer, and in early August I received an email from her. If I wasn’t interested in maintaining our friendship, she understood, but she was reaching out one last time in case she was misreading the situation.
I was ashamed. In an apologetic email I reassured her that things had slipped my mind, and I took full responsibility. We set up a time for a phone call, and that’s when she broke the news: she had liver cancer. She had called me back in March when she was first diagnosed because she knew I was a cancer survivor. And I had not returned that call.
Four months. I’d let her hang for four months.
After that, I touched base with greater regularity. We discussed how it was to go through chemo, to see the texture of our hair change. She’d cut her hair short, let the red go in favor of an emerging bright white, and even started calling herself Linnea the White after Gandalf the White in Lord of the Rings, a movie she’d loved. As she explained it, Gandalf the Grey had been an ordinary wizard until he’d endured the hellfires of the deepest recesses of Middle Earth and had emerged reborn.
“That’s what the cancer is,” she’d said in a voice that had become soft and raspy, “and I’m being reborn like Gandalf.”
After a while texts were the easiest way to communicate, and I’d send short messages of encouragement to which she’d reply with emojis: hearts, clasped hands in prayer, kissing smiley faces, and other positive images. Once, after a stretch of silence on my end that made me feel neglectful, I texted her love and strength and asked, “How are you?”
Her answer was typically Linnea, honest in its forthrightness. “In future my love it’s very difficult to be asked how are you, how are you feeling, it’s a fight right now and I don’t want to talk about how I’m feeling. I just want love and strength from fabulous women like you.”
I remembered how it was when I’d had cancer; I’d hated that question. And now I was burdening her with it.
I texted back, “Then I will not ask it and I thank you for letting me know how to best be with you.” That was November 20.
Over Thanksgiving and the holidays I sent short notes, emojis, hearts, clasped hands, and she returned them to me. Then silence, and a week ago today I texted and found out she was in the hospital, “due to hydration” she explained, but I was worried.
I couldn’t ask. I said I wouldn’t.
And if we’re going to love people, we have to love them at the place where they can accept that love and not be burdened.
I lost my mother to cancer and she didn’t want to talk about the end. I lost my dear friend Dana to cancer and she didn’t want to talk about the end.
I wouldn’t have known about the end if not for a stranger tagging a photo of Linnea sitting on a beach, toes in the sand, smiling as the light faded. That post appeared a few hours ago, and this entry is my attempt to process that grief.
I’ve since become friends with Ann H. who posted the photo, and not just because she was the one from whom I learned Linnea was gone. If you were a friend of Linnea’s, it meant you’d passed muster and that you operated from a baseline of kindness and care. I want more of those people in my life, and Linnea had the gift of befriending them.
Linnea didn’t suffer fools easily. Perhaps that made her abrasive to some people. But as several friends commented, she was one of those people who could light up a room, and she was so alive, so present for every single day.
She was a human being, being her best when things were good and an essay written for a contest won her a vacation cruise, being her best when she was diagnosed and still continued to work because she didn’t want to abandon her clients.
Linnea’s passing reminds me that not all forms of spending are equal.
The money we spend takes up most of our attention; we worry about bills and our inability to pay them. But when you spend money, you aren’t using up a finite resource; you can always go out and earn more.
But the time you spend — or don’t spend — is finite, and you can’t earn back those hours in this lifetime.
I wish I’d focused my attention on spending or not spending earlier.
I wish I could get back those four months — the time I lost when Linnea was first diagnosed — so I could be there for her when her cancer journey began.
I can’t. I can only go forward and do better by those whom I care about.
We use people even when we don’t mean to. We love stuff until we’re forced to look hard at what that means and how we become poorer in spirit for it.
On Facebook tonight, the stories being shared are about a life fully lived by a woman well-loved. In all respects, she got it right.