She had raven hair, a vicious temperament, and an unerring sense of people's character. She smoked like a sandstorm and swore like the first time you see Mount Ranier from Seattle.
She was a friend of mine.
We met at the University where she worked as a transcriptionist. She was quite a bit older than me, but we kept bumping into each other at coffee. I tend not to stand on protocol or social class, and shee seemed impressed that one of the the doctors would spend as much time talking to her. She mothered many of the staff and I was no different.
We bumped into each other outside work, in coffee shops, the more Bohemian restaurants in town and the occasional Tom Waits hangouts that have nearly disappeared from Atlanta's landscape in the years since I left. She would dress up as a tiger at Hallowe'en with what she called her tribe and they would march into Yuppie nightclubs, a motley crew of costumed animals, subversives and misfits.
I ran into her with various girlfriends during my exploring days and we had dinner to discuss them. I absorbed her advice and through the years, on reflection, her reflections were unerringly true. We discussed my dreams and plans and aspirations. Hers were limited somewhat, by her enviable ability to live vibrantly in the moment. I have never met a woman who lived more in the present.
She was a Buddhist who lived with a phone company technician in a gentrifying part of town. She loved to garden and occasionally offered me herbs she had grown, which I used (to cook with.) She had a big shaggy dog and two cats, her house smelled of incense and patchouli. She painted and I tried to encourage her. I asked to buy one of her paintings, but it was one of her favorites. She sold it to me a few years later when she needed money and she knew I wouldn't haggle with her.
Perhaps it was because of this relationship and my earnest innocence that I completely missed the flirtatious undertones of our conversations. In the end she remained a friend.
But I sometimes fear I am not a good friend.
Her friend called me once, not long after I met the woman who would become my wife. Toni had breast cancer. She was refusing treatment. I called, we caught up and the next thing I knew I was driving up to the mountain town she had moved to without her friend. I took my future wife in hand to meet my muse.
Toni was afraid, perhaps more afraid of the drugs than of the disease. It turned out she was in active treatment, if you want to call it that, with herbal treatments from an alternative medicine herbalist in the mountains. I knew where she was coming from given her personality and her beliefs. I felt it was her right... informed consent and all that, you know. I told her she really needed to think about medical treatment, but she looked so good and I was caught up in a relationship that was finally working, that I talked to her only once after that.
I got concerned when I started getting her answering machine and she didn't call back.
I was more concerned when I found that the number was disconnected.
I lost her friend's phone number.
I didn't keep in touch.
I got married.
I started a new job.
I found her obituary online. She had died the week I proposed to my wife, just a little over four years ago.
I think about Toni often, especially when I worry about why I don't keep in touch with my family or friends as well as I should. I think about her fears as I watch my wife make scary decisions of her own. Today, my wife is having her fourth breast biopsy in less than two years. She went through the chemo, radiation and drugs that Toni dodged. It's always a struggle and we have been blessed with good doctors, good coverage and no money concerns to affect our emotionally-laden and very scary decisions. They are difficult enough to make as it is, even if I am a medical person.
I pray that Toni is in the arms of the mother goddess, probably with a sad smile on her face, knowing that this is just one more thing that I need to go through for my own sake, even as it pales to what my wife is going through.