Big Sister and Best Friend

Mary (left) and Wendy having a great day at the beach

Mary Houde: 50, divorced, 2 children, school administrator and special education administrator

Best friend of 20 years: Wendy Schnurr, married, dietician, died ... complications from lung disease and transplant at age 48

“A best friend is someone who absolutely walks the walk with you and is literally interested in those minute details of your life that no one should be interested in, but they care so much about you that those things matter to them.”

How did you meet?

Wendy and I met at Framingham State College when I was 19 and she was 27. We met outside a nutrition class. I was wearing a denim jumper. She looked at me and said, “Ah! You look so nice in that outfit. I would look pregnant if I wore it and that would be terrible.” And I thought, is that a compliment? I looked at her and said, “Thank you. I’m glad to hear I don’t look pregnant.” We laughed and she asked if I was going into the class and I said yes. We walked in and sat down together and most of my memories of college were going to classes with Wendy.

I learned shortly after meeting her that she had an illness that had damaged her lungs and impaired her ability to breathe. Framingham is on a hill. I was used to moving very quickly and so I had to learn to slow down for her. Sometimes she couldn’t speak while we were walking because she didn’t have the breath. She had the patience and ability to look after not just her own needs, but also those of a friend who she had to teach to slow down. This is how our relationship began — with her teaching me about what she was going through, what it was like to be young and have an illness that impacted everything.

She was married when we met and I was not. She was eight years older than I and like a big sister and a best friend all rolled into one. She was a perfectionist, but she had an absolutely amazing playful side. She had an absolute respect for the importance of play in life and when she loved people, she loved them with every single aspect of her being.

If we went to a restaurant to order lunch, I would decide in 20 seconds what I wanted and I would wait for 10 minutes as she went through every item on the menu. She had a thoughtful, intense energy about everything she did.

She took a class in public speaking in college because she was terrified to speak publicly. I kept saying to her, “Why are you torturing yourself?” And she said, “Because that’s what it’s about, being good in what you are not good at.” I was taking whatever was easy. She taught me another way to approach things.

What was the friendship like?

I think I was the listener. She had so many medical issues. She was tired of complaining to her husband Ed and needed someone else to talk to. I think she tried to protect Ed: I was a safe person for her to be scared with because all of her medical procedures invoked so much fear and the lack of control that comes with having an illness. She was able to talk about that fear with me. So I think a listening ear was a role that I definitely played for her.

She also enjoyed spending time with my children. She was not able to have children because of the medical issues and I think in many ways we shared our children. She would give me suggestions on parenting, but I trusted her because I knew she had probably thought it through much more than I ever would.

I will always remember Wendy asking to watch me nurse my daughter. Usually I would drape  a blanket over my shoulder, but she said “I will never get to nurse a baby. Can I watch what it looks like?” And I said, “Yep” and I kind of curled up on her lap with her over my shoulder and nursed my daughter. At first I was completely horrified, like how can you even ask that? But then I was like, of course she can ask, she is Wendy. I said yes because it was important to her and because she would never be able to have the experience herself.

My daughter Kayla absolutely loved her; my son Kevin absolutely loved her, too, though he was not as close. Kayla got her love of cooking from Wendy as well as a lot of her interest in nutrition. She actually wrote about Wendy for her college entrance essay. My daughter is at Framingham State right now studying to be a dietitian following in Wendy’s footsteps.

Kayla was 13 when Wendy died. But before that, they would spend whole days together. I would leave and they might sit and talk, they might cook something, they might create a craft. Kayla has many items that were Wendy’s, including an apron that Wendy embroidered for her. Wendy’s amazing husband also gave Kayla and I many of her clothes and things that were important to her after she died.

She was married to a man that she loved very, very much. He and I are still friends. That was one of the things I just absolutely loved about her, how much she loved her husband, talked about him, admired and respected him.

When I was still married, Wendy and Ed had a camp in Maine and we would go up and spend the day with them. They would often come to our house, we would go on hikes together, we would go out to dinner together, lots and lots of activities and a lot of times the activities all depended on Wendy’s health. She had a lung transplant in 1994 and she lived 13 years after that, but that did mean a lot of modifications in her lifestyle depending on how her health was.

I am still in very close contact with her husband. Ed is remarried now and has a wonderful, wonderful wife. We say that Wendy probably sent her and she says that her husband, who also passed away, probably sent Ed. It’s wonderful because I can talk about Wendy in front of Ed’s wife, Jean and it doesn’t bother her at all. She talks about Tim, we talk about Wendy and it’s beautiful that they can still honor what they had in their first marriages.

In many ways I was much closer to Wendy than my husband. My husband and I would talk about many things, but often I would talk with Wendy about them first. An idea I might have or a parenting issue, I probably would have run it by her and she might help me get to a point in my head where I knew what it was that I wanted and then I could sit down with my husband and discuss it. She would help crystalize things in my mind, get them to a point where I could then bring them to my husband. I have other girlfriends who I love dearly that I have had since high school, but there was something different in this relationship. It was just incredibly, incredibly close.

A best friend is someone who absolutely walks the walk with you and is literally interested in those minute details of your life that no one should be interested in, but they care so much about you that those things matter to them. That’s what she brought, that’s what she taught me.  I remember her saying, “I have to go in the hospital and it will mean a lot to me if you take time out of your schedule to come visit. I understand that’s a sacrifice because you have a three- and a five-year old and you need to be there for them and your parenting is hugely important, but I am going to be lonely and scared in the hospital and I will need you there.” Having someone who can put that into words is amazing. It’s easy to think that your friendship is just a Friday night out for a glass of wine and a nice dinner, but she really taught me to stop and remember how to place importance on friendships. And I might not have done that.

Describe how the friendship ended.

Wendy was part of the Needham Massachusetts Flower Club and she did flower arrangements and made quilts. She told me she had a flower show on May 15 and wanted me to come. I said, “Well, I might be up at camp.” She said, “No, I really want you and Kayla to come. It’s really important to me.” So I said we’d be there. We drove down and went through the flower show. Kayla kept saying, “Mummy, she is not here” and I said, “I know she probably just went home to get something and she will be back. She knows we’re coming; don’t worry.” Finally Kayla got a little annoyed with me, as a 13-year-old girl can, and said, “Mom, there is a reason she is not here.” So we went outside and I called and her husband said, “Oh! You don’t know.” And I said, “What do you mean I don’t know?” He said, “I just put her in an ambulance and she is gone. Come get me.”  So we drove five minutes to his house and he got into my car and we drove to the hospital. For our 20th year of friendship, I had given Wendy a friendship bracelet. We had matching bracelets: I wore one and she wore one. When I walked into the hospital room where her body lay, Ed took Wendy’s bracelet off and put it on me. It’s still there.

I knew Wendy was having issues that could be related to rejection of her organs. She was having a lot of trouble, throwing up constantly, losing weight, and we knew — though I  was denying it — that it might be her time. Actually, her heart stopped from throwing up. I don’t know how to say that politely, but her heart just gave up from that.

Wendy had left strict instructions that I had to do a eulogy. My deepest fear is public speaking. I absolutely cannot stand presenting in front of people, but I did it because she told me to. I didn’t know she had a fear that people wouldn’t speak, so she had asked several people and we all had gotten the exact same story: you have to do this because no one else might. So we were all together laughing and there were a number of us who got up to speak for her. It was kind of funny and very typical of her to have pre-planned everything.

In Wendy’s mind, when she died, it was my role to take care of Ed. So, obviously I was there that day and then through the wake and funeral. Afterwards he was really, really struggling and I would often call and he wouldn’t call back. So after about two months of having very short cryptic conversations or no phone calls, I finally called him and said, “Okay you’ve done enough, you’re going to get out of that house. We are going to play and we are doing something for her, so figure out what it is because on Sunday we’re going out.” He agreed and I couldn’t believe it because I thought he would brush me off.

We went up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which Wendy loved, we got tattoos, went out for lunch and talked about what we needed to talk about: how he had to live, that he couldn’t die with her. He joined a bereavement group that week, which is where he met his second wife. That opened the door and we had a lot of conversations after that.

I remember clearly he said to me, “Mary, it’s been almost three months, and I haven’t heard from Wendy.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “I keep asking her to make contact with me somehow and she won’t.” I drove home the whole way screaming at the top of my lungs and swearing at her and yelling at her, “Send any message to him. I don’t care what you do, you communicate with him, I can’t do it all, you have to help.” The next day he called me and said, “Hey, what did you say to Wendy?” I said, “I told her off,” and he said, “I can tell because she came to me in a dream last night and told me to let her parents choose the headstone for her grave. I knew that what they chose wasn’t what I wanted for her and so I was not going to let them do that and she yelled at me and told me it was not important and I had to let them do it.” So he did and from that point on we were really able to have laughing moments, crying moments and sharing moments. He gave me a pair of earrings that were very important to Wendy. We had bought them together in Canada. He gave me a lot of her clothing and books and things. He gave us pieces of her life that we still have in our house. I’m wearing one of her shirts right now.

How did you cope with her loss?

I still struggle with her loss, but I have a beautiful daughter who I can call whenever I miss Wendy. My daughter totally gets it, she doesn’t mind if I sob when we talk about Wendy and we remember her. I do different things if I am struggling. I might wear her clothing or I might write a note or create something because she truly believed that creativity was important and she was wonderful at it. She was a very spiritual and religious person and I can connect with that piece by doing something that focuses on angels because she truly believed in the existence of angels. My mom and my family all knew her, so certainly I can always say to my Mom, “Wendy is on my mind today” and we can talk about her and remember her.

Sometimes funny things come up. My daughter is a waitress, and a few months ago she got out of work at 1 o’clock in the morning. She couldn’t find a parking spot outside her apartment and that meant she was going to have to go to another building and walk between buildings with money in her pocket. She was kind of scared, she had only been living there for a little while, and she said, “Wendy, I need you right now, I’m scared.” Then she drove around a corner and there was a parking spot right there. She told me, “Mum, I drove by it three times and it wasn’t open and I never saw a car pull out, but I simply said, ‘Thank you Wendy, I appreciate it’ and then went to bed.” When Kayla is studying for an exam and struggling I say, “Wendy is the A student, don’t call me, call her because I can’t help you in biochem and she can.” So you know I’m lucky I have people that I can have those silly conversations with and they understand that Wendy will forever be an important piece of my life.

Wendy used to read the story of Johnny Appleseed to my children. When I spoke at her funeral, one of the things I talked about was that she believed in spreading the seeds of joy and love throughout the world just like Johnny Appleseed did. Wendy donated all of her organs when she died. There are people who can now see because of her lenses and people with skin transplants and bone transplants that came from Wendy. Even when she died, she was still doing for other people. That shows who she is. She lived that way and she died that way helping others.

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 Mary, 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!