The other day I lost a good friend from my high school years, Cindy Blackburn Whitson. She had been sick for some time battling ovarian cancer, and finally lost the war. We had been pretty good friends during high school, but I had lost touch with her after graduation. We didn’t reconnect until about 2 1/2 years ago when I found her on Facebook.
Of course over those many years our lives took very different paths and we each have our own respective families. After the reconnection, it was as if almost no time had passed since we had last been in contact. We were still friends who could still share much. I would like to talk about that friendship over the many years I have known my friend.
In the middle of my junior in high school year my Dad got transferred from El Paso, TX to Houston, TX. I made all these friends and had all these adventures with them, and then everything got uprooted just when I was trying to figure out who the heck I was. One might think that a move from El Paso to Houston is pretty simple as it’s in the same state. How different could it be?
It was about as different as night and day. Houston is 700 miles from El Paso, but it might as well be on a different continent. West Texas and East Texas have almost nothing in common other than they are technically in the same state. West Texas has a very dry, high desert climate, and the culture is of mainly Hispanic influence. Southeast Texas is a subtropical jungle, and the culture is very strongly Southern.
The first weeks out in East Texas were rough. A lot of people in the new school didn’t think too kindly of outsiders, especially outsiders from West Texas which they pretty much considered to be part of Mexico. There were a few people, however, who were very kind and friendly to me from day one. I developed a friendship with David who was as academically inclined as I was. We studied together on almost a daily basis. And when we were seniors in our Calculus class, we were usually the only two who had completed all of our homework assignments. I could go on and on with stories about David and I and our adventures, but this is about another friend.
Cindy was in most of my classes, and she too was one of the few people who was friendly to me from the beginning. She was a very good student as well; in fact she became our class valedictorian. She was always smiling and very upbeat. She was very cute, but she had a very large, athletic boyfriend. So I always figured that it would be better for my health if I never let myself get romantically interested.
Cindy was a natural leader, and she seemed to be in charge of everything. She was one of those people that seemed to have figured things out. She too was quite athletic and was on many of the high school varsity athletic teams. She was one of those people they could always put a smile in your face no matter will kind of day you were having. She would just say something kind, and the burdens of the day would vanish. Maybe it was the enthusiasm that she carried with her everywhere; maybe it was that dynamic smile.
At that point in my life I was a pretty shy kid; I had an especially hard time talking to girls. She was one person that I never had difficulty speaking with as I think she just made me comfortable with her presence. We did talk quite a bit, and as she was quite academically gifted, there was friendly competition with our grades and things like that.
There were always dances after the football games. Being the nerdy kid that I was, I didn’t know how to dance. I would go to the dances, and end up standing by myself or with a couple of guys looking lost. Right away, Cindy noticed that I wasn’t really having any fun, and she came over and asked me if I knew how to dance. Rather embarrassed, I told her I did not know how. So she and her sister and another couple of her friends jumped right in and started teaching me some dance moves. They worked with me for a couple of weeks at the dances, and before too long I was mixing in like I knew what I was doing.
That friendly gesture has stuck with me forever. Out of all the people in the school, it was Cindy who decided to take action to see if she could make that a better experience for me. I thought that was pretty special at the time, and I still think so. She had always been one of those people who would go out of their way to make things better for everyone around her.
She wasn’t quite an angel, but she was close. She was there with the other girls in my class laughing and making cat calls when I walked into the school the morning after the streaking incident, which we shall not go into here. It was all in great humor though, and it was after all the 70s.
After so many years have gone by when we reconnected on Facebook, it was Cindy who reached out with the personal messages and wanting to know what had been going on with my life all of those years. Of course I replied, and we ended up conversing regularly via texts and messaging. Again, it was like no time had passed, and that there had never been an interruption in that friendship.
Always the upbeat person, I never really found out how sick she was with the cancer until we were at the class reunion last summer. She had made it sounds as though it wasn’t too serious. And even then, Cindy was being herself smiling and making sure that everybody felt included and special. It was her twin sister who clued me in, and she broke down crying. I knew at that moment that things were not good. I stayed in touch regularly, and I made sure to talk about positive things as much as possible.
And then I got the awful news that the cancer had taken my friend.
So what is friendship and what does it mean? A real friend is someone who never forgets, and someone who will make that extra effort to make you feel special and included. A true friend is someone who you can talk to about the things that are on your mind, but who won’t judge you. However, at the same time a real friend is someone who will tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. A friend is someone who is happy for you in your life even though your life may have gone in a different direction than they perhaps would have liked. A real friend is someone who will give you a smile when you really need one, even if it’s as difficult for them as for you.
So even though I was out of touch with Cindy for so many years, she was still that real friend. And I will always remember the smiles and the gestures of kindness. Moving to a new school, especially a small school where most of the kids had grown up together and where I was an outsider, was truly a very difficult time for me. But Cindy was among the few who made sure that I was no longer an outsider. She made sure that I was an insider. She was the one who made sure that I learned how to dance. She was the one who made sure that I was included in the National Honor Society activities. And after living separate lives for more than three decades, she was the one who first reached out to find out what had been happening in my life.
So, I have lost a very dear friend to that horrible disease that we know as cancer. There is now a hole in my heart. But perhaps over time, the whole be filled by the positive memories and the way that Cindy impacted my life for the better. I know as I write this that I am not alone in these thoughts. In fact I know that I am one of dozens and dozens whose lives have been improved by her presence.