Up For Anything
Betsy Wexler: 48, from Baltimore, social worker
Best friend of 7 years: Amy Scherr Stolz, married, died ... heart attack, suddenly four weeks after getting married in 1999 at age 31
“To me friendships with women are like emotional blanket forts. It’s a place for you to just be yourself. You don’t have to worry if you have makeup on or not, you don’t have to worry if you say some things that you think are silly and you can tell your truth.”
How did you meet?
I met Amy when I was in my mid-20s at my first day of work at a small specialty hospital. Amy was in graduate school and was doing a field placement. After I did the human resource stuff you do on the first day of a new job, Amy — and this is very characteristic of her — took it upon herself to give me a tour and introduce me to people. Since the moment I met her, I always felt completely connected to her.
Amy was beautiful and people who never knew her who see pictures of her now always remark on that. She was 5’ 8” with a slender figure, flowing dark curly hair, dark eyes and the great combination of being warm and grounded, but also a goofball. Here’s one example: she wore shoes two or three sizes larger than me and a bunch of us girlfriends were out on a summer evening in downtown Baltimore and I was wearing summer sandals that were uncomfortable. She said we should switch. So we walked around the inner harbor, me like a child playing dress up and her like an adult in a child’s shoes. She was laughing the entire time and our other friends were rolling their eyes. She just thought it was hysterical.
What was the friendship like?
This is going to sound really clichéd, but it’s true: There was nothing she wouldn’t do with me, and there was nothing I liked more than doing everything with her. She would call me and ask, “What are you doing right now?” and I would say, “Peeling the paint off of an old piece of furniture.” She’d say, “Oh good, I’ll be right over with a pizza.” There are so many parts of me that blossomed in our friendship. It wasn’t conscious on her part, she didn’t set out to teach me or bring things out. She had no agenda like that, but she was a gifted artist, very creative and very handy.
The first time I went to a craft store it was with Amy and the first time I went to Home Depot it was with Amy. When I had my first apartment we went to choose a color for my wall. I picked this very deep color pink. She told me I couldn’t paint a whole room that color and so she lightened the paint. At home, we moved everything to the middle of the room, and she showed me how to tape it all off. We painted and when we stepped back to look she said, without malice whatsoever, “It looks like Pepto Bismol.” Until she died, she picked every paint color and decorated every apartment I lived in.
Someone had given me a wooden chair and loveseat, but I hated the cushions. We spent six months looking for fabric. We finally found this Batik at a place in Georgetown. She came over with her mother’s sewing machine, took all the cushions and measured them, mapped her plan out, and then didn’t talk to me for three hours. At the end, she put the fabric on the chairs and on the loveseat. The fabric had a border, and she had somehow sewn the covers so that the border went all the way around all of the cushions in one big square. They were beautiful!
I was raised in a secular Jewish family. Amy’s family didn’t follow Jewish law, but they were involved in their synagogue and community. When my folks moved out of state, she took me into her family and I went with them to services, meals, and for the holidays. She never once said to me, “I think you would be happy if you are more Jewish,” but she was infectious in how much she loved it. I found my own connection to Judaism through our friendship.
I think the same thing happened with my creativity. Amy had a dual degree in arts and psychology and then she went to graduate school for social work. She did a lot of painting, sculpting, drawing, pottery and jewelry making. Beauty just flowed out of her. She was the first person I told what my purpose was. She was at my apartment lying on that loveseat that she had covered and I said to her, “I think I figured out what I want to do.” Mind you, I had been sort of obsessively searching for two years, and she had to hear all about it. Her eyes got really big and she said, “Well I’m glad I am already lying down.” I said, “I think I want to be a writer.” I didn’t say it loud enough for her to hear and so she said, “What?” I thought she was scoffing at me, so I said it louder. Then I really thought she was making light of it and I said, “Why are you laughing?” She said, “You have always been a writer.” Back then, she was the only one who could have known that — I read many of my journals to her. Since she died, I show my writing to anyone.
Describe how the friendship ended.
Amy met her husband a year and 10 months before she died. Immediately, from date one, it was evident that he was something special. Amy and I were living across the street from each other then, so we could stop by for five minutes, go food shopping together, pick things up for each other. We were probably the closest we had ever been. It was a little bumpy at first, but then I became good friends with him. The last time I saw her, seven days before she died, I spent the day with her and part of the day we spent with him. When I left I remember thinking, I’m so glad our friendship is fuller because it includes him.
After they got married they went to Italy for two weeks. Two weeks after they came back she died. I was working part-time in a restaurant. I didn’t take my cell with me. After working six hours, I went home to take a shower before going out. Amy’s husband had a friend whose brother was someone I socialized with. My phone rang and it was him. He sounded really strange and said, “How long have you been home” and I thought, what a strange question. He said, “I need you to sit down. I have some bad news.” We had met through a mutual friend and I was sure it was something to do with that friend. So I sat down on the floor, and then his voice broke and he said, “Amy died.” Now I’m sure part of my reaction was shock, but part of it was I wasn’t associating him with her. So I said, “No kidding, Amy who?” He didn’t know her last name and he said, “Your Amy.”
At that point I fell forward, my forehead on the carpet. I did not breathe for I don’t know how long. I didn’t pass out, but I stopped breathing, everything just stopped. I asked him what happened and he said his sister had called him but he didn’t know any details. I didn’t talk because my brain had shut down and he said, “I need you to keep talking to me.” I repeated, “What happened” and he said, “I told you I don’t know.” I said that was the only thing I had to say and he said he was coming to my house. He came and bought two friends with him. I called another friend of ours before they got there and she said to me, “Let me call the funeral home.” So she hung up and called me back and said, “I was expecting them to say, ‘I am sorry we don’t have anyone here by that name,’ but they do.” We were just totally in shock.
Amy was 31 with no documented health issues. She had woken up the day before feeling kind of dizzy, nauseous and with a headache. The next day she woke up and told her husband that she had pain in her back and was having trouble breathing. They lived right next to the hospital, so they got there in just a few minutes. She passed out and they worked on her for a long time. The autopsy took three weeks and we were shocked when it showed that she had a completely undiagnosed heart condition. She had had a heart attack.
How did you cope with her loss?
I was in a fog for almost the first year. I was very fortunate to have a very close connection with some of her other friends. I also had a close friend from graduate school who lost a child in childbirth about six weeks before Amy died. She was a wonderful grief partner for me. She lived out of state, but we were really there for each other. I didn’t even have a kid, let alone know what it is like to lose a child, but we would have these marathon three-hour phone conversations very regularly. She is now a bereavement therapist.
To be honest, I don’t look at this as something you get over. I look at this as something that I live with. It’s woven into the fabric of who I am. She was so fundamental to me, our connection was so primary. She understood me, she called me out on my stuff, she was unconditionally loving. She was someone I went food shopping with, who re-covered my furniture, who came over at 4 a.m. when I thought I needed to go to the ER, someone I would go to happy hour with or on vacation.
Losing Amy broke my heart open so wide that it’s never gone back together. I’m totally fine with that. This is very, very bittersweet and I wish it weren’t true, but her last gift to me was dying. She got into my heart in a way no one had before. Having the experience of her being there one minute and gone the next profoundly shaped my life. I am grateful that she knew exactly how much I loved her, that I knew how much she loved me. There was no unfinished business between us.
I was a much more guarded person before I met Amy. Now I let people know what they mean to me. One of the things that I wrote after Amy died was when you have something wonderful and worthy in your life hold on to it in your heart, and if you do that, even after it’s left, it never really leaves.
I think women are both socialized and wired to nurture. To me friendships with women are like emotional blanket forts. It’s a place for you to just be yourself. You don’t have to worry if you have makeup on or not, you don’t have to worry if you say some things that you think are silly and you can tell your truth. There is some sort of extra layer that I found with female friends that goes beyond social friends. It’s a heart-friendship connection where you get to replenish. There’s a synergy and a force you can draw from. I am blessed with many, many friends, but this was the most devastating loss I could have experienced. She was my person.
When Amy was alive, caller ID was a thing you had to pay extra for and they didn’t have it in workplaces. They didn’t even have it on old cell phones; it just said you had a call coming in. Whenever I felt like things were falling apart, I called her. She did not know when she answered that it was me on the phone, but when she said, “Hello,” I breathed again. I knew it would be okay. And when something awesome happened she would be the first one I would call. If I had to leave a message with her, I could tell twenty other people and then, when I finally got to tell her, and she got very excited, then it would be real. It wasn’t really real until I told her.
I think when you lose something, whether it’s a piece of your own identity or a person, something that is fundamental to your life, your life is never the same. It’s like you have blue paint and you have red paint (I’m using the analogy on purpose in relation to Amy) and you get purple paint. You can’t take the blue or the red out once it gets mixed. The bitter mixes with the sweet and then it’s all purple. There’s joy in everything, there’s pain in everything; just my awareness of it has changed a lot.
Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?
I have two pieces of Amy’s zinc plate prints. The name of one is Soliloquy. It is listed as the seventh out of eight prints, which makes it unbelievably precious to me.
Amy had a love for the Tasmanian Devil, the Looney Tunes cartoon character. When I was in seventh grade I bought a Tasmanian Devil stuffed animal. I later gave it to Amy and her husband gave it back to me after she died. It’s still on my bed.
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 Betsy, 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!