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My Friend Taught Me, and I Listened

Personal Perspective: Marilyn taught me how to enrich my life and how to die.

Marilyn is the only person in my life who taught me invaluable ways to enrich my life yet also how to die with grace, dignity, and acceptance. Her calming manner and ability to be nonjudgmental made all the difference in my life. While she has been gone for six months, she continues to guide me in awe-inspiring ways through my treasured, daily memories of our life together.

For readers who have not "met" Marilyn, she came into my life when I was 14, first as my brother Steve’s girlfriend and then, a year later, as his 19-year-old wife. While she initially became a sister-in-law to my little-girl self, she also became my lifelong, dearest forever friend.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
The author and her dear Marilyn, toasting their friendship.
Source: Barbara Jaffe

She didn’t just tell me she cared: She showed me every time we were together. She came to our house at first to be with Steve, but that didn’t stop her from walking down the hall into my room and asking, “What’s going on with you, Barb?”

And my crises mirrored my chronological age, of course, beginning with 16-year-old boyfriend dilemmas. Marilyn listened to me with focused, caring eyes, undistracted, and most of all, interested. Sitting on the edge of my floral twin bedspread, she looked into my eyes and shared her thoughts, always peppered with common sense. “If he doesn’t like you, then he’s missing out. Forget about him. He doesn’t deserve you, Barb.” She meant it.

My mother could utter the same words, but they never held equal impact or empathy. Marilyn always knew what to say and how to say it. Instead of “You like your hair like that?” (emphasis on "like" and "that"), Marilyn would sweetly state, “Have you thought of cutting your hair? You look adorable with short hair.” I listened to her.

How do you teach someone to become a better mother? By showing… and that is what Marilyn did for me. When she was angry with her kids, her voice became almost a whisper. So quiet that they had to listen. I heard no yelling.

With my college-aged sons, she taught me to wait for them to call me. “That way, they really want to talk to you,” she emphasized. Of course, she was right about that, too.

And, instead of talking so much, she taught me to listen. “Sometimes, your kids just want to vent. They don’t want you to fix anything. They want you to hear them.” Again, she was right, as I heard my son say, “Thanks for listening, Mom.” Nothing was solved for him, but he talked, and I listened without trying to fix anything. Marilyn was so right.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
Marilyn and her daughter, Jill.
Source: Barbara Jaffe

Marilyn truly listened to me; when I was frustrated, she didn’t tell me that there was something wrong with me like my mother did. My mom just did not have the skills to respond compassionately to me when I was upset. She would frustratingly say, “Boy, do you need help.” But that help didn't include hers.

But Marilyn was different. She would hear my voice on the phone after I said hello and immediately asked, “What’s wrong?” She just knew, and she never judged.

Marilyn also sought my opinions about her challenges. “Thanks for letting me vent, Barbara; I needed that.” I always felt so honored that she chose me with whom to share her secrets. I thought of all her dear friends, and I knew I was the lucky one that got to learn the innermost workings of Marilyn. And I am so much the better for it.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
The author with her niece, Jill. Marilyn so generously shared her.
Source: Barbara Jaffe

I see Marilyn all around my house. Whenever she was excited about new purchases or ideas, especially for the kitchen, she told me about them and then sent me the items. “You will love this, Barbara,” she exclaimed.

One time, she sent me a potato ricer. Honestly, I had never seen one before and did not even know how to use it. She talked me through the logistics on the phone, and this new kitchen gadget continues to make my life so much easier. Every time I make mashed potatoes, I literally say aloud, “Thanks, Marilyn. You saved me so much time and energy.”

And there was so much more: a can opener that took me a while to get the hang of but has replaced my electric can opener. Again, on the phone, she talked me through how to use it and actually demonstrated it in person when I visited her. I needed a refresher course, and instead of being frustrated with me, she explained the directions all over again. Her delight came in my own joy when I told her that once again, she had made my life easier.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
Some of Marilyn's kitchen gifts
Source: Barbara Jaffe

And there was still so much more: liquid eyeliner at 14, which I still use today; makeup remover wipes; special bras; cooling nightgowns (to lessen night sweats); a security stamp to cover my name on envelopes before I throw them out; sliding bag closures for potato chips; recipes galore… the special cornflake chicken that she always made for Chanukah, yet I made all year round, thanks to it being so easy and so delicious. Cookie recipes, cakes, almost everything that I make that is "special" comes from Marilyn. She organized an entire binder of new recipes, adding, “Take pictures of them so you can have them on your computer.” She was also a techie, so whenever I had computer issues, I called her. If she didn’t know the answer, she would add, “I’ll research it and get back to you.” She always did.

When I came to her house for a visit, she had my current favorite treat waiting for me. Once, it was scones from a place at the SF airport, so she had them ready for me in a bag on my bed. Another time, milk chocolate molasses chips, See’s chocolate hearts, malt balls. Whatever she knew would make me smile was on top of my bed in her guest room.

One lesson I never wanted to learn from Marilyn but was forced to accept was how to die gracefully. I tried to ignore her prognosis and hoped that the low percentages of life expectancy would not apply to her. I prayed that she would be one of the lucky ones that could live with stage four lung cancer until we both died of old age.

Source: Barbara Jaffe
"Soul Sisters," bronze sculpture by Nnamdi Okonkwo
Source: Barbara Jaffe

But she was much more realistic than I, and when she started hospice, she would talk to me about her feelings, about dying, about acceptance. While I did not want to hear her words, I listened. She also shared the joy of our friendship, stating, “We are so lucky. I don’t know anyone who has what we have had.” She had such gratitude despite such sadness. Not once did she ever say, Why me? when the rest of us surely felt that way. And once again, she taught me the hardest lesson of all because I listened.