The connection between two friends is often indescribable. It just feels right whenever you are together. When I met Rita, I was an eleven-year-old awkward adolescent. She was a poised, charming and strikingly attractive kindergarten teacher who chose me as the fifth-grade “monitor” to make sure that all the kids in her class stood in a straight line when they walked down the hall and cleaned up their wooden desktops after finger-painting. She first became my mentor and role model and later became a friend.
Over time, we forged a unique, intergenerational friendship that made the years between us disappear. As a second act in her career, Dr. Rita Dunn became an inspiring, internationally renowned professor of higher education; prolific author of more than three hundred articles, book chapters, monographs, and research papers; and authority (and missionary) on using individual learning styles to improve teaching. During that second career, the working wife and mother mentored more than 160 doctoral students, many of whom now occupy positions of leadership in their own right.
By any measure, she was an extraordinary woman with whom I was fortunate to have had an exceptional relationship. Although we weren’t in constant contact over the years, we stayed connected through periodic notes to each other and emails, punctuated by occasional visits. More than that, we just “clicked.” I understood her and she “got” me. As she passionately blazed her way through the various phases of womanhood, I depended on her for advice (which she was never short of) and wisdom to ease the bumps for me. We celebrated our remarkable friendship with a champagne toast when I took her to lunch for her 80th birthday last May.
I visited her at her home this Wednesday in a torrential downpour. I wanted to be with her. Only three weeks earlier, she had had trouble breathing and was hospitalized after arriving at the ER. After tests of every organ and body system, she was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive type of metastatic cancer. “It doesn’t look good,” she told me.
Soon after being discharged, she was admitted to another hospital in Manhattan where she was treated for ascites (an uncomfortable buildup of fluid in the abdomen) and then released for further outpatient treatment closer to home. Earlier last week an oncologist told Rita and her family that treatment might only extend her life by several weeks. She declined and bravely braced herself for the days that followed.
When I arrived, Rita was sitting upright in a lounge chair caressed with stacks of pillows on each side of her but she still winced from pain. Her body was swollen with fluid and her skin was stretched to the breaking point from her waist to her toes. We held hands and she told me that she had led a blessed life for seven decades (happily married to her husband for more than half of them), had a wonderful extended family, a legion of friends, and had achieved all her dreams. I left to pick up some medicines for her and when I returned Rita was napping peacefully. I tiptoed out, planning to return this weekend.
Ironically, as I was thinking about what I might blog about on the occasion of Friendship Day, the phone rang with a call telling me that Rita had passed away at 5AM yesterday. In 1935, the US Congress proclaimed the first Sunday in August each year as Friendship Day. Unlike Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, or Christmas, holidays that have become highly commercialized, there are no expectations of gifts, cards, flowers, or for this holiday. Most people probably haven’t heard of it, so if you choose you can act as if it is just another Sunday. On the other hand, you can decide to set aside time to celebrate the friendships that enrich your life.
With the hectic pace of our lives, it’s too easy to take friendships, even very good ones, for granted. Use Friendship Day as an excuse to rethink and realign your friendship priorities. It’s easy to get sucked into spending your time with a needy friend who constantly seeks out your companionship but consistently drains your energy, or with a toxic friend who is filled with ambivalence but conveniently lives next door. Consciously choose the friends you want to spend time with and nurture the relationships that matter most.
Rita Dunn was the most influential woman in my life, hands down, yet the time we spent together over the years feels far too brief. Balancing life, work, family and friendships often makes me feel like I’m on a high wire. It’s far easier to keep moving forward without making choices. I feel like I was on autopilot and almost imperceptibly lost control of my priorities, spending the bulk of my time with people and things that were less important to me. Losing Rita reminds me that I owe it to myself and those who matter most to spend my precious moments wisely.