In college, I had a friend who was much more religious than I was.
That in itself is not that unusual. I went to a Catholic college at the beginning of what would turn out to be my departure from the Catholic Church. I was astounded to find that my classmates still went to Mass on Sundays, in spite of their newly acquired freedom. They went to Chapel, I stayed in the dorm and played AC/DC records really loud, since it was when I was least likely to bother people.
Still, Irena was unusual in that she freely talked about God a lot. We Catholics didn't do that so much back then, particularly in the Northeast, where we were raised to understand that religion was private, and not to be imposed on others.
Irena had a rare single room in college. It was a small space, stuffed to the rafters with colorful decorative items, including a huge Chinese parasol that hung upside-down from the ceiling and frequently served as a catch-all for bottle caps. I had my first beer in that room, and then promptly fell asleep. That room was both party-space and refuge, as she was both hostess and dorm "mom." Rena was never preachy, nor did her faith keep her from having a good time.
Rena graduated before I did, but we kept in touch. She moved with some friends to a large Victorian I dubbed "Arlington House" and I visited frequently. We came from very different backgrounds, but shared some remarkable common experiences. We both lost our fathers early. We both had difficult relationships with our remaining families. There were, of course, disappointing boyfriends. In college we were both labeled "bold children" for not fitting into the mold of the school. She perservered and graduated, I left.
Perhaps it was her faith in God that made her, I realize now, a much stronger person than I was then. The bad times were "a test from God," and the good times were "a gift." The way she spoke those phrases, with a slightly flippant edge and a laugh, allowed you to give her a pass on this, because you were never quite sure how serious she was about it.
Years ago, Irena and I were part of a group who went to a museum and then out to eat. Boston can be a very difficult place to find a parking space, and I circled aroud several blocks several times looking for a space within reasonable walking distance to the restaurant. Finally, I spotted a car pulling out of a space and rushed to pull right in. Once the car was stopped, I looked up to see a clear No Parking sign marking the space. I considered this, wondering if I could get away with it, just as the person ahead of me had.
Rena, in the passenger seat, told me confidently "If you decide to leave this space, GOD has another space waiting for you." I smiled and shook my head, as I often did when she said things like this. I have a lot of doubts about God, but I'm pretty sure if he exists he doesn't care about parking places or sports teams. As I pulled back out on to the street, I noticed that a large, white, Cadillac slipped into the space as I was leaving.
Wouldn't you know, immediately around the next corner, there was an empty, legal, space just waiting for me.
As if that weren't enough, on our walk back toward the restaurant, we noticed the large, white, Cadillac that had come in to the first space behind me was being ticketed and towed.
I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't give Rena's God credit for this little miracle, choosing instead to offer thanks to "Vehiculus, the parking god," a power I occasionally invoke to this day. It's still hard to say who was right, that was over 15 years ago, and I have had uncanny luck with parking ever since.
Friends, unfortunately, can drift apart when their experiences begin to diverge. I have had it happen to me a number of times. I've let it happen a number of times. Irena caught the bouquet at my wedding, but she never married. I moved farther North, and eventually had kids, she made loads of friends at work. She became very involved with the alumni association at the college, a place that resides on my very short list of regrets.
I've looked her up on Facebook a number of times, thinking that the silliness in which we often communicated would be perfect for that venue. I've looked for her on LinkedIn, but not found her. Last week it occurred to me to simply Google her, and I found - a eulogy.
She's been gone about 2 1/2 years, apparently from cancer. I'm devastated.
There's not a damn thing I can do about it, and I have no idea what to do with it. Except write.
So, know this about my friend Rena:
She didn't have a whole lot, but she was incredibly generous.
She went through a lot of hard times, but remained surprisingly optimistic.
She had a beautiful voice, and she loved to sing.
She sang for the Pope.
She loved Metallica and saw them in concert several times.
She had a thing for bad boys.
She was always ready with a pot of tea.
Her laugh was hilarious.
She was the first person in her family to go to college and she eventually attained a Master's degree.
She was extremely appreciative of small gestures.
If there is a heaven, Rena is one of the people who truly deserves to be there.
And I'll bet she got a really great parking spot.