One of the unexpected perks of writing this blog has been the press invitations that have come my way in the last several years. It was new business for me, arranging dates and times with press reps, etc. One of the unexpected pleasures was the plus one and getting to bring someone to see the shows with me. I used this as an opportunity to invite theater loving friends and colleagues. I have no qualms going to see a show on my own, I’ve done it often enough and have made “show friends” for the duration of the play, but it’s a lot more fun to bring someone in with you.
One in particular is my friend Dana, whom I met when we were both working at Barnes and Noble. On her first day, our boss escorted her to the line of cash registers (where I was in charge) and we were introduced. I had a feeling that I was going to like this smart, affable and gregarious new hire from the moment I met her. And I did. I wasn’t the only one; coworkers were also thrilled to see her walk in for a shift. Within weeks, I felt as though I had a wonderful colleague and new friend, as we would find ourselves talking and laughing about practically everything while getting our work done.
I’m returning to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival this week, so Dana’s been on my mind quite a bit. Since the Festival isn’t far from where I live, I wanted to invite someone who lived close by. It was Dana who responded with an enthusiastic yes. We ended up seeing Much Ado About Nothing and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) together, as well as last year’s The Bombitty of Errors. I had told her at the beginning of the year about the current 25th season lineup and she was excited for our annual return to Boscobel. But that was not to be as we lost our wonderful Dana on May 9 to the cancer she had so bravely fought off and on for the last few years.
Dana first told me about her battle with cancer about three weeks into our friendship. It was an unusually quiet spring night at the store and there wasn’t much work to be done so we talked for a while at the register. She opened up the conversation with a throwaway comment. Truth be told, I can’t remember what we were talking about that started the ball rolling, but soon we were discussing her cancer fight, of which she had then only recently finished chemotherapy treatments. Much to my surprise, she told me rather bluntly that the cancer was eventually going to return and it would one day kill her. I was understandably taken aback, but Dana wasn’t searching for sympathy or pity – that wasn’t the type of person she was – she was just being up-front and honest.
We didn’t dwell on her illness as she was too busy enjoying her life to let it get the best of her. I was aware of the scans she had to go for regularly and I’d have a big sigh of relief with each text that told me that it was all clear. The rest of our time together at work was spent bantering. Our friendship continued to grow and we grew more madcap. I’ll never forget Dana recreating Little Edie’s flag dance behind the cash-wrap, or how the two of us burst out into “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” for our boss amid the chaos of the final Harry Potter book release party, by which time we were sharing the same position.
Our friendship continued to grow after I was no longer employed by Barnes and Noble. We would talk on the phone for hours; she’d fill me in the gossip with my former coworkers and what was going on in her life. But it was soon into these conversations that we would veer in any direction, whether talking about a current political situation or institutionalized racism in America. This was some heady stuff; but we were always open and honest with each other. She possessed a magnificent sense of humor, and in her I also found something of an audience and I loved making her laugh.
Our first theatre trip was a matinee of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in March 2008 with our other friend and coworker Jocelyn. We would eventually go see several other shows together, including Love Loss and What I Wore, which she loved and even revisited on her own. Sitting with Dana was a unique experience because she was very vocal. Not in a way that would be distracting to others, but she possessed a distinctively infectious laugh that would only exacerbate the comedy. I’ll never forget a moment in Complete Works where the actors recreated the entire play backwards; the sheer lunacy had her clutching her sides, breathless and exhilarated. Last year’s trip to HVSF ended up being our last excursion together – we headed up to Cold Spring, grabbed some pizza and went and sat on the lawn at Boscobel, reveling in the late afternoon sun. Schedules limited us to phone calls and texts, but we kept in touch.
There had been a surgical procedure this past February that had gone well. So in March, I texted her about joining me on a press invite to see Harvey Fierstein and Christopher Sieber in La Cage Aux Folles. She responded that her health had taken a turn for the worse and she had made the choice to stop cancer treatment. Shortly after that, Dana moved into hospice care where I had the opportunity to visit her. We sat in her room for a good hour and a half, along with another former coworker, reminiscing and laughing – our business as usual. While Dana lacked the energy to talk on the phone, she stayed connected with her friends via Facebook and text messaging until the end. During the last six weeks of her life, I texted more than ever before; if something funny or irreverent popped in my head I would send it along because I knew it would make her laugh. As for La Cage aux Folles, I never did go. My heart just wasn’t in it.
When Dana passed away in early May, a large group turned out for her memorial. Every detail had been planned in advance and Dana wanted it to be as much of a celebration as it possibly could be. Every hymn and song was her choosing, the food served afterward were her favorites. The one that got a big laugh out of me: she pre-approved the eulogies that would be given. I sang one of her favorite songs, “For All We Know” (her favorite rendition was by her beloved Donny Hathaway) and as a group we danced a soul train outside the church to Michael Jackson, as per her wishes.
I’m grateful for the time we spent together. Dana faced this awfulness with the utmost positivity and upbeat attitude. When we visited her in hospice, we left feeling better than when we had come in. It was just her special way. Dana followed my blog and talked to me about it, and encouraged me to continue writing as well as return to music. She was always supportive of her friends and encouraged them to take the risk and say yes. Her college friends started “Living Large for Dana” a few months ago as a tribute to Dana’s joie de vivre. Whether it’s a small goal like taking a cooking class or something momentous like making a career change, LL4D is about doing what it takes to make a dream a reality. There could be no better legacy for someone who lived more in 33 years than most others would in 66.
At her memorial, the small card that was distributed had a wonderful picture of Dana laughing, with the inscription reading “Death is the end of a life, not the end of a relationship.” I’ll remember this wonderful woman, who inherited her sense of humor from her father and her strength and poise from her mother, a combination that made for one of the best friends a person could ask for. And watching the shows at Boscobel this summer, I’ll remember that laugh.
And, finally, here is Dana in her own words:
“This experience has taught me what some people never learn: everyday that you feel well is an awesome day and the most important things are family, friends and really good food (like lemon tarts from Whole Foods)! There is so much love and laughter in my life that it’s impossible for me to not be okay.”