Best Friends at Birth
Jenny Bott: 43, married, 3 children
Best friend of 41 years: Tobi Klonecki, married, 2 children, died ... breast cancer in 2013 at age 41
“People don’t understand how important a best friend is unless they have one. Some people who don’t truly have a best friend or understand the feeling of losing someone will say, ‘She is in a better place.’ Well, her better place is with me.”
How did you meet?
Our grandmothers were friends and our moms were best friends. We lived two blocks away from each other in Deerfield, Illinois. Tobi was born four months after me, so pretty much from the start she was part of my life. Our families went on vacations together. We just were always together.
Both of our parents got divorced, and so we decided when we were probably eight or nine that we were going to share custody of Kathy, a doll. We called her Kathy Custody. Tobi would have her for two weeks and I’d get her for two weeks. We had this doll forever. As we got older, we decided it was getting too hard to switch, so we got another doll, Katie, that I kept at my house while Tobi kept custody of Kathy. It was probably silly to others, yet I suppose it comforted us.
Tobi was always a leader with very creative ideas. We played little people together all the time and she would always create the setting and scene for us. I trusted her lead when we were little and as grownups. She had great ideas; she was very expressive and funny. As a younger girl, she sometimes worried a lot and would get stomachaches. But she didn’t do that as she got older.
When she was in her early 20s, she was very career oriented. She got her masters at Kellogg. She worked very hard for it and it was a huge accomplishment for her. When she set her mind to something, she would do it. When she decided to run a marathon I thought it was crazy, but she did it. She was that type of person: when she had a goal, she accomplished it.
After college, I got married and moved to Michigan; she lived in Chicago. We talked every day at 4 p.m., because that was when she had a lull at work. Then I moved back to Chicago and we lived near each other until she moved to Boston. But when she got sick, she moved back home to be close to family.
What was the friendship like?
We could do anything together! Sometimes we would just sit on the couch and relax. We’d go to the movies or lunch or on walks. Sometimes we’d spend whole days relaxing and cuddling under the covers watching movies. She could make fun of the saddest occasions and she could make fun of anything. We laughed so much together.
I tended to think one way, and she would think another. But we were very honest with each other. We’d say, “Of course you think that way and I think this way. It couldn’t go any other way.” That was just how we were. One day she walked in and said, “Those glasses look awful.” (I was wearing a new pair of sunglasses that were not expensive.) I replied with a smirk, “But the price was right.” She said in a joking way, “Take them off, I can’t go out with you like that.” Then she gave me hers, saying, “Take these, see if you like mine. You can keep them.” Her glasses probably cost three times as much as mine. Tobi was honest and giving like that. Please note that she never said anything to make me feel bad. Tobi just had really good taste, and she knew I never kept up with the styles because it was too much work.
One day she called when I had a friend over. All I said was hello and I could tell from the way she said hi something was wrong. When I hung up the phone, my girlfriend said, “How did you know something was wrong, all you guys said was, hi?” I said, “Because I know her, I know her, whether it’s a big ‘hi’ or low ‘hi,’ I can tell.”
There was one time I kept something from Tobi because I didn’t want to hurt her or burden her because she was dealing with cancer. She was so mad at me. She said, “You have to tell me everything. We are like sisters and your issues are mine too.” We could have different viewpoints over things, but not really fight at all. We never got really upset with each other.
Our kids called us Tante, which is Yiddish for aunt. She didn’t want to just be Tobi and she didn’t want to be Aunt Tobi, she wanted something unique, so she was Tante Tobi and I was Tante Jenny. I have two girls and a boy and she has two boys.
We parented differently, but we did share parenting advice. She always told me parenting came very naturally to me. After my first child was born, Tobi asked me how I knew what to do so naturally. I told her I was lucky that my baby was very easy and quiet. Tobi was a phenomenal mother. She was on the go more with her kids, while I was more of a homebody. She liked to wrap them up and take them places giving them really cool experiences. Her boys could go anywhere.
Describe how the friendship ended.
Tobi was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 37. It was in May. She had moved to Boston and about a year later she wasn’t feeling well. She had two little kids. During her second pregnancy, her stomach got huge and was lopsided. They called it split stomach. In hindsight, we think it was the cancer. After she had the baby, they had her doing exercises to try to heal her hernia so she wouldn’t need surgery. But she was having a lot of pain in her back and other areas too.
We had about a year in which we talked every day. She kept saying, “I’m really not feeling good, Jenny.” Before they finally diagnosed the cancer, we thought it was Lyme’s disease. She was going to all these doctors, and then they decided they were going to fix the hernia and they thought that would fix all her issues.
The day before she was supposed to have surgery, some of her blood work came back a bit off. They asked her to go to the hospital and get one more blood test. She called me crying. She said, “Jenny I just can’t get up. The babies are going to wake up any minute and I’m so tired. I just want to have surgery to feel better and then we’ll figure out if it’s Lyme disease or whatever. Do you think I have to go back for this test today?” I said, “Yes” and she responded, “I can’t do it. I just need to rest here for like 20 minutes.” Then we heard the babies crying and she asked me to talk to her because she couldn’t get up. She was in so much pain. I told her that I thought it was more than Lyme’s disease, because I could just tell by her voice that it was worse. She went in for surgery and the next day I called her. She was high on all the medication and she said, “I am so happy, I’m in no pain. I feel great, and Jenny, I think they finally fixed it.” She was super happy.
I called her again the next day and she was in intensive care because complications started to occur. Her lungs started to collapse and were filling with fluid. For three weeks, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong and finally they discovered she had breast cancer that had spread to her bones. It was really a shock. I went out there that week to help her get home from the hospital and figure out what to do next.
She decided quality of life over quantity of life would be best. They put her on hormone treatments. She had a good 18 months in Boston when she felt phenomenal, her pain went away, and she felt like a human being again. I went to visit her twice and we had the best time. We also went to Martha’s Vineyard which was her favorite place to be. That is a trip I am so happy we had together. We ate, we laughed, we talked, we cried. On that trip she knew her cancer was spreading, though, she felt it in her bones.
Since her medication seemed not to be working anymore, they switched her to different hormone treatments. She started to feel worse again and she decided to come home to Chicago. She moved back and got oral chemo for that summer because she wanted to enjoy the time with the kids. By November, she wasn’t feeling well and they switched her to the regular chemo. We spent a lot of time together and talked on the phone three or four times a day. I went to all her chemo treatments with her.
At the beginning of chemo, she wanted a lot of friends around, like a party, but by the end, when she was so sick, it was usually just family and me. But she wouldn’t give up; she had chemo pretty much until the week before she died.
How did you cope with her loss?
I definitely try to enjoy the moments I have with my kids and my family more than maybe I would have before. My kids were really close with her, too, so it has been an adjustment for my entire family. Tobi’s friends and husband created Forward4Tobi Foundation, which has been great for me to participate in because I feel her with me. I know she would be so proud of the help that is being given to other women with cancer. But mainly I just really miss her all the time. I talk to her all the time too. Days can go by and I’m feeling okay and then all of a sudden this heaviness of missing her and wishing she was here will creep up. Coping without her is a day-to-day process, even now almost three years later. I remind my kids and myself to do what you want to do, enjoy life, because you don’t know what’s going to happen and if Tobi could still be here, she would be doing that. I know how lucky I am that I am here for my kids to help them grow and become well-rounded adults. I also know how lucky I was to have a best friend like Tobi.
I have her last eight voice mails on my phone. Sometimes when I am thinking about something or doing something she will come into my mind and she’ll be answering some question I have or telling me to do this or that. Even last night I woke up in the middle of the night, and I’m wondering why am I up, and I think maybe Tobi is thinking about me. I don’t know, but I definitely think she is around, and I definitely use the sky and the clouds as a way to talk to her.
There are some great women in my life who I appreciate and enjoy being with, but she can’t be replaced. Since her passing I have gotten to know some friends better who have also lost people they love and all of a sudden you realize you are part of a group you never wanted to be in. And so I have made new friends or better relationships, but nothing that is comparable to her.
People don’t understand how important a best friend is unless they have one. Some people who don’t truly have a best friend or understand the feeling of losing someone will say, “She is in a better place.” Well, her better place is with me. I mean, yes, I don’t want her in pain. I never did, but I still would rather have her with me than wherever she is.
Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Jenny, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!