Peggy Cole is a self-published author who enjoys writing fiction stories, book reviews and articles about simpler times.
Paula and I met in 1976 while working in a hair salon that employed 30 hair stylists. Not long afterward, she and 9 other stylists left to open a new salon nearby. We lost touch for a couple of years until I went to work there, too. Our friendship deepened with shared experiences behind the chair.
She was a friend who could put you instantly at ease whether working, watching TV or just hanging out. We were comfortable reading novels, remaining silent for hours. There was no pressure to follow a schedule or do things. We were there for each other.
Our lives seemed to run in parallel as we moved from owning our own hair salons to earning our real estate licenses, later moving into corporate jobs. We shared the bond of becoming instant stepmothers to five-year old boys. We endured the heartbreak of bad marriages and failed businesses and shared the joy of coming back from darkness to better times.
It was 1988 when we spent our first week together at her timeshare on the beach. We shopped for food together, cooked meals on the outdoor grills and enjoyed spectacular views of the sunset, before staying up most of the night watching old movies. Good times.
After I moved to Dallas, Paula flew in for a visit. We toured the 300-acre horse ranch my boss owned and visited Ms. Jeannie's "big" house on the property. Afterward, we drove to Southfork Ranch and then to the Gold Twin Towers where they filmed the TV show Dallas before driving to Oklahoma to see a real oil rig. Road trip!
When I'd fly into Tampa, she was always there to pick me up at baggage claim. We'd take a trip to Universal Studios, Sea World or Busch Gardens which was only a few blocks from her house. From there, you could hear the roller coaster riders screaming and see them as they peaked the high point of the ride.
Each September we'd spend days walking the beach, baking in the sun and swimming in the pool. We'd pack up with sadness at the end of the week and drive back to her house. Our last night together would include reruns of Star Trek and dreading the early morning flight when I'd return home.
She'd drop me at Tampa Airport bright and early. When I let her know I was safely home, she'd tell me she'd cried all the way home. She felt things deeply and wasn't afraid to show her emotions.
We shared dozens of meals at the Village Inn Pancake House, Houlihan's, Friday's, and Puerta Vallarta or Café Pepe where we ordered paella with homemade brown bread. We shopped the thrift stores for items to sell in my antique store and we drove around the neighborhood where parrots from Busch Gardens roosted in trees near her house. My old house was only a few blocks from hers and we'd do a drive-by.
When I visited my dad in Winter Park, she would drive over from Tampa for dinner with the family. Her reenactments of whacking Cane frogs (a poisonous invasive species) in her yard with a shovel and hurling them over the fence to protect her dogs kept us entertained. Poor froggy.
She was raised by a single mom, so she developed a strong bond with my dad whom she claimed as her own. We called each other sisters. When he passed away, I flew into Tampa and spent days at her house. She made several 2-hour trips to attend his funeral and take me home with her. She was a source of comfort and friendship during my grief.
She was a friend who remembered to call on birthdays, holidays and in-between, always sharing the latest news and listening patiently and attentively.
She had an amazing recall of my family tree, the names of aunts and cousins, the ups and downs of my job.
Over the years our roles expanded to caring for our aging mothers and their live-in partners. We often shared the joys and difficulties of being caregivers.
In May of 2017, I'd left a couple of voice mail messages and hadn't heard back. She usually returned calls within a couple of days. When she finally called, her voice was hoarse and strained. She apologized for the delay confiding she'd spent the past 10 days in the hospital. They'd run a battery of tests and she had been waiting for results.
Nothing could have prepared me for what she said. The tests showed she had pancreatic cancer. I wanted to fly in immediately but she wanted me to wait until she started chemotherapy. By then, her 83-year-old mother would need a break.
There were delays in treatment and changes of medical facilities due to scheduling issues. The end of June I flew to Tampa despite her protests. Paula was growing weaker, unable to eat more than a few bites of food at a time. She'd have terrible gastric reactions when she did.
I wasn't prepared to find her looking so frail. She described herself as "skeletal," and it was true. She could barely walk unassisted.
My friend was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. I'll never forget her words when she told me, "Don't think the irony of this disease is lost on me. All my life I've struggled to lose weight and now I'm dying of starvation."
After weeks of not being able to eat anything, she was too weak to have chemotherapy. But she was resilient and still hoped to beat this awful disease. She wanted to travel and visit places that she'd never seen.
Right to the last, she was grateful for the small comforts and blessings of life. She had loving friends who thought of her as a sister, the affection of her beloved mother and 2 dogs who loved her dearly.
She passed away on July 21st, 2017, two months after her diagnosis. I still reach for the phone to call her, even after years have gone by. I still dream of us enjoying a meal or sitting in her living room with the dogs, the cats and her cockatiel.
She loved Jesus and I hope she's had a chance to meet Him and reunite with her pets that have crossed over. There was Chevas Regal, Aramis, Nevada, Spunky, Chloe, Zoey, Hansel, Gretel, Dakota and TC Wilson.
Paula is gone but not forgotten. She lives on in my memories.
© 2021 Peg Cole