Two Social Workers
Robin Lippman-Scharf: 59, married, 2 children, from upstate New York, social worker
Best friend of 47 years: Ronee Kim Brimberg-Clark, married, 1 child, social worker, died ... from ovarian cancer at age 58
“I just have to live my life with some gratitude that I had her and go on. That’s what we have to do. We don’t have much choice.”
How did you meet?
We met when we were 12 and in middle school. We were friendly at that point, but not best friends. In high school, a boy we knew was hit by a car and killed. That made us realize we could die at a young age. When we graduated, a small group of us decided to take a Greyhound bus trip. Using Ameripass, we were able to go across country for $150. I was 16 and they were around 17 ½. We stayed in youth hostels and got to see some of the seedy areas of the country because that’s where the Greyhound bus stations were. We had quite an adventure!
What was the friendship like?
Ronee had a great, strong laugh and an unusual voice that was a little girlish. She was a social worker and was very kind and compassionate. She had beautiful reddish hair, and people knew her partly because her hair was so big and curly. I was raised by a single mom who was not always stable. When my mom developed dementia, I would visit her in Florida and Ronee once came with me to visit. I don’t think there is another soul — with the exception of my husband or children — who I could ask to do something like that with me.
Ronee always had confidence in me. If I was nervous or anxious, she was very encouraging. We did that for each other. Workwise, she went into private practice and was quite accomplished. She worked with children who were sexually abused. At the very end of her funeral, a beautiful, articulate woman stood up and said, “I was a victim of sexual abuse and Ronee helped me to be here and be able to stand before you.” Everyone was in awe. Ronee had made her mark.
Once I had to have surgery and she came to Albany to visit me in the hospital. We were having so much fun together the nurses told her that she could sleep over in the extra bed in the room. There are things that I would do with her that I would never do with the friends I met later: we would hold hands, stroke each other’s hair. I just don’t have friends that I do that with very often, but we were very comfortable with each other. And when she was sick, I would feel no qualms about rubbing her back for hours or just holding hands.
There were a few times when there was distance in our relationship. When we were graduating from college and her parents had passed away, she came to live with me and we made plans to go to California together. Then she met a man and decided that she didn’t want to leave Binghamton. I was disappointed because that interfered with our plans. So I decided to go to graduate school and moved away. After I finished graduate school, she decided she wanted to be a social worker and came to Albany to live with me. I was in the middle of breaking up with someone and again she met a man – he ended up being her first husband. We didn’t have any kind of major falling out, but at those times I was disappointed in her.
Describe how the friendship ended.
Ronee and I were comfortable talking about dying: her parents had died young, we had friends who died young, and we were both social workers. When she was dying, we talked a lot about how unfair it was and what I was going to do without her. We also talked about signs that she would give me after she died, if there was such a thing, songs that would play that would remind me of her. I am always looking for signs, every animal that goes by that I didn’t expect to see, I think Ronee is visiting me.
There was one time that I thought I did get a sign. I’m not a big believer in many things, but I was driving in a car in a place that I was a little nervous about and a song came on by Buffy Sainte-Marie that no one in the world would know but Ronee and I felt like she was there, getting me through what I had to do.
She was diagnosed initially with stage III ovarian cancer; it had spread to her stomach lining. She had one surgery and then didn’t want to have any other surgeries. She had many rounds of chemo. She stopped coming to visit me, so I went to her, which was a challenge because I have back problems and traveling is difficult. But I saw her a lot at the end. I pressed her to make a video even though she was resistant because she was in pain and had no hair. Finally, we made a video on my phone for her son. We did three takes because she didn’t like the way her chin looked in the first two takes. I asked her questions like: what do you want for him and what do you hope his life will be like?
I wanted to do something that would join us in some way. I don’t have any tattoos, nor do I like them, but I wanted to get a small tattoo that we would both have. But just before I was going to propose it, she presented me with a pair of matching diamond earrings. She took one back and wore it in the second hole that we had both gotten on a trip to Woodstock. She wore that earring throughout chemo and all the way until the end. I wear mine every day. Hers went to her son when she died.
The day that she died, I went to visit her. Her husband and I were both standing over her, and he said to me, “I’m so disappointed in how you are as a friend.” I couldn’t even fathom what he was talking about and because hearing is supposed to be the last thing that goes, I didn’t want Ronee to hear this. So I said to him, “You don’t want to have this conversation right here, let’s go somewhere else.” But he wouldn’t and I can’t tell you what he was angry about, but it had something to do with me not being there when he felt I should have been. I sometimes didn’t know when I should come at the end because I couldn’t ask her and I didn’t want to be in the way of her family members.
How did you cope with her loss?
I haven’t cried about her in a long time but, oh my gosh, I did cry a lot. One of the major things that we did when I visited her was listen to mindfulness tapes. We knew we needed to learn how to live presently rather than worrying about everything that was going to happen. And then I took a mindfulness class on my own because I really had to stop obsessing about the fact that I was going to lose her and just try to enjoy every moment that I had with her. That’s what I did and that’s what I do now. I try very hard to live in the present every day.
Within a couple of years, I lost my mother, my father, my best friend and my mother-in-law. I thought Ronee would be with me forever. She was too young. Watching her decline and lose her ability to walk was pretty profound. Every day that I take a walk is beautiful. I have an appreciation now for every day that I wake up healthy. That, I think, is the silver lining that comes with loss.
Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?
One of my daughters always says when she meets someone that she feels is a very valuable friend, “She is my Ronee.” But I’m not looking for someone who is going to be my Ronee. I don’t think they’ll ever be another Ronee. I have many friends and I feel close to them, but I don’t know that there is anyone that I could call and reveal all my doubts to in the way that I did with her. I don’t begrudge that. I’m just so lucky that I had her. I would have liked to have had our friendship last longer, but I don’t think everybody gets to have what we had. I comfort myself with knowing that I had something special. I just have to live my life with some gratitude that I had her and go on. That’s what we have to do. We don’t have much choice.
I planned to grow old with her. I pictured that we were going to be sitting in rocking chairs reminiscing about our lives. I used to buy a lot of greeting cards that I knew I would send to Ronee one day. I still have them. There’s a part of me that feels that I am lucky that I got to have a longer life. I also feel that I was less lucky because I had to go through the loss. I think I’d rather have the longer life, but nonetheless the loss is pretty awful.
At Ronee’s funeral her sister read a list I never knew existed that Ronee posted on Facebook in 2009 called “25 Random Things About Me.” One of the items on the list was, “I have the same best friend since I am twelve.” Starting at around 21 years old, we would regularly make a list together of what we liked about ourselves and what we didn’t like. The lists didn’t change a whole lot over the years, although as Ronee said in her Facebook list, “I am now much more accepting.” Here are the lists we created when we were 21 that we referred back to many times over the years.
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 Robin, 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!