Opposites Attract

Joan (left) and Fran at the “Girls on the Run” program they ran at their local schools. As women who were not athletic most of their lives, they wanted to introduce girls who felt the same way to the importance of trying new things.

Joan Lerman: 60, divorced, 3 children

Best friend of 20 years: Fran Goldenberg, 3 children, died ... from ovarian cancer

“A key to the relationship was that we had such faith in each other. I never had anybody that had that kind of faith in me.”

How did you meet?

We met about 20 years ago, when I was 40 and she was 42. We had both started personal training and our trainers were very close friends. We didn’t know each other, but they matched us up as running buddies. It was not a typical beginning, but our friendship evolved into a real sisterhood.

After a couple of weeks of running together, Fran decided that we should run the New York City Marathon. She said, “Let’s do it. We’ll download a training program and we will stick to it.” We spent a lot of time together on these lonely roads, running 18 – 20 miles at a time, and we talked. That’s how we really began to know each other.

It wasn’t part of her nature to quickly decide she could do something and do it. It’s very much a part of my personality and I think we brought out the best parts of one another. She was a very quiet, shy person. She used to walk around with sunglasses on all the time because she really didn’t like to interact with people. We were so opposite! If you met her and you met me, you would never think that we could be friends.

I was more reckless where she was more refined, but she supported every one of my bold ideas. I think I added a lot of excitement to her life. She had a really stable relationship with her husband and close relationship with her children. I lost my sister when my children were young, she became a “surrogate” sister to me. She was my family.

What was the friendship like?

We started a couple of businesses together. The first was a chapter of a nonprofit called Girls on the Run, a school running program for young girls. And then I decided that I was going to publish a magazine, a local lifestyle publication for women over 30. Fran was the editor and I was the publisher. I did all of the outside work in sales and Fran – who had two master’s degrees and was a fabulous writer – did all of the inside work. We did that from about 2004 to 2009. We would have continued, except the economy crashed and we didn’t have enough money behind us.

We got the proofs back for our first issue the day after she was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer. They gave her six months to live. But we decided to do the magazine anyway. She lived for four years after that. I set up a secondary staff of writers and Fran worked as much as she could.

Describe how the friendship ended.

It was devastating when she got sick. She was my support. She had been the person behind me who kept me going. So the roles really reversed. She went through hell for four years and it had to be six or eight months into her first year of treatment before she really let me in. She was such a private person. Physically, she was in bad shape, but she didn’t like anybody feeling sorry for her. The magazine really helped us because it gave us something else to connect with besides her illness or the future. I was determined to keep her busy as much as she was able. She worked incredibly hard. It gave her a lot of strength and gave her something to do while she was sick.

She taught me to be tough. She was a tough, tough, tough woman and she didn’t put up with a lot of shit from a lot of people. I used to say about her that if she liked you, she would lay down her life for you, but if she did not like you, you were invisible to her. Up until the week that she died, I was surprised that she actually died. I just kept thinking she was going to come around again because she always had. She would get so sick and then she would come back.

Even after her kidneys failed and she couldn’t walk, she would make herself go to dialysis three times a week. There was no hope, but she was just somebody who was never ever going to give up.

How did you cope with her loss?

I have a sweatshirt of hers and whenever I’m depressed I wear it. I talk to her; I feel like she is always going to be here with me. She and my daughter were close, so the two of us talk about Fran a lot and my daughter is going to be wearing something of hers when she gets married. I am also close with her children and see them often. I run with her daughter sometimes and we work out together, in many ways that beautifully honors her memory because it is how we met. Right after Fran died, I would see her ex-husband every month or two. We still talk on the phone.

When Fran died, it took the air out of my sails. There are a lot of things that I lost focus on. I wrote a children’s book with my daughter and she has been trying to get me to illustrate it. I went through school for illustration, I’ve been painting for years, and for the likes of me I can’t do the illustrations. I think a lot of that spirit has just gone out of me. She pushed me to be the best version of myself.

For me, there has never been anyone who has been able to take Fran’s place. She always had my back. We were there for each other unconditionally. There was no jealousy, no competition. There was just a friendship born from a nurturing place, a place for you to sit and talk and cry and laugh. A key to the relationship was that we had such faith in each other. I never had anybody that had that kind of faith in me.

When Fran passed away, I felt very much alone. It wasn’t like my mom or my dad or a spouse had died. A lot of people just didn’t get it. I was lucky, though, that her family understood. I was always at her home and certainly the last three years of her life that was my home.

I think the concept of the best friend is overlooked in the grieving process. If you are Jewish and you sit Shiva, you take a week off and you do that for a family member and that’s kind of understood, but if it’s your friend, it would be harder to go to work and say, “I’ll be out this week, I’m sitting Shiva for my friend.” Yet that friend may be as close to you as a sibling or even more so than a spouse. I miss her everyday, she was a beautiful, brilliant, tough, courageous woman. And the best friend I will ever have.

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 Joan, 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!