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January 27, 2011

A story of unconditional friendship

http://www.jewishjournal.com/tribe/article/a_story_of_unconditional_friendship_20110127

From left: Robin and Leslie enjoy wine tasting.

From left: Robin and Leslie enjoy wine tasting.

I met Robin on Passover in 2000. We were both crossing a busy street in Beverly Hills carrying covered dishes, my 6-year-old was holding on to the edge of my skirt, and I asked if she was going to the same seder we were. It was my first Passover in Los Angeles, and now I realize it was a ridiculous question given the thousands of seders happening, but it turned out we were heading to the same house.

Some friendships are light and easy, others are challenging. Friendship with Robin was both. A comedy producer turned therapist, Robin had a wicked sense of humor. She loved to travel, to eat at the latest restaurant, to give the perfect gift accompanied by the perfect card — she would hand it over, beaming at her own wit. She read The New Yorker and The New York Times cover to cover, usually in the bathtub, passing along articles we simply had to discuss. She loved to shop, particularly if she had Bloomie bucks to spend; she loved a bargain, all things French, and she loved — loved — wine.

Robin also loved to tell stories — about the perfect meal on a trip to Europe or even the perfect parking spot on a trip to the mall. Robin was fun, and if things got too maudlin, she was ready to redirect your energy toward something lighter.

As a therapist, Robin used humor to help cancer patients cope with illness. So, when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2008, her friends expected she would have more coping skills than most people. We were wrong. Robin convinced herself that she was not terminal and so was unprepared as her illness worsened and she needed more help. Her friends stepped in to care for her.

Susie — a 20-year friend of Robin’s — and I became the A team. We cried together in a huddle with Robin when she got the news early on that she wasn’t a candidate for surgery. We kept her other friends and family up to date. We sent e-mails, coordinated food and chemo companion schedules, talked to her doctors, made emergency room runs, took her to appointments and did errands when she was too doped up to drive but wouldn’t admit it. We also dropped everything whenever Robin would call saying, “You’re not busy, are you? Could you just …” It was Susie and I who convinced her to hire an aide, and, near the end, I got her to tearfully agree it was time for hospice.

I am an ovarian cancer survivor, so I knew my way around treatment. I also learned quickly that Robin needed me to be a cheerleader for her recovery. No talk of death; I was to remind her that although her tumor marker was going up, the CAT scan showed the tumor shrinking. Or despite not getting to have surgery, her level of pain was still low. Robin said I knew how to make her feel better. Early in our relationship, she was like an older sister to me. The last year of her life, I was like a mother to her.

Robin’s directorial debut, videotaping her friends on an iPhone from her bed during her last days.

Along with the A team, a vast network of loyal friends, some from as far away as England and France, visited regularly, brought meals, helped with shopping and errands, walked Robin’s dog, took her to appointments and checked in constantly.

On Dec. 26, 2009, Robin called at 7 a.m., crying with pain. It took Susie and me an hour to get her out of bed, dressed and down the stairs. I drove to the emergency room with Robin moaning in agony. Instead of going on the Ojai trip she had planned, Robin spent her birthday week in the hospital.

During the next few months, people came to say good-bye. Two friends came from France, a junior high school friend drove from Del Mar almost every weekend, high school and college friends came from across the country. An old crush even flew in and showed up at her door pretending to be a flower delivery guy.

Robin tested us at every turn. She made demands, argued, pushed and pulled. She continued the fiction that her disease was not terminal and wondered why everyone was suddenly visiting. She said some hurtful things in the name of “honesty.” Still, we all kept coming back. I sometimes wondered if she was testing us to be sure our love was unconditional. I like to think we passed.

In late March 2010, I struggled over whether to cancel a long-planned trip to Italy to celebrate my daughter’s 16th birthday. Robin told me I should go, but I wasn’t convinced she meant it. For many months, all my time and attention had been going to Robin. This time, I put my daughter first.

Just before I left, Robin told me that when I got the news, I shouldn’t be sad. Instead, I should raise a glass of wine to her. I smiled and told her, “I used to have a therapist friend named Robin who would tell me that you can’t control how people feel.” She laughed, and then she took my hand and we both cried. 

When Robin started hospice in mid-February, the nurse thought she would last two weeks. But through my March trip to Italy, we communicated daily. I told her about our purchases in Rome. She told me she ate a piece of brisket on Passover. We returned on a Thursday night. Friday morning I went straight to Robin’s house.

“I didn’t think I was waiting for you,” she told me, her voice barely audible, “but I was.” And then she said, “I’m not doing this right.” I knew she was asking for help dying.

Six of Robin’s closest friends from different parts of her life gathered at her house that weekend, along with her incredible aide, Elizabeth. We came for Robin, but also for each other. We took turns sitting by her bedside and sitting together, sharing our love for Robin. We had a wine party. Robin participated, taking a sip and videotaping us on an iPhone. She called it her directorial debut. She worried we were drinking her cellared wine; cellared was off limits!

We thought the party was a perfect ending and that now she could slip into that promised coma. She didn’t comply. At one point, we all came running up the stairs because we heard a noise. Robin laughed and said in her weak, morphine-slurred voice, “I’m having a Hollywood moment. I scratch my ass and six people come running!” When she was too weak to talk, she held out her arms to me like a baby, wanting to sit up so she could stay conscious, stay with us, for just a little while longer.

Early Monday morning, April 12, Robin finally let go. We were just a week shy of a decade of friendship. She had a big smile on her face, her eyes glistening. She looked radiant.

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