Roberta Messner wondered if her friend would even want to hear from her
- Posted on Nov 23, 2018
It hit me in the middle of the checkout line at Marshall’s. I was thirsty. As thirsty as a camel. I couldn’t wait another minute to get something to drink. But four days before Christmas, the place was packed. The line? Moving like molasses. Just ahead, though, I saw something by the registers, like a mirage in the desert. A refrigerator of drinks. I abandoned my cart and headed straight to it, only one thought on my mind—getting an ice-cold Coca-Cola.
I needed the pick-me-up. And not just because of thirst. It hadn’t been the easiest holiday season. My neurofibromatosis—a condition that causes benign tumors to grow all over my body—had resurfaced with a vengeance. I’d had seven surgeries in the past year alone to remove tumors from my face and mouth. Each operation left me slightly disfigured and even more self-conscious. Alone. Just as I’d felt as a teenager, when I was first diagnosed. Now both my parents were gone. I’d been divorced for almost as long. I didn’t have kids or grandkids. And I didn’t want to overburden my sisters and brother with all I was going through. Leave it to Christmastime to make you feel as lonely and grumpy as Scrooge.
I opened the refrigerator and reached for a Coke. I took a sip, then looked to see if the bottle was one with a person’s name printed on it in big letters. I’d taken to praying for anyone I knew with the same name. I turned the bottle and—
I knew a Debbie, all right. My childhood best friend. I’d adored her from the moment we met. June of 1963. She was 10. I was 8. Her mom had just married my uncle Pat, my mom’s brother. It was a second marriage for Debbie’s mom.
“Meet your new cousin,” Uncle Pat told me the day he arrived from Cleveland to introduce his new wife and her children to my family. We lived in a small town in West Virginia. Uncle Pat worked for General Motors and always drove a flashy car. Everything about him and his beautiful family radiated big-city glamour.
Especially Debbie. I’d never seen anyone quite like her. She was petite with thick blonde hair cut above her shoulders. And just about the most winsome smile ever. “Do you like dolls?” she said. We went straight to my room to play. She knew about fancy foods like Swiss cheese and asparagus. She listed her favorite Motown tunes and taught me how to harmonize. Debbie genuinely seemed to want to be friends. Even though I was an awkward, ungainly child, already experiencing the initial symptoms of neurofibromatosis.
We weren’t technically cousins, even if she went by Uncle Pat’s last name. She wasn’t a Murphy by blood. For a while, though, I pretended we were just like Patty Lane and her “identical cousin” Cathy on The Patty Duke Show. After Debbie and her family returned to Cleveland, I vowed to walk, talk and act the way she did. No more West Virginia hillbilly twang for me. I wanted to be just like Debbie.
Five years after we first met, I got a chance to see Debbie in her element. My neurofibromatosis became acute, covering my face and skull in tumors. Just about the worst thing that could happen to a 13-year-old. Doctors in our area lacked the resources to treat me. My parents put me on a train to Cleveland so I could undergo surgery at the Cleveland Clinic. I’d stay at Uncle Pat’s while I recovered.
I assumed Debbie would want nothing to do with me now that she was 15, that she’d be wrapped up in her friends and probably dating some cool older boy. I would’ve been content to study her from afar. But she was overjoyed to see me. She insisted I move into her room to recuperate post-surgery. She made sure the kitchen was stocked with all my favorite foods— Swiss cheese and asparagus!—and helped me cover my scars with makeup and a wig.
We vowed to stay best friends forever. If only we had.
Debbie and I saw each other on and off after high school. Despite her generosity, I remained self-conscious about my illness, embarrassed by my looks. The worse it got, the more I pulled away. Part of me never believed Debbie wanted to be friends in the first place. What could I possibly offer her?
Then my mom died. There was a misunderstanding about a combination of things. Debbie and I lost contact. Years passed, then decades.
I stared at the Coke bottle now, emotions swirling inside me. What could I ask God to do for Debbie all these years later?
Please, Lord, take care of Debbie. Thank you for all she meant to me. How I’d love to see her again….
Next in line to pay, I reached into my shopping cart. That’s when I heard a voice from within, speaking straight to my heart.
Write Debbie a letter right away and tell her exactly how you feel, Roberta. Don’t leave anything out. Trust me to handle the rest….
Wait. Write to Debbie? What an idea—I couldn’t just write to a long-lost relative who wasn’t really my relative. I didn’t have her address. She’d married ages ago. She was no longer a Murphy, even in name. Besides, what would I say?
I pushed the crazy thought out of my head and paid for my purchases. Next stop on my to-do list: HomeGoods. I was comparing items in the decorations aisle when an announcement came over the PA.
“Debbie Murphy, please report to customer service. Debbie Murphy…”
I nearly fell into a rack of wreaths. There was no way my Debbie was actually in this store. Still, I got the message loud and clear. I drove home and mailed a letter to the last address I had for Debbie’s mother. Uncle Pat had died, but hopefully her mom would pass along my note.
Christmas came and went. Days later, the phone rang.
“Roberta?” That big-city accent.
“Debbie?” I said.
Before I knew it, we were talking over each other, apologizing, saying how much we’d missed each other. That misunderstanding after Mom died? In the past.
“I thought you were upset,” Debbie said.
“I thought you were!” I said. “Did your mom give you my letter?”
Debbie went silent. “Roberta, my mom passed away,” she said. “My brother is living in her house, and he’s the one who passed along the letter. It’s been a hard Christmas. You have no idea how well-timed your letter was. I’ve missed you so much. I don’t know if you realized how much you meant to me, growing up. You were so brave, so beautiful, so kind. I always wished I were more like you.”
Debbie wanted to be more like me? I filled her in on what’d been going on in my life, my continued health problems. It felt so nice to talk to someone who understood all I’d gone through back in the day.
“I’m here whenever you need me,” Debbie said. “Just promise we won’t lose touch again.”
She gave me her new name and address. I got off the phone, smiling. Then I felt another prompting in my spirit: Design some pretty address labels for Debbie as a belated Christmas gift…
Why not? With the Christmas rush over, I got right to work. Her address fit the space perfectly, and I had room to include Murphy too.
A few days after I sent off the package, Debbie called. “Roberta, I’m so thrilled I can hardly breathe,” she said. “The labels are beautiful. But I have to confess, the Murphy stopped me cold.”
Oh great! I’d made a mistake! So much for our renewed friendship. While I was choosing the right words for my apology, Debbie continued.
“I didn’t get a chance to tell you the other day,” she said. “I completely forgot in all the excitement.”
“What?” I said.
“Well, before my mother died, she shared a secret with me,” Debbie said. “Your uncle Pat was my biological father, Roberta. Naturally, it was a shock. But you know what that means, right? For you and me?”
Honest-to-God cousins. Best friends. Reunited when we needed each other most.
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