SANDEE & MITCH KLINE
Last evening, as I was writing a fictional story based on my childhood, I received a long-distance telephone call from my real childhood friend’s daughter in Israel. She has kept in touch with me over the past five years since her mother, whom I had known since we were seven years old, died of leukemia in the fall of 2010. Each December 6, Sandee’s birthday, I post a remembrance of her, as I did again this year. Not that I need reminding . . . I don’t feel that Sandee ever left. She may be somewhere where we can’t hear her stories or her laughter, or benefit from her compassionate listening or offers of comfort; but I believe that everyone who was close to her can still feel her in their heart and soul. I can. And occasionally she even visits me in a dream. The only thing I don’t like about this is that I have to say goodbye again, and her presence in my slumbering brain reminds me that I could do nothing—absolutely nothing—to help her when she was so sick. That’s something I can’t forgive life for—not letting me do somethingF
After a minute or so of catch-up conversation on the phone last evening with Sandee’s daughter, I happened to ask about one of her brothers, who also had moved to Israel. After a silent pause, I heard the ominous words that the family had undergone yet another major shift: her brother had moved back home to Philadelphia to become the primary caregiver for their father. Mitch, who remained a warrior against leukemia and lymphoma—blood cancers that stole his wife, mother, and mother-in-law from him and from the people in their lives—is now fighting on his own behalf against stage 4 brain cancer. He is recovering from surgery, chemo, and radiation at home, cared for by his son and other close family members and friends.
This morning, I awoke to that heavy-hearted, semi-shocked feeling that stuns you back to the reality that an act of God or nature has just torn another hole through your world. I don’t have many details about Mitch at this point, but I am following updates on Facebook and remain in touch with several members of his and Sandee’s family. People local to the Philadelphia area may be interested in the “Lotsa Helping Hands” site—Pitch in for Mitch—which provides updates and information on how to give support (signup is required; mine is pending at this writing).
Links to leukemia and lymphoma sites are at the end of this post. In addition, people local to the area may be interested in the Philly-based Mark Roy Crespy Chapter of the City of Hope, organized by members of Sandee’s family in memory of her brother, who died at about age 11 from bone cancer.
In two days, on December 13, I will celebrate my second anniversary of being successfully treated for uterine cancer. On that day, Friday the 13th, 2013, I underwent a da Vinci robotic total hysterectomy, followed by vaginal radiation (brachytherapy). My recent checkup showed no evidence of recurrence, and I also just had a mammogram that was clear. (See complete information in Uterine Cancer: My Story & More.) I say this in humility and gratitude, even as I feel the pain of loss suffered by the family of my oldest and dearest friend (she still is).
Much progress has been made in treating cancer. But as my friend’s story shows, it is still leaving broken bodies, minds, and hearts in its wake. At the first sign that anything is wrong with your own or with a loved one’s health, please consult a medical practitioner. Early detection of this insidious disease may save your or your loved one’s life.
The following story was originally posted on December 6, 2013.
SANDRA CRESPY KLINE
12-6-52 — 9-27-10
I met Sandee Crespy when we were both seven years old. We were in the same second-grade class at Ziegler Elementary School in Northeast Philadelphia. Although we had almost distinctly opposite personalities and, on the surface, not much in common, we nevertheless went through four schools together—after Ziegler it was Fels Junior High, Lincoln High, and La Salle College (now University), all in Philly. Our early careers also took roughly parallel paths—she was a legal secretary, I was a medical secretary. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding when she married her high school sweetheart, Mitch Kline, and she was the matron of honor at my wedding when I married my second husband, Farok Contractor, on December 7, 2003. After we graduated college—it took her 18 years of night school, me 11—she went on to become a CPA, and I became an editor-writer. Eighteen years may seem like a long time to go to college, but she and Mitch had three amazing children (Alyssa [Malka], Evan, and Jeffrey) while she also pursued her career and studied—and, of course, socialized with her many friends. (My son, Matt, was born about a year after I finally graduated while working full-time, so I had it a bit easier.)
This synopsis tells you very little about how and why we managed to retain a friendship over 50 years. To give you some idea of that relationship, you can read a brief remembrance I wrote about us in 2012 as an exercise for my writing group: An American Friendship—Associated Memory. In that mini-memoir, you’ll see that I mentioned my recently found sister, Vicki Sue, who was reunited with her maternal family 50 years after we were separated (read her story here). However, the connection is very important because just about a year after we found Vicki Sue, we lost Sandee to her deadly battle with leukemia. But not before the two of them had the chance to meet the previous October. Although Sandee had two lovely sisters, Ronnie and Jackie, you might have thought she’d found another one of her own. (She also had two brothers—Scott, who is doing well, and Mark, who died very young of bone cancer.) Of everyone I knew, she was the most thrilled that Vicki Sue had re-entered our lives—particularly because Vicki had been raised Jewish!
Sandee’s Jewish background was one of the things that had attracted me about her the most when we were young. She came from a big family—Ashkenazy on her mother’s side, Sephardic on her father’s. This mix of Russian and Spanish ancestry may be one of the primary reasons a bone-marrow donor could not be found to save Sandee’s life, despite her myriad of relatives on both sides. But my larger point is that I used to love going to Sandee’s house when we were kids because of all the people—all the life and love—I found there. My family is small and had an unhappier history, so I often took refuge in hers.
In October 2009, my family had its first reunion gathering to honor our finding Vicki Sue. This has evolved into an annual Oktoberfest celebration. But on this first occasion, Sandee joined us—you can see the joy on her face, drinking her last cup of tea in my home:
Sandee and I did share one final cup of tea—at her home in January 2010. She had recently returned from a trip to Israel, where she and Mitch had been visiting their daughter and her family, and thought she’d contracted some sort of bug. Each afternoon she developed a high fever and became very sleepy, so much so that she had to stop working. One snowy January afternoon, I went to see her and took with me a collection of unusual chocolate teas that someone had given me as a gift that I’d never opened. We cracked open the little canisters that day and enjoyed a cup of chocolate tea together. Although she didn’t drink out of “her” cup, which is at my house, looking at that cup brings back these powerful memories of those two last cups of tea we shared:
I didn’t see Sandee again until August 15, 2010, just weeks before she passed. It wasn’t that I didn’t try—I emailed and called her family repeatedly trying to set up a time to visit. But she became sicker and weaker over the ensuing months and was in and out of hospitals, including Johns Hopkins—where our friend Sue and I went for our last girl-thing that August day. The three of us used to get together for our annual fall combined birthday dinner (my day is September 24, Sue’s is November 24, and Sandee’s, of course, was December 6). The last time I spoke with Sandee on the phone it was just a couple of days before my birthday, but she was too ill and too weak to realize it. On September 27, 2010, we got the word from her family that she’d passed away at the local hospital, which was her choice. She was surrounded by her loving family.
Her daughter, Malka, called me and asked me to be one of the pallbearers at her mother’s funeral. I’ve never before or since carried a burden that was so light in my hands and so heavy on my heart.
Click the heart image to read about its significance.
Rest peacefully and as joyfully as you lived, my friend.