Friend taught the value of livingROBIN WASHINGTON: There’s no easy guide for finding the right words after one of your best friends dies, no matter how many times you’ve thought about it or about how you’d feel when the long march toward the inevitable finally reaches its end.
There’s no easy guide for finding the right words after one of your best friends dies, no matter how many times you’ve thought about it or about how you’d feel when the long march toward the inevitable finally reaches its end.
Instead, you just remember her words, even if the cancer that afflicted Ilene Levin for too many of her 57 years did its best to silence her, taking first her voice, then her life.
Yet never her spirit.
“We definitely need to chew the fat!” she Facebook messaged me in February from her California snowbird home. The statement is loaded with irony, not unintended: By then, conversing for her meant pulling out a note pad. She wasn’t chewing anything, feeding intravenously through tubes. But the phrase was part of our repertoire: the last line of a novel we’d shared, “Good Fences,” that sparked no end of chewing the fat.
Very little of it was about dying — not because she avoided the subject, but because there was so much of living to try to make sense of: politics, culture, the passions behind human behavior and the idiosyncrasies that make Duluth Duluth. Even when she did talk about her illness, she broadened it to be more than just about her.
“My husband (Steve Goldfine) always makes me feel loved in so many ways … even when I haven’t looked or felt very lovable,” she wrote in the Feb. 2, 2002, News Tribune, forever setting the standard for Valentine’s tributes.
“Throughout everything, Steve was at my side,” she continued of her recurrence of tongue cancer and extensive hospitalization in 2000 and 2001. “He slept in my hospital room after the surgeries. He changed dressings, put salve on my radiation burns and learned how to operate the feeding pump I needed for many weeks. He never complained or made me feel that caring for me was a chore.”
That was before we met, in 2004, when it seemed she’d won the battle and could put her full energy toward causes to help others, such as in her role on the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation board and many other ways of repairing the world.
She didn’t stop when the cancer came back. When she learned it was terminal, her focus was still on life. My spot on her bucket list was an afternoon ride in Baby, my two-seater Miata (read poor man’s Porsche) and the one material object I care about. We drove the length of Skyline Parkway — stopping for golf carts crossing the road at Enger Tower, only to catch Steve in one of them.
“What are the chances of that?” I asked, laughing — and with a Ph.D in finance, Ilene set about calculating the exact probability. The ride ended at the Hawk Ridge overlook, with an intermittent rainstorm and requisite rainbow over the lake.
It’s why we live here, we agreed. And there’s that word again: living.
There are hundreds of better stories, I’m sure, from those touched by her: Businesspeople she mentored, students she taught, friends and family who shared in the generosity of her holiday gatherings or more personal, quieter encounters. Some were recalled at her funeral Wednesday, the rest live on in our hearts.
No, there’s no easy way to write the column I wish I never had to, except to remember that Ilene lived life every day like it mattered. Because it did. And does. Don’t waste it.
Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at email@example.com.