Fierce Friends

Jenna (left) and Jamie during Karaoke at Jenna's bachelorette party

Jenna Mate: 1 child, vocal and acting coach, director and yoga Instructor

Best friend of 27 years: Jamie Finkelstein, pastry chef, arist, connoisseur of life's best, died due to an illness in 2010 at age 32

"Sometimes I feel like I have to experience life for both of us. Like if I eat a really special meal, I need to love it 'double' since she's not tasting it."

How did you meet?

Jamie the morning of Jenn's wedding
Jamie the morning of Jenn’s wedding

Fierce. That’s how I would describe my best friend, Jamie Harriet Finkelstein. She lived life with an intensity that could not be matched, and was one hundred percent herself…without apology.

Jamie and I were destined to be friends. When our parents enrolled us in the kindergarten T-Ball team, we were the only two girls. Naturally, play dates were set up for us. At that age, Jamie’s idea of “playing” was to chase me around the house with one of those beaded safety pins that she retrieved from her sneaker. She yelled “I’m gonna stick you,” and a terrified six-year old me ran from her. Yes, as a child, Jamie could act pretty tough. When I reflect on it now, I see that she just delighted in being oppositional. This is something I see in my one-year old daughter. It’s a gleam in the eyes that appears when she knows she’s doing something out of bounds. Jamie lived her life out of bounds. Even though she could be difficult at times, we always came back to one another.

When her mother passed away from cancer in fifth grade, I remember sitting on the swings in her backyard as her Aunt Susie brought in trays of fruit delivered to their home. Not much was said between us, but just being there felt meaningful somehow. We drifted in and out of closeness through those elementary school years, but a much deeper friendship was waiting for us in middle school.

In the middle of eighth grade, I rejoined the local school system after a socially crippling year at a private school. At that time, in the most awkward of social stages, our friendship experienced a spark. I was clearly not fitting in with the mainstream kids, being a theater nerd, and she was comfortably on the outskirts, marching to her own drum with clothing, music and other unique interests. We took each other under our wings, and began to build our own world.

HS crew: Jenna in the middle with Jamie's arm around her
HS crew: Jenna in the middle with Jamie’s arm around her

By the beginning of high school, we were being dropped off in New York City — Washington Square Park to be exact, and shopping for the latest fashions. We would get café au lait with my mother, and then go on excursions. At that time, it was novel to shop at Urban Outfitters, and we were delighted to be different than the other kids in our high school. We would people watch and laugh, and talk for hours.

Almost every day after school, Jamie walked home with me and we raided the fridge, listened to our favorite artist, Tori Amos, and laughed and talked. She challenged me too. When Jamie didn’t like how I acted, she really let me have it. In this way, I think she really taught me how to be a good friend, although it wasn’t always easy. She could be really vicious with words, and knew just how to elicit a reaction. However, the crux of our friendship was constant laughter and a deep love for one another. She thought that my clumsiness and flightiness was hysterical, and I thought that her goofiness was hilarious. We made up our own alter-ego characters, and with our pal, Armand, used to send notes in class with detailed drawings of these people. We spoke in accents when we portrayed them, and came up with scenarios they might get themselves into.

Did I mention that she loved to cook? One day, I came over to her house in high school, and she was making a baked brie with a raspberry coulis. Her love of good food exposed us to all kinds of new cuisines. She loved to eat out, and appreciated the detail that goes into food preparation. This wasn’t the only art she appreciated. She loved to draw and craft. A present from Jamie could be a handmade funny cartoon project, a piece of origami, a personally designed card, or pillow. I have these items all over my home, and they bring me great comfort.

When we were in tenth grade, Jamie’s father suffered a heart attack and was at the hospital. We had tickets to a Tori Amos concert that night…fourth row. I remember that she was worried about her dad, but the music and the atmosphere lifted her spirits. Later that night, she called me. Her voice was very serious. She said, “Jen, I have to tell you something.” I thought that she was going to talk about the loss of her mother — a topic we never discussed. Instead she said, “I think I might be bi.” I didn’t know what to say, so to make her feel better, I said, “Me too!” Then she said, “but I’m not attracted to you. Don’t worry.” We just laughed.

The next years of high school were dedicated to helping Jamie navigate the complicated waters of being gay. It turned out that she was clearly attracted to women, and I found it fun to be her wing woman whether at the mall or at a women’s rally in Washington. I was there to listen to all of the feelings, and in turn, she listened to mine. There was never any judgment when it came to serious matters — only support and good advice.

Jamie (left) and Jenna at Nantucket
Jamie (left) and Jenna at Nantucket

We spent so much time together that she was considered a member of the family. My younger sister, Robyn, adored her and looked up to her. She joined us on family vacations to Nantucket, and often refereed the fights between the Mate sisters. My mother often had long talks with her, offering advice, and my father liked how she could shoot from the hip. Jamie was so very unique, and our family was enriched by her presence. She became my sister.

Jamie continued to grow into a brave adult who marched to her own beat. She had a wide variety of interests and very specific tastes. She could speak intelligently about art, architecture, dance, music, film, and so much more. She loved people with an intense passion, was a total romantic, and always had an art or cooking project in process. Everyone who met Jamie remembered her. She was also a prankster, and would play long elaborate jokes on her friends. People were drawn to her, and she was really the anchor of our little crew from high school, which included Armand, Sara, and my sister Robyn. Each one of us had a different relationship to her, and when she left this world, we had each other to lean on. She had a special friendship with her brother, Dave, and often spoke to me about him. She was very protective of her father, and often encouraged him to eat healthy foods. She could be a goof ball one minute (rapping and juggling) and deliver a professorial diatribe the next minute. She was brilliant and alive and she lit up my life.


What was the friendship like?

Jamie and I were expert talkers. We could spend hours on the phone and not miss a beat. We analyzed everything from relationships to song lyrics. A single conversation could go from bent over laughing to crying. There wasn’t anything that we didn’t share, and we leaned on each other during every challenge. Each success was matched with incredible enthusiasm, and each failure, with empathy. We were each others witness, and each others champion.

A perfect day with Jamie was getting a great meal, which she always appreciated in the utmost detail. She could pick out subtle flavors, and notice the workmanship in every bite. Then a walk through somewhere pretty — she loved the cherry blossom trees at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Mostly, a good day was filled with laughter. We could really make each other belly laugh.

When she was twenty-four years old, Jamie became ill with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. She experienced a sudden onset of symptoms, was rushed to the hospital, and was admitted a few weeks later for aggressive treatment. One of my favorite stories is from the day we checked her into the hospital for a one-month round of chemotherapy. As one can imagine, tensions were running very high that day. We didn’t know what to expect, and the hospital floor at Sloan Kettering was filled with very sick people. A friend of mind in LA had sent a teddy bear filled with lavender to give to Jamie. The idea was that she could heat up the bear, and the aroma would be calming. There was a small kitchen at the end of the hall. After getting her settled into her room, we took the bear to the kitchen, popped it into the microwave, and began to heat it up. We decided that if anyone on the hospital staff asked what we were doing, we would reply, “Oh, my bear is very sick. He’s getting his radiation treatment.” This sent us into hysterics! We came up with all sorts of replies that would make Jamie look more like a mental patient than a cancer patient. This brought us both great relief. This story sums up our friendship. We could create lightness in the Leukemia wing of Sloan Kettering.

Throughout her illness, Jamie taught me how to be more present. She continued to value the small moments, and had great resilience in the face of setbacks. Her illness brought about the conversations of our lives. We shared our deepest fears, our dreams, and our realities with one another.

Jenna's sister Robyn (left) and Jamie
Jenna’s sister Robyn (left) and Jamie

Once Jamie was released from the hospital, she lived with my parents and sister for a while. I was living in California at the time. My parents felt like she was a daughter and my sister felt that she was another big sister. I’m so grateful to my family for the care they provided. My sister and mother used to sleep at the hospital when Jamie was admitted for one reason or another. They brought her to numerous doctor appointments and treatments. They enriched her life with more love than one could imagine. Their constant support gave her strength and resiliency.

Describe how the friendship ended.

On the morning of December 19, 2010, I awoke to the phone ringing at about 5:00am. My husband picked up the phone, and began to react loudly. I’d never heard these kinds of sounds from him. I said, “Give me the phone!” I think I already knew the news. It was my mother. She told me that Jamie had died that morning. Just a few days before, I was coaching Jamie to go to the Emergency Room from my bathtub in Los Angeles. She called to tell me she had a fever and was scared. As usual, I did my best to calm her nerves, but suggested that a doctor take a look. Her health had been declining for some time, and she was in rough physical and emotional shape. For months, we had been talking on the phone every morning on my commute to work. It was our ritual to connect, and I was doing all that I could to support her from such a long distance.

The day after she went to the ER, I received the sweetest phone message from her. She said that she was in the ICU, and that she was glad I told her to go to the hospital. She said, “You’re the best friend in the world. I love you.” I’ve saved that phone message, and listen to it from time to time. It was the last time I heard her voice. She died the next day.

How did you cope with her loss?

Jamie, Jenna and Robyn at Jenna's bridal shower
Jamie, Jenna and Robyn at Jenna’s bridal shower

Being Jamie’s friend is one of the greatest honors I’ve ever known. This person put so much of her energy and time into my development as a human being, and it floors me. And I wasn’t the only one. She had incredible friendships with others. My sister, Robyn, for instance was really a younger sister to her. They had a relationship of their own, and it was just as rich. She was also best friends with Sara and Armand, who were in the original high school “crew.” And then there were all of the incredible friendships from college and beyond. My point is that Jamie poured this kind of energy into many people. When you were with her, she made you feel important and loved.

Losing Jamie has left a hole in my heart and in my life. Our friendship cannot be replaced, and is forever on hold in 2010. Although I talk to her constantly, and tell my one-year-old daughter all about her, I miss her terribly. Whenever I have a success or a failure, I long for our conversations. Somehow, she always knew what to say. I believe that she’s with me, sometimes laughing at me, sometimes comforting me, but I miss her voice, her smile, and the way she artfully prepared food. Speaking of food, Jamie earned a top degree at the French Culinary Institute in Pastry while undergoing treatment. One of the ways that I cope with her loss is through baking. I have a photo of her hanging in my kitchen, and each time I bake, I talk to the photo, promising to measure everything exactly, because I feel that she’s watching, and would want it to be precise. She used to make these Bourbon Pecan cookies at Christmas time. When I make those cookies, I feel close to her.

The most therapeutic way of coping has been to talk about her with Robyn, Sara, Armand, and other friends of hers. They have the same kinds of ties to her. Each year, my parents host a “Jamie Day” where all of her friends gather together with their young children (many of them named after Jamie) and we just talk and laugh. My own daughter Sadie received Jamie’s Hebrew name earlier this year, and the “ie” in Sadie is for her Aunt Jamie. We even named the gigantic stuffed animal giraffe next to her crib “Jamie” so that she could begin to draw the connection to her guardian angel. Each morning, she toddles over to the giraffe and pets it. This makes my husband and I smile. All of these little things help to cope with the loss. And then there are days, like her birthday, that hit me like a brick. So the grief ebbs and flows, really.

Her death has caused a great deal of fear, because it’s scary to lose someone who’s so young and with so much potential. When I feel the fear of losing others in my life, I try to focus on how grateful I am that they are here and they are healthy. She’s taught me to work toward being in the moment, because each moment is precious.

I think that living my life to the fullest is the best way I can honor her. Since her passing, I went on to receive two Masters degrees and a yoga teacher certification. She was always suggesting that I go back to school. She said that I would love it. Sometimes I feel like I have to experience life for both of us. Like if I eat a really special meal, I need to love it “double” since she’s not tasting it. This used to feel like a lot of pressure, but now it’s okay with me. I don’t mind living or loving twice as much. It makes me feel like she’s along for the ride.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add about your friendship?

I love her fiercely, and I hope that she knows it.