I hope you never have to write a memorial speech for a friend. I hope that by the time you lose a friend in life, you are too old to stand, your mind too weathered with old age to focus, your voice too weak to make a sound.
But that’s not the case when you lose a friend when they are young.
It hurts. But writing for a writer is a healing salve. Thank you, Peter, for asking.
The first time I truly understood the courageous character of our beloved Amy was during a telephone conversation I had with her in the fall of 2011. I was a newspaper reporter writing about Rochester New York’s upcoming annual Ovarian Cancer walk. Amy, as she did many times in her short but brilliant life, offered to share her story publicly and candidly to put a face on the statistics.
Unfortunately, my call caught her driving home from a friend’s wake. Her friend had just died from ovarian cancer.
Deadline or not, I was afraid that the timing of this interview was insensitive on my part. So I gave Amy an out. I apologized for reaching her at such a sad time. But instead of not wanting to be interviewed, she did just the opposite. “No, I want to talk to you. My friend was so strong, such an inspiration to all of us. Any time a treatment was not responding, she refused to get down and would instead say to her doctors, what else can we try? What’s next?”
Does this sound like someone we all knew and loved?
Amy truly lived during the fight of her life. Just as she connected to life here in her new community in Michigan, Amy, with her feisty wit and that warm win-you-over in a heartbeat smile, was a vibrant presence back in Rochester.
She worked for over 20 years in real estate as an apartment rental specialist and served on many leadership positions in the community and at our synagogue back in Rochester, NY.
What truly drew us together was my second understanding of Amy’s courage to embrace life’s changes while she faced the realities of her cancer. On a sunny October day in 2012, not unlike the one we had today, General Motors threw us all for a loop. It announced the closure of its Rochester-based research facility where both our husbands worked and the relocation of their jobs to Michigan.
I’ve moved around a lot. But Rochester was the only home Amy ever knew. That’s the town where her entire support network existed: family, friends, co-workers, doctors and other healthcare providers. Moving away from everything familiar when you have cancer must have taken immense bravery.
During the moving process, we became comrades in relocation . We scoped out Detroit together on week-long house hunting trips. Back in Rochester, we met for walks and early breakfasts to discuss the move process, how we were staging our Rochester homes for buyers and how our kids were handling goodbyes with their friends.
We shared the frustration of long-distance house hunting, in a post-foreclosure Detroit housing market and shared with each other listings we found on Zillow.
Once we found our houses, together we began to make them feel like home. Craig and I went to Amy and Peter’s house to hang up their front door mezuzah. Then, Amy and Peter came to our house before our furniture had even arrived to hang out on the rug in our family room, have a drink and play a cut-throat game of SET.
Amy, with her meticulous taste and her zest for shopping, went on to quickly decorate with a color wheel of paint samples to repaint the bedrooms upstairs, and wall hangings and picture frames with blank spots marked “reserved” for the main floor downstairs. It was as if she knew that time was not on her side, and she wanted to create the homiest home for Peter and Ben while her energies were still high.
As time went on, both of us gradually started making our individual paths. Though we joined different synagogues and our kids were in different school districts, we still found time to make new memories in our new town. I was amazed how quickly Amy plugged into life here, from her involvement and leadership in the PTO at Sheiko, her volunteer work for Blessings in a Backpack, and here at Beth Ahm, Amy quickly made an Army of friends. The next thing I knew it was Amy who was calling my kids to get them involved with planning the community-wide Purim carnivals.
Amy and I would talk on the phone. A lot. For a very long time. I cherished our lingering conversations because I knew there may be a time when I would no longer get to chat with my friend Amy.
Most of the time, we’d talk about our kids. School. The latest Groupon she scored. How we hated going food shopping here because once you shop at Wegmans, no other grocery store would do. Completely normal conversations between girlfriends.
On the occasion, and only when SHE wanted to bring it up, our chats were dotted with tumors that were either holding or shrinking. The date of an upcoming scan. When we needed to arrange to drive her to her next doctors visit or chemo treatment.
And then, we’d get on to talking about making social plans for date nights, either as couples or with the family.
You see, the Gittlemans and Harveys are forever connected by a few dates. Peter and Amy’s wedding anniversary is on my birthday. And Amy and my daughter shared a birthday on December 17. So, we celebrated on family date nights in search of a good Italian restaurant. Couple date nights where the four of us never got our meal served at the Bath City Bistro before seeing Howie Mandel. We waited two hours for their anniversary dinner that never came. Always the fighter, Amy made sure we did not pay a penny for our un-meal, not even for our drinks.
Then one winter we went to go see Amy’s boyfriend, STING, play at the Auburn Palace. The next morning, we met up to walk at the JCC and continued to swoon over her boyfriend’s performance.
But perhaps my favorite memory of our friendship was in the summer of 2014 when Amy and I took a girls’ road trip back to Rochester.
Anyone who has taken a long ride on the highway with Amy behind the wheel knows this. She had a lead foot.
We took her minivan. She insisted – repeatedly – on driving the whole way up and over Canada. For our listening pleasure, I brought along an audio book I thought she might like: “Confessions of a Shopoholic” We also talked about our plans for the weekend and hoped that on the way back, a minivan loaded with grocery bags from Wegmans would not arouse suspicions from the Border Guards.
For one sweet summer road trip, we talked about anything but the Teal elephant in the car. We never talked about her cancer.
On the drive back on Monday morning, we got caught in some traffic snarls around Toronto. Amy was only worried about not getting home in time to get Ben off the bus. So her leaded foot got even heavier.
Now, I am a nervous driver. So every time Amy rode up behind a car in the left lane a wee bit out of my comfort zone, my right foot instinctively slammed down on the floor.
Coolly and calmly, Amy glanced at me and said: “I’m afraid to tell you this, Mrs. Gittleman, but you do not have a brake pedal on your side of the car,”
In an attempt to convince her to drive more slowly, I tried to come up with some solutions.
“Can’t Ben go to a neighbor?”
“No, I get him off the bus.”
“Can he even wait 5-10 minutes outside in case we are late?”
“Nope I get him off the bus.”
It was then I realized just how devoted, how strong and how fierce Amy’s love was for you, Ben.
Because, as long as she was around on this earth, as long as she had the strength, your mom was going to be sure SHE was the one to be the one to see you off that schoolbus at the end of the day.
I never knew a woman so dedicated to raising and nurturing a child as Amy. Ben, she was so involved at your school, and in this synagogue where she and your dad did and will continue to raise you to be the mensch that you are and will continue to become.
Social workers at Karmanos told me that above Amy’s being an inspirational role model to other young cancer patients, they never met a woman who spoke so lovingly about her husband and son. Always with a smile. As sick as she felt, they said, Amy made sure to always advocate for Ben: preparing him for the future, Ben made it to his art therapy classes, and right after, Amy whisked him off to Karate.
Ben and Peter, I know nothing can replace Amy’s love, the clear blue of her eyes and her sweet voice. All the arms in the world cannot replace the loving embrace of her arms, but I do hope that you can feel us embrace you, not only tonight, but in the months and years to come.
On the morning that Amy died, the rain fell and it seemed that it would never stop. Just like that song Fragile, by Sting “On and on the rain did fall, like tears from a star, like tears from a star.”
Though we cry now, Peter and Ben, please know your friends and family who gathered here promise to stand with you, to give you all our love and support at this difficult time.
May you be comforted by the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.