On March 25, 1977 on a gorgeous Spring day at 4:30 in the afternoon, I lost my best friend since kindergarten to AML leukemia.
Richelle was the first girl my age I met when we moved to the town where I grew up. My mom and I were in the A&P doing some grocery shopping when we saw Richelle and her mom. We girls started talking to each other and a friendship was born.
We went to kindergarten together and were inseparable. I remember for Richelle's 6th birthday I gave her a little black leather purse stitched in white and my mom had bought the matching brown one stitched in black for me. The party was out in her backyard that year and we had such a great time playing. I don't think I've ever mentioned my real name on this blog but it's Michele. Richelle's dad called us "Mee-chele" and "Ree-chelle".
We went to Catholic school together as well. We played together on the playground and shared all our secrets. We joined a Girl Scout troop together. In 7th grade we did a science project together. Richelle's dad helped us build a model of two rivers, one with a dam and one without and we spoke about water conservation. We made cotton ball trees and painted the box blue and green.
Another year we did a 4-H cooking demonstration together. We made Vegetable Casserole Delight. My mom still has the recipe. To this day I can't eat it without missing Richelle. We got a blue ribbon for that one.
We went through boyfriends together and we added other friends to our circle. D joined us in school in 3rd grade when the two Catholic schools combined. S moved to town in 6th grade and we became the four Muskateers. Richelle's dad always said that you never saw less that three of us together at one time.
I remember a night when S and I slept over at Richelle's. We were up really late and got hungry. So we crept into the kitchen to see what we could find. We discovered powdered doughnuts and decided to pair them with glasses of milk. We were trying to be very, very quiet so as not to get busted. We sat quietly at the dining table and began to sample the doughnuts. It was then we discovered they were a little stale. Richelle says, "Mmmmmmmm, crunchy!" just as I've taken a drink of milk. I laughed and it all came right out my nose. We dissolved into a fit of giggles and got busted anyway.
After 8th grade graduation we all decided to go to the local public high school instead of the Catholic high school 10 miles away. For the first time we were able to wear real clothes to school in place of those horrid white blouses and blue pleated skirts we'd been prisoners of for eight years. I became a band geek and Richelle became a drummer in the pep squad. We had new groups of friends but we were still best friends.
One Friday night in January 1976 Richelle and I went to the basketball game at the high school gym. Her mom said that Richelle had been running a fever so although she could go to the game she had to stay inside the gym and not do a bunch of cutting up. We behaved ourselves that night and went home afterwards. Richelle was out sick all week the next week with the flu. I wound up staying home for a couple of days at the end of the week myself with a virus. I tried to call her a couple to times but there was no answer.
On Saturday morning, February 7th, Richelle called me at home. I was still sick so I was in my pajamas and robe. My mom was outside talking to our next door neighbor and the twins were outside with her. I was so very happy to hear from Richelle and told her I'd tried to call her. She said she'd been at the hospital for a couple of days with virual pneumonia. I told her I was so glad she was better and back home. That's when she told me she wasn't better. She and her mom were at home packing clothes quickly to go to New Orleans. I assumed she was going to see her first cousin M, whom she was very close to and whom ended up being my roommate in college. She said no, she was going to a hospital in New Orleans because they'd found out she had leukemia.
I don't remember the end of that conversation. I only remember walking outside and telling my mom through tears that Richelle had leukemia. I remember going back in the house and calling both S and D and relaying the bad news to each of them. We all cried together on the phone that day. I spent the rest of the day in my room crying for my friend.
In 1976 the cure rate for leukemia was about 10%. We knew with 90% certainty that Richelle wasn't going to live much longer. St. Jude wasn't accepting 15 year olds then so she was treated in New Orleans. She went through rounds and rounds of chemo and lost all of her hair but was in remission in a few months. She came home that summer wearing a wig and celebrated her 15th birthday on August 29. Her parents bought her the cutest little brown Toyota. She was able to drive and we had a blast while it lasted.
The leukemia came back again that early Fall and it was back to New Orleans for more treatment. She was home again in December to celebrate my 15th birthday. My parents let me have a party with BOYS and I have pictures of all of us there dancing, Richelle in her wig smiling.
It wasn't long after that that the leukemia was back again and this time it was bad. She went back to New Orleans for even more chemo but the doctors told her parents that there really wasn't anything more they could do. Time was short and Richelle wanted to come home. She wasn't about to die anywhere but home. That year for Valentine's Day, I went to a drugstore and bought this really huge Valentine that cost a whole dollar back then. [vbg] We passed it around school thinking that we could get a few of her friends to sign it. When I got it back, there wasn't a place left for anyone to write. Everyone from fellow freshmen to seniors to teachers had signed it. It became one of Richelle's treasures.
I got to see her a couple of times after she got home. She was so very fragile. We talked and laughed in her room surrounded by her doll collection. We remembered all the good times and talked about all the boyfriends we'd had. She told me she wasn't afraid to die and I told her I didn't want her to.
She went into the hospital back home in mid-March and we knew it wouldn't be long. She had fought a hard battle but was losing the war. Her parents had even tried taking her to Mexico for layatril treatments because they were and remain illegal here in the States. But nothing worked. I got to see her at the hospital the day before she died. She was laying in that bed, tiny, frail, bruised from all the needles but still smiling. I got to tell her I loved her and I said I'd see her again soon but I didn't.
During 6th hour class that Friday afternoon, S showed up at the Biology Lab door crying and asking for me. She said she'd been working in the office when they'd gotten a call that Richelle would not make the night. That was the longest hour of school ever. But our Biology teacher, Mrs. Tietje, was fantastic. She stopped the biology lesson and let us just talk about Richelle for the rest of the period. We all cried together that day, boys and girls alike, because we all knew her.
I got home and begged Mom to take me to the hospital but she told me that it was time for Richelle to be with her family and not a bunch of us kids. Just after 4:30 Richelle's mom called to tell me Richelle was gone. I had lost my best friend who was supposed to grow up and be my roommate in college, my maid of honor at my wedding, and aunt to all my future kids. Let me tell you, at 15 that's a hell of a lot to handle.
We buried her that Sunday. The day before when I'd arrived at the funeral home, I hugged Richelle's dad and he said to me that she wouldn't come back even if she could because she was in a much better place, a place where she wasn't sick anymore. I have never forgotten those words. The church was overflowing with people. The choir sang Peace Is Flowing Like A River, Richelle's favorite church song. I still can't make it through it all the way. Her tombstone has her name carved in her handwriting. Until I moved away from there nearly six years ago, I visited that grave twice a year - March 25th and August 29th. I have thought of her at each milestone in my life and wished she were there. I cried when I saw her parents at my wedding. I knew they were wishing she were there, too.
I wound up forging a wonderful friendship with her cousin M. We became the ones who were there for each other at all the times when Richelle should have been. We now share the adult memories that each had expected would include Richelle and that's helped ease our pain.
So every year on March 25th I get a bit melancholy and think about my friend Richelle and remember what it was like to be fifteen.