Goodbye, My Hero

I came to her after my brother died. 

Grief can take you to a dark cave to recover. You stay holed up, isolated. Frozen. 

Back then, I worked for a large accounting firm and had a Mean Girl boss. You know the type, as soon as one woman left the room, it became open season with the smirks and putdowns. Now, looking back, I think she was unhappy and tended to split the world into people-who-are-just-like-me versus the people-who-weren’t. Nor had my boss ever lost anyone, so she couldn’t understand grief, the mental fogginess, the scattered thoughts, the exhaustion. I knew I couldn’t make mistakes or fall behind, or I’d get axed. 

So I contacted a therapist. Bonnie, who also became my friend. I would drive to her house on Main Street in Naperville, cheered by the sight of her Atticus Finch neighborhood, older homes, and big shade trees, before the teardowns and McMansions. I’d climb the concrete steps leading up to her house, eager to get our session started. The instant I stepped inside and passed through the enclosed porch, the tension in my shoulders eased.

Bonnie’s humble abode in Naperville.

She decorated for all four seasons, so the interior of her home would change colors, orange for autumn, a nest filled with plastic robin-blue eggs for spring.

At Christmas time, she displayed a magical porcelain village on a table, snow-capped buildings and tiny windows lit from inside, cotton ball snow and silvery sparkles.

Sessions took place in her back office. This wasn’t any sterile space or HGTV trendy. There were creamy candles and curling green plants and knick-knacks. Family photos. Her daughter’s extraordinary artwork. Shelves packed with books, an interesting assortment that never failed to draw my interest. Book spines featuring spiritual themes, famous psychology volumes, along with the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition.

We “patients” settled into a comfortable chair while she sat at her desk, one of those old-school, sturdy wood types. Seated at her desk, she rested her hands on an open notebook and looked at you, curious and observant. 

Although Bonnie was quite fair, almost as Irish pale as me, her cheeks were unfailingly rosy. Her hair was light, almost platinum, her eyes a startling blue from behind wire-rimmed glasses. Her wardrobe favored artsy, clothes that were soft and comfortable.

Behind her sweet face were layers of deep thinking. She studied with Dr. Yochelson, a forensic psychology pioneer. After completing her education, she worked with sexual offenders, and eventually launched her own private practice. 

I suppose we crossed the line of what was appropriate for a therapist/client. Maybe we became friends because that was her way, to treat clients as friends. All I knew, was that I wanted to know more about her because I admired her, and she answered my rather nosy questions with grace and good humor.   

She guided me through my fiercely single years, when I went in pursuit of an advertising and marketing career, believing marriage wasn’t part of my life’s trajectory. 

In June 1992, Bonnie invited me to a retreat, a fitness camp for women at Lake Geneva, an event led by her daughter.

Our June 1992 fitness camp, held in gorgeous Lake Geneva.
Bonnie (in blue), listens intently to a fellow fitness attendee. The poor woman’s likely complaining about my moans and groans during our abdominal exercises.
Lake Geneva has a serene quality.
A stretching exercise to warm our muscles. It was a miracle I could still get up.
I’m not sure what shocks me more, how much younger I am here,
or the bright floral pants I’m wearing.

During that week, I turned a year older and didn’t mention it to anyone. Somehow Bonnie knew and arranged an impromptu surprise party for me. It was thoughtful and unexpected, celebrating my birthday the summer I met my husband.

Bonnie attended our wedding. We hired one of those video recording companies – (so glad I did, because my sister’s “man-on-the-street” interview with Dad is a hoot) – and Bonnie arrived late. The footage shows her at the church door, sunshine swallowing her silhouetted head and shoulders, and my dad and I about to walk down the aisle. Now I smile at this. It was fitting, considering all the times I’d been late for a therapy session.

Bonnie dodges my veil as we greet each other.
I call this my “Italian Mother” hug. My sisters Judy and Susan stand to my right.

After I was married for a while, Bonnie commented that I reminded her of Julie Andrews after she married Christopher Plummer in “The Sound of Music” — I was more assured and content. I laughed and asked her to please stop before I started to sing and twirl around in her back yard. 

Over the years, I kept in touch with Bonnie, booking the occasional appointment when a crisis struck. Once again, I’d drive over to her shaded street and park . . . and then hear the rhythm of my feet hitting those uneven concrete steps, the path up to her house. 

My son was initially diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a pre-autism term, and wasn’t talking at all. Later he’d be diagnosed with Asperger’s. I’d taken him to a venerated university for an assessment and the doctorate student there didn’t have a lot of patience. “He should be able to sit and attend at this age. He’s not able to follow instructions.” Yes, he was fidgety and energetic. He’d rather play with the toy trucks than do the exercises, and his eye contact wasn’t consistent. But he was smiley and good-natured. 

I went for a second and third opinion, and then I went to Bonnie.

She observed him and reassured me. Eventually, he would talk. 

And he did.

I brought my young sons – babies, really – to her 70th birthday and ten years after that, we went to her 80th celebration, held at the Warrenville Historical Society. She’d just survived stage-four ovarian cancer and a stroke and had lost her treasured books to a flooded basement. She’d welcomed two or three tabby rescues into her home and developed a severe allergy, and had to return them for adoption. She loved those cats. She’d had these tough health setbacks, life and death struggles. Yet here she was, mingling with guests and smiling, grateful she was alive and cancer-free. 

Inside the schoolhouse-shaped building, her family had carefully arranged her life in different rooms, displays of her interests and education. I learned she’d not only pursued social work but went to film school.

Her good genes continued to bloom through her four children – generations unfolding like petals – 22 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren, 4 great, great-grandchildren.

Four or so years ago, was the last time I saw her. We went to lunch and caught up with each other. Even in her mid-80s, she kept busy. She volunteered part-time at the hospital, working at the gift shop. Naturally, she drew people who wanted to talk. That was her way, to listen and encourage, she was a cool pond of water you could dip your parched hands into. 

A more recent photo of my mentor and friend.

By then, she was using a cane, frustrated by how much slower she had to walk. “It’s this darn gimp hip of mine,” she said jokingly, shuffling around my van. “That’s the worst part of growing old. Your parts give out.”

She created a big family calendar, marking everyone’s anniversaries and birthdays like she’d remembered mine years ago. It was quite an undertaking, compiling all the dates and getting the calendar printed, but what a great way to keep everyone connected.

Ms. Kickbutt would’ve killed me in fitness class.

Oh, I know. Today’s ideal is the “kickass woman,” the tough, uncompromising type snarling with confidence. Call me crazy, but I have yet to meet such a woman in real life. Somehow it’s weak or “bad” to be a nurturer. “Nice” is obsolete. Worse, it’s wimpy.

Although Bonnie never wore a set of Wonder Woman bracelets, in every way, she was my hero, a strong, caring woman. If she ever entertained one of the seven sins, succumbing to envy or spite, I never saw it. There wasn’t a petty bone in her body. She loved seeing people succeed. 

Once, after a whopper of a family crisis, Bonnie held my hand and said, “Life takes guts, Cheryl.” 

It does. It sure does.

This past week, I found her obituary. She died at age 89. Almost reached her 90th birthday.  

I wonder what happened. Had she been exposed to the coronavirus, was it something else? 

I hope to find out.

Meanwhile, some part of me knows she’d have insights into our current events, the pandemic, and turmoil, the worries. In my mind, I want to console myself with that steadiness and decency she had, to see her books and Christmas village again, to climb those familiar concrete steps up to her house.

Except it’s gone.

4 thoughts on “Goodbye, My Hero

  1. Karen Harrald says:

    Amazing article Cheryl O. I’ve always enjoyed your words. I see beautiful pictures when I read them. God bless you. Love and Hugs.

  2. Janice Laird says:

    Your words are providing you with a way to process this loss. You are lucky to have had someone like Bonnie in your life. God bless.

  3. Tory Ferrera says:

    What a fascinating woman, Cheryl! I am so glad she was a part of your life. She clearly made a wonderful and lasting impression in the world and left a rich legacy. Your tribute moved me to tears.

  4. Elizabeth Harmon says:

    What a beautiful tribute to a woman who made such a difference in your life. It makes me wish I had known her. My heart goes out to you for your loss

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