So it’s Tuesday August 6th, 2002, and the phone rings. A landline phone, but with a Caller ID display. How quaint. I recognize your number and you’re maybe one of, oh, let’s say three people I’d answer readily without letting it go to voice mail.
I click the Talk button. “Lees!” I try not to sound too excited to hear from you, even though we hadn’t talked in weeks. Probably since the previous May or June.
“Heeeeey,” you respond. You always said the word ‘hey’ with about fifteen syllables in it, if you really meant it. The monosyllabic ‘hey’ was something to be feared. I hadn’t heard that ‘hey’ from you in years. I got the long ‘hey’. Sweet.
What follows is the usual small-talky ‘what’s going on’ that initiates most phone conversations. Nobody just jumps right in to what they’re doing with a melon or how many times they can bite their own earlobe in under 30 seconds without that Olam Overdrive Handshake of cross-conscious authentication. But see, you’re good. This isn’t even one of those “Right away, I knew something was wrong…” beginnings, because for the first few minutes we are business as usual. Picking up where we left off last time, we are never missing a beat.
Until we do.
“I’ve got a bit of bad news…” you say, and I hear it in your voice and I hear you choking on your words and I’ve never heard you choke on your words before. Not like that. I feel my spine lock into place and my body goes rigid and I’m hearing you with my eyes and my mouth feels heavy and numb, and you lay it out for me.
You went to see the doctor last February.
You realized you were a ticking bomb by May.
You have maybe three, four months left.
You are still fighting.
You are going to have an operation in Maryland in October that might save your life.
I am a hearty mix of sadness, despair, desperation, strength, sincerity, honesty. You want to help me through my emotions about this, as I want to be your pillar and your rock. But mostly, we talk for nearly two hours and we even put the whole crisis of you dying aside and just be ourselves. I think that was the greatest gift we could give to each other right then and there. It wasn’t about your cancer, it wasn’t about you coming to grips with your life ending, it wasn’t you worrying what was going to happen with your cats, or your family, or your husband, or fighting, or giving up, or when your eyes would close one last time and where you’d be.
We were you and me. Through everything we had been through and been to each other, we were where we were best. The absolute deepest of friends. We invented our own language and we were still speaking it and everything else in the world melted away. For almost the rest of that phone conversation, we are free, completely liberated from pain, worry, regret, and fear. It is not only what both of us needed, it is what both of us were to each other. Freedom and transcendence. We looked at all the tired, sweaty, grave nastiness the world had to offer and we looked it dead in the eye and said Are you fucking kidding me? and changed it accordingly.
It’s fourteen years before this conversation, and we’re both freshmen at Brandeis University. I’m not quite sure when we ‘met’, really. It was one of those things where you just sort of gradually become aware of someone without really meeting them. We were both working part-time at Dining Services (read: cafeteria job), but I had seen you around campus all the time. You were the really cute, blonde, little freckle-faced girl with the cane and the limp, and you were kinda dating my friend Marc for awhile. He got pissed when you dumped him for your ex-boyfriend. You also seemed to always have some really good weed on you whenever there was a campus party, hangout, whatever.
You also came across as really mean. We barely knew each other at the time but, to me, you seemed short-tempered, acid-tongued, and freakin’ LOUD. You didn’t seem very friendly or likable to me, with no tolerance for any kind of fun, and I was of course my natural glib goofball self, so it’s probably no wonder that we kept a safe distance from each other.
It’s sophomore year now and I end up hooking up with someone who you were trying to setup with someone else that night, so that kind of pissed you off too. We didn’t last long but I end up dating another girl who you know, as well as becoming really good friends with another, and sort of by association, we have to become friends. I’m sort of the “friend-of-a-friend” you tolerate, and you’re the cranky but fun girl always with a car and weed. We have a fun group, for the most part, plenty of fucking drama to go around and then some, but this is college and nobody’s barely even 20 yet, so it’s all par for the course. Acknowledgment turns into basic tolerance, even moments of amusement.
Somewhere along the lines over the next two years… we transitioned from tolerant acquaintances to genuine friends. A mutual love of cheesy 70s songs and listening to 4 hours of “Lost 45s” every Sunday night became ritual, and holy fuck do we have an actual rapport going. People are starting to notice that we’re often talking in our own language, on some quantum wavelength dimensionally oblique from the rest of the waking world. This became even more painfully apparent to my girlfriend and your boyfriend, but to all appearances it was strictly on-the-books friendship, nothing more.
Senior year comes and we’re all living together in a house, what we called our Golden Age, the living embodiment of the college experience where nothing was sacred and almost everything was permitted. Friendship became close friendship, and that became a deep attraction that, by spring, we had completely and utterly given into. Despite being in other relationships, other commitments, other entanglements, we were lovers, existing outside of reality, it was our defined existence that superseded the Dead World around us.
Then, equally as all things inevitably transition, the Golden Age ended. College was over, you back to Chicago, me back to Miami with a girlfriend in tow, in a relationship that had long since deteriorated and a future anything but determined. Life moved on and not having you around was like missing an arm, like sensory deprivation. It was a fucking miracle how close we kept our ties going though. I mean shit, this was 1992. If we wanted to chat each other up, it was a long distance phone call ($0.15/minute after 8pm) or it was taking pen to paper and evoking the long-lost mystical art of letterwriting. I’ll never forget that care package you sent me when Hurricane Andrew devastated our neighborhood later that summer. You sent me a Wisconsin Cheese Head. I kept that thing forever.
And we still saw each other. Thanksgiving 1992, two weeks in the summer in 1993, a few days in 1994, and 10 days in May 1995, we spent time together in Chicago and California. It wasn’t a “long distance relationship” — both of us were seeing other people, on and off — but we maintained our emotional connection throughout those years. I mean, once you get arrested together in Des Plaines, IL, there’s no way you can ever go back to just being “old college friends”, right? Don’t get me started on being released and having to find bail money for four people at 3am Sunday morning. Ye Gods…
So it’s 1995 and you move to California, and we’re talking more on the phone and somehow we end up taking our connection to the next level. We’re going to enter a committed relationship together. I pack up my car and drive out there, and we’re living together in Palm Springs, out in the desert, and after the first month it is starting to turn into an absolute Dresden-after-the-bombing disaster zone. The yelling, the anger, the vindictiveness, the way we purposefully did everything we could to hurt the other… like nothing I’d experienced before or since.
What we didn’t know then, what became painfully obvious later (and WOW was that painful) was that we were fucking horrible in a committed, domestic relationship. We were the best of friends, closest of confidantes, ridiculously passionate lovers, but devoted romantic boyfriend/girlfriend types? No. Fucking. Way. That did not work. It couldn’t work. That wasn’t our vibe. There’s little question we deeply loved each other, totally respected each other, desperately needed each other in our lives, but the type of storybook romanticized monogamous love did not exist in our dojo, because it was antithetical to everything that made our connection so damn unique.
Six months later, I had to leave. When the car was all packed up and I had nothing left to do but hand you my key and split, you were standing in the kitchen, with the most inscrutable look I’d ever seen on your face. Was it regret? Relief? Pain? Yearning? You pretending to be cleaning the kitchen countertop with a rag, like that was SOMETHING that needed to be done at that moment. We hugged. You told me to drive safe. Like I was heading to the Piggly Wiggly or something for some doughnuts. I said thanks, turned, left without looking back.
It was a long drive from California home to Florida. I remember later that first night, I called you from a gas station in northern Arizona. You told me you missed me and wanted me to come back. I so hated you for that. The entire time in that car, I obsessed over what that look on your face meant when I was leaving. “What went through your mind when you last said goodbye? What do you do with all the love that sits alone inside your heart?” Two lines I wrote in my journal, turned them into a song, one of a dozen shitty acoustic tunes I wrote during that time we were together.
But that time ended, and with that I entered a transition period of my own. I stopped living the wannabe 90s slacker lifestyle, got all corporate, entered the IT world whole-hog and committed, and left the acoustic tunes and the poetry and the writing behind. I left you behind. We barely spoke for six months, especially after you called me to let me know your ex was moving in with you and I, with the calm maturity one can expect from a middle child and an Aquarius, attacked a batting cage with an aluminum bat in a booze-fueled meltdown.
But… we came around. I was in Pasadena in the summer of 1996, consulting over at Pacific Bell, and you were living in Yorba Linda, so we figured we might meet for coffee and put all the negativity to rest and have some sort of “closure” about what happened. I was already in another relationship, working my way through the corporate world, moving on with life. No harm, no foul. We met at a Yorba Linda Starbucks, I saw you walk in, and it was like the six months in Palm Springs never happened. You were manic and insane and crazed when you walked in — stressed by the everyday vagrancies of suburban working life — but a few hours later when we parted ways, you were yourself again. Your eyes calmed into a gentle blue, the lines on your face vanished, and we talked and bonded like it was 1991 all over again. It was beyond magical, it was liberating. We didn’t reach “closure”, it was a total fucking Reawakening. We still needed each other in life; not as friends, not as lovers, but as parts of the whole. It didn’t matter if we were in the same room or three time zones apart. That connection was too critical to let run fallow, to impenetrable for others to understand, and too unbreakable to ever fall apart.
We saw each other three more times after that. January 1997 we hung out on my birthday weekend while I was up consulting for PacBell again, then a few weekends after that we hung out again. Then the last time I saw you was April of 1998, at your wedding. I can’t say I didn’t bristle with some kind of longing at the concept of you marrying someone else, but deepest in my soul I was altogether accepting of it. It’s what you needed in your existence, perhaps not what you wanted, but I understood. You needed it for your own reasons, to make sense out of your life. The night before the wedding, you had a party at the local pub, the SAME one in Des Plaines we had got arrested after leaving in 1993. Perfect.
We sat at a booth and chatted for awhile. You wanted me to go back to your hotel with you, and talk you out marrying him. Even if I wasn’t up there with my girlfriend at the time, we both know I wouldn’t have done that, and it wouldn’t have changed anything anyhow, but you wanted to let me know where I stood with you, and where you stood with the marriage, that we still mattered enough that you gave me that opening, and you mattered enough to me that I didn’t take it. We knew exactly where we stood, and what we had, and why we would always be important to each other. We weren’t friends or lovers, neither platonic nor romantic. We were necessary to balance… no, not balance, to complement our existences. Your wedding was beautiful and you were a totally radiant bride, and that was the last image I ever had of you. Clad in white, hair in soft golden curls, a smile that lit up the room… what a fucking exit.
I never saw you again, but we talked all the time. We shared every secret, we came to each other for support, advice, laughter, insight, everything. You decided to move completely forward with your acting career, and in that brief time you accomplished so much that, looking back now, it’s totally damn impressive. A 1-800-COLLECT commercial with Ed O’Neill where you were dressed up head-to-toe in an alien costume. I could tell it was you just by the way you stood and the way you moved. You had too many hilarious stories about filming this:
Then in 2000 you were in that Christopher Reeve Superbowl commercial, the one where they (sadly) predicted he would one day get up and walk again, thanks to spinal cord research. There you are in the gold gown with the black gloves, 46 seconds into it:
And then of course your biggest appearance yet, in 2001’s feature film Life As A House, starring Kevin Kline, Hayden Christensen, and Kristin Scott Thomas. You were SO damn excited about this role, even it was a very minor appearance. Your character was the entire movie’s reason for existing. Little more than 40 seconds of screentime as the camera pans away, but there you are, your voice and image immortalized onscreen forever (starting at 2:40):
You did it. You totally did it. What we had, our own self-parameterized universe that we’d often escape to, you embraced it and turned it into what you always wanted. Turning fantasy into reality. Tapping into the artistry most of us keep locked away and going professional with it. When you were sick with cancer as a child — twice — movies and television were your escape, you wanted to become part of that fantasy world. And you did. You accomplished. You’re a fucking hero, kid.
And now it’s June 2002, and I’m on the phone with you, and you’re fucking dying but for 2 hours we’re safe in our own world again, our Golden Age, and we’re laughing like everything’s totally right and awesome in the universe, and even when the conversation has to wind down and we have to return to reality, we take some of our universe back into the Real World.
“Hey, fuck you, you’re not allowed to die.” I tell her.
She laughs. “I know!! I’m sorry, shit…”
OK so there’s still hope. Operation in October. Maryland. We make plans to meet up at the hospital in the fall. I’ll be there to keep your spirits high and we’ll fucking goof on the ridiculousness of everything and everyone around us, and cancer? Fuck cancer. We’re unstoppable. We can hold back a volcano if we have to. Cancer, that’s a piece of cake. Maryland in October. No sweat. I’ll even grab the fast food take-out after the surgery. Like we used to do in school, one shits-n-giggles trip to three different palces. Burgers from BK, fries from McDonalds, frosties from Wendys. My God, we were freakin’ dopes.
We’re both laughing and feeling high as kites and we got this shit in the bag. There was no big emotional end to the conversation. “Shit, I got another call coming in,” you say. “Let’s talk later.”
I say something goofballish, we both laugh, a quick simple “Love ya”, and we hang up. It’s probably 8 or 9 at night. I go take a shower. I start sobbing uncontrollably under the stream of near-scalding water. I’m not afraid, I don’t think I’m even sad, really. If anything, I’m just confused. Not knowing what to think or feel or say. Everything I said to her, I believed every word. God put his hand on my shoulder to prepare me for the inevitable, but the little boy inside the 31 year old man was struggling. I’ve lost many loved ones before. But never someone so deeply ingrained in my entire being. This was incomprehensible.
But there was hope. It was August. We’d meet up in two months in Maryland. Two months. Anything can happen.
Barely a week and a half later, on early Saturday August 17th, your husband called me and left a voicemail asking me to call him back for some news. I didn’t hear the voicemail until the next day, the 18th. I called him back. I figured he wanted to talk about Lisa and maybe something to cheer her up.
He let me know the news. She was gone.
Lisa Beth Lovett-Mann was gone. You had died. Your health took a sharp and sudden turn for the worse since we had talked, and instead of having your physicians prolong your agony, you decided to exit this world peacefully, gracefully, on a Saturday morning. You were 32 years old.
I was at my then-girlfriend’s house, sitting on her parents’ sofa, blindsided. I heard the words but couldn’t process them. I think we were on our way to an IHOP or something, then to Target to pick up some such nonsense. Then I had to spend the next few days on the phone, arranging for my best friend’s Bachelor Party weekend in Tennessee, securing our cabin rental in the mountains, river rafting and hiking activities, coordinating arrival times at the Atlanta airport and transport to Gatlinburg, and I threw myself into it with everything I had.
You weren’t gone, Lees. You were just hiding out somewhere. You’d call me in a few months when things cooled down a bit. You were faking it, right? You can’t be gone. You can’t. No way.
The following Thursday — just under a week after your death — I’m in my car driving from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta, and I’m talking to you the entire time. I hear you respond back to me. We speak casually on-and-off nearly the entire ride. We’re on this roadtrip together. You’re not gone. Right? Because there you are, in the passenger seat. Bitching about my driving. Shut yer trap!
It’s been ten years Lisa, and it took a freakin’ long ass time, but I somehow learned to accept your death. I’m no expert in human behavior by any stretch of the imagination, but I learned all about denial real fast, like it was some strange new emotional state to me, except it was really stateless. I denied your lack of physical existence because your endless spirit was still burning like a cosmic wave. The same as it was when we lived time-zones apart, we still connected. As we’re still now, 10 years after you left your body and moved on.
I don’t know how to end this remembrance. In a way I don’t think I’ve said anything that even begins to scratch the surface of our connection. Your relationships with others were the living definition of volatility. Your rapid descent into anger, paranoia, suspicion, and antagonism cost you too many good friends and people who loved you. But somehow… somehow you knew. You knew your time on this planet was going to be cut short entirely too soon. You came to that realization as a child, dealing with a life-threatening disease at too young an age. Every second you had was a gift, it was beyond precious, and you had no time for subtle emotion. When you were angry, you angered HARD. You could get extraordinarily vicious and totally hurtful. It cost you entirely too much, and you knew that too. You taught good people how to hate. But on the other hand, when you loved, you loved with unbelievably strong passion and endless affection. Everything you felt, it had to count. Everything had to have meaning. You didn’t have a second to waste on middling indifference or wishy-washy indecision. You had to live as much as you possibly could in those 32 years.
I never understood that while you were alive. We always think we’ll have all the time in the world, and then we take too much for granted. You were making each of those moments as intense as you could. And as it applied to me, and us, we ran the gamut of relationship types. We were barely acknowledging each other, then acquaintances, then friend-of-friends, then friends, then good friends, then the best of friends, then lovers, then in a relationship, then on-the-total-outs, and then… the greatest of friends, but with wisdom, understanding, and a deep, close, true bond that made every second knowing you more than worth the pain of losing you.
Anyway… that’s all I got right now Lees. How do we end this remembrance? Oh yeah, let’s end it with a song, like we usually did. Something… hmm… something ridiculous. And awesome. Ridiculously awesome. Yeah. That’s what we were. 🙂