Maxine Atkins: 73, widowed, 2 children
Best friend of 50 years: Anita Solomon, divorced, 1 child, died ... cancer at age 66
“As you get older, your story is longer. If I started to tell Anita how I felt about something that happened that day, I didn’t have to explain to her that something that happened 23 years ago was influencing the way I felt. She knew the whole story. Nothing was real until I told Anita.”
How did you meet?
In April of 1957, we were among thousands of people who moved into a new New York City housing project in Canarsie. Nobody knew anyone. Children went around knocking on doors asking, “Do you have any children 10 years old? Do you have anybody my age?” Two girls came to our apartment and asked if we had anybody who was 14. I went with them and that’s how I met Anita. We went to her door and she was very polite and nice, but she couldn’t come out because she had to study. She was studious, but she was also super friendly. I was not. After that day she took me by the hand and pretty soon I had a lot of friends too.
In the fall, we started at a new school, Thomas Jefferson High in East New York. We would eat our lunch as soon as we got on the bus. For the three years we were in high school there it was the same thing every day – tuna fish. It was a big school, but everything was alphabetical, so we had lots of classes together because our last names both started with “S.” After school we would go to her house for a snack – tuna fish, every day tuna fish – and then we would play records and dance. Anita was a great dancer. I was the klutz and she was the girl everybody watched. Many afternoons she would try to teach me the Lindy, but I would just give up.
She was outgoing, warm, smart, politically committed, very aware. In the 1950s, we didn’t know what the hell was going on, we really didn’t, but she did, she was way ahead of her time. Without Anita, I would have retreated more and more into my little shell, but she pulled me out. I was pretty, so I got attention for that. But she was the one with the personality; I was painfully shy.
What was the friendship like?
We went to Hunter College together in 1959. We had a two-hour commute each way from Canarsie by train so we were on the train together a lot, talking and talking. At the end of my freshmen year, I got married. Anita was my maid of honor. I had a baby a year later while Anita finished school. I still lived in Canarsie and so she visited often.
I was very pregnant with my second child when she got engaged, but then she broke it off. Anita was a teacher; I was having babies and washing diapers. She met another man quickly and got married right after my second child was born. Of course, I was her matron of honor. They moved to Michigan because he was going to school there and then to Buffalo. Wherever she went, she would get a teaching job.
I flew to Buffalo to visit her — it was my first airplane flight. I did not like her husband; he was a master of the cutting remark. Then they moved to North Carolina and she had her daughter, Stacy. We would save up for phone calls, because an hour might cost $20 dollars, and when my husband made maybe $150, $200 a week, $20 was a lot of money.
Then she moved to Louisville. I got married a second time. In the 1970s, money was a little easier, and we established a pattern. We would get together once a year: we took vacations to Bermuda and we met in New Orleans. And then, in the 1980s, I started to visit her every April for a weekend for my birthday and she would come to New York every January for a birthday weekend. They knew us at the Waldorf. “Welcome back,” they’d say.
When my husband was too sick to travel, not only did we have those two trips in January and April, but in June and in December we had a week at my timeshare in Bermuda together. Our friendship got more intense the older we got. As you get older, your story is longer. If I started to tell Anita how I felt about something that happened that day, I didn’t have to explain to her that something that happened 23 years ago was influencing the way I felt. She knew the whole story. Nothing was real until I told Anita.
I could always count on her. One time I was having a very hard time with a boss, he was making my life miserable. I told her that when I come into the building in the morning I would think, “If I could just have a small heart attack right now, I wouldn’t have to do this.” And she said to me, “You should be wishing that he has a heart attack!” And you know, I thought she is right, why am I wishing that I have a heart attack?
My first child was born when I was 19; at 22 I had two. When my youngest went to kindergarten I went back to school. It took me a long time to finish, but I got my degree in English literature and elementary education when I was 29. Then I got my masters. My second husband Bill had a doctorate in education from Harvard. He always wanted to be in business for himself, so we bought a test preparation franchise called Sexton Educational Centers. After about three years we realized that we were basically living on our startup money, so he went to work at Nassau Community College and I got a job at Newsday in classified advertising. I worked there for 19 years. Bill remained at Nassau Community College until he had to retire as his dementia became obvious.
I retired at 61. I didn’t really want to, but my immediate superior was leaving and my mother was ill. I was able to see her every day of her last year, which I never regretted. She died in June, and Bill was diagnosed with dementia in July of 2007. Anita died two years later. Of all the people in my life that I lost, I miss Anita the most, even more than my mother.
Describe how the friendship ended.
Anita had been complaining about general body pain, but a mammogram in January 2005 didn’t find anything. In March of that year her regular doctor prescribed a round of tests and that’s when she found out she had stage 4 cancer; it was in her bones. She came to Sloan Kettering in New York and I stayed with her in the hotel. Another friend did all the doctors’ visits with her; I already had a sick husband. She was in touch with the Hemlock Society and had everything in the house that she needed. She said, “The day that I can’t wipe my own backside, I’m done.” For three years she continued to do the things that she wanted to do and we continued our visiting schedule.
One time we were in the pool in Bermuda it was the hottest day maybe ever. Anita was very lazy about putting on suntan lotion. I said, “I’m getting up right now. I’m going to get the suntan lotion and I’m going to put it on you myself.” And she said, “For god’s sake will you leave me alone. I’m dying of breast cancer. I don’t want to worry about a sunburn.” For some reason, we became hysterical laughing. I can’t even explain it. We were just clinging to each other, laughing in the water.
In April of 2009, her condition was making her weak. My stepson stayed with my husband, who by then was sick enough that he could not be left alone, so I could visit Anita. As she got sicker, her daughter Stacy went and stayed with her. Every day Stacy called me and held the phone to her ear, and every day I just said, “It’s okay, it’s okay to let go.” That went on for ten days. Anita died that June. I never saw her when she was really ill. On that last visit we did everything we always did together. My last image is of her waving goodbye to me at the Louisville airport. I count that as a wonderful blessing. I did not go to the funeral because I couldn’t leave Bill, but the burial was here on Long Island so I knew that Stacy would be staying with me and I would see the family.
How did you cope with her loss?
The day Stacy called and told me that it was over, I screamed. I just screamed. I screamed until I couldn’t scream anymore. I’m very lucky that I have many close friends. If you know how to make a friend, you know how to make a friend. They knew what she meant to me. So they gathered around me. It was a very hard time.
I talked to Stacy sometimes 10, 12 times a day. I had really not been close with her before, but after Anita died, I talked to Stacy all the time. And when she came out for the burial she stayed with me for a week. We helped each other. Anita was very close with Stacy, who was her only child.
The next April, when I would have gone to see Anita in Louisville, Stacy and I went and stayed in Anita’s house. We went through her papers and journals. On the first anniversary of Anita’s passing, Stacy came to Bermuda with me. I took her to all the places that her mother loved and we ate all the foods that her mother liked. I always say that the last best gift Anita ever gave me was her daughter. She lives in California. We email once a week or so, talk on the phone, and when she comes to New York, which she does occasionally on business, we meet. She’s never been married, she is 45, and this past summer she brought a guy she’s going with pretty seriously to New York to meet me.
Nobody will ever be like Anita, but when my husband was diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia and he couldn’t walk, I was put in contact with an organization called the Long Island Alzheimer’s Foundation. I started to take him to a day program there and I started to go to a support group. I got into a group that bonded completely. At one point there were 18 of us in this group, now there is a core group of eight of us, only one still has a living spouse. After 10 years, we still meet every single Monday for lunch. I made a very close friend of a younger woman who is only 60 and lost her husband a year-and-a-half ago. We have become very close and I am grateful for her.
I still have Anita’s pictures on my night table, not my children’s, not my husband’s. I have Anita’s. And I say good morning to her everyday and I say goodnight to her every night. There are so many women who haven’t had this and they don’t know what you’re talking about. There was a cartoon going around the Internet recently that said, “Choose your girlfriends well because they are likely to outlive your husband.” I posted that online and several women wrote, “Well, that’s just awful. How can you say something like your girlfriend is more important than your husband?” And I thought: you’re missing a whole big piece of human experience.
Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?
When Anita passed away her daughter sent me a box of papers she thought I might like to have. Among these papers was the text of a guided meditation exercise that Anita had done at Gilda’s House in Louisville. These things were so important to me because when she died I agonized over whether she understood how important she was to me and how much I loved her. When I read these notes I knew without a doubt that she did know – that I had told her. Here’s one of the priceless things I have that I want to share:
by Anita Solomon, September 24, 2007
When I am in this place of peace I feel –
Relaxed, warm friendly.
The sun is warm.
I’m with Maxine,
My best friend of 50 plus years.
I know I am safe.
I can trust her with anything.
She will hear and understand me completely.
There’s a total honesty between us.
But if she thinks I’m full of shit,
She’ll say so.
If she’s sad for me,
She’ll just be sad with me.
If I’m sad, she’ll be sad.
That’s really what I meant to say.
She won’t be trying to make things better than they are.
No blah, blah, blah…
Bermuda is so beautiful and without responsibilities.
We do whatever we want to,
Or go absolutely nowhere.
Maxine is my very best friend in all the world.
She knows me better than just about anyone else.
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 Maxine, 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!