Last night, I attended a Shiva to celebrate the life of a woman who was like a second mother to me during my teens. Her name was Debbie Fishbein, and each one of her four sons has been one of my closest friends at one point or another over the last 40 years. As I was sharing a moment at the bar with Debbie’s second eldest, Jeffrey, a family friend strolled up to us and asked:
“So, do you two guys still see each other a lot?”
Jeff and I looked at each other, and then I turned back to the person and deadpanned: “No, not really.”
We both laughed out loud. And to see Jeff smile after the indescribably moving eulogy he’d given only hours earlier was a very good thing.
We laughed because it was true — and because we both knew that the frequency of our hang-time has nothing to do with the bond established in our youth. The rites of passage we’d shared between the ages of twelve and twenty-two are forever indelible. Hard core amnesia couldn’t lay a glove on those memories.
It was Jeff’s older brother David whom I was best pals with first. I’d just moved to a new school to start seventh grade, and the only kid I recognized before the doors opened was the one with whom I’d gotten into a fistfight a year earlier at overnight camp. Twenty minutes later, we were sitting in the same homeroom science class, and when the teacher called out the lab partners alphabetically — “Fishbein-Golden” — I looked across the room at David. He gave me the thumbs-up sign as if we’d known each other since kindergarten.
David was way ahead of his time, wearing cowboy boots to school before they were cool and driving his dates downtown to Blackhawks games as soon as he got his license. He was also hilariously funny, with a dry wit that could cream anyone who deserved it — even when they weren’t in on the joke. Especially when they weren’t.
David, Jeff and I all played golf at the same club on weekends. And when Jeff became a freshman and joined us on the high school golf team, we were inseparable for the next three years.
Because my parents were going through a divorce right about the time I met these two brothers, I spent many days and nights at the Fishbein home. Though I may have been the first kid (out of of dozens) that Debbie and Kenny Fishbein welcomed into their home, it seemed as natural to them as waking up in the morning.
David and Jeff’s next eldest brother was Danny, who in his 20’s was a dead-ringer for Kurt Russell (I still send him GIFs). Danny was four years younger, so we didn’t spend as much time together. But a decade later, I found him to be arguably funnier than David. We started a cash golf tournament in our 30’s and called it the “Go-Fish Invitational.” And when I say “we,” I mean Danny. He had hats printed, trophies customized — and he also ran all of the scoring and the “Horserace” competition. I sent the emails, but the jokes he added to them were the real draw.
While Danny and I also haven’t seen as much of each other lately, a month ago he played golf with some of my newer friends in Arizona. We had the same familiar laughs. A week later, when Danny and Stacey took me out to dinner with the kids, it was as if zero time had passed.
The youngest Fishbein’s name is Jimmy. When David and I were teenagers, Jimmy was known for riding his bike around the neighborhood while expelling profanities that even us older kids didn’t use. One night at dinner, he got up and grabbed his jacket off the coatrack. Kenny said “Where the hell are you going?” Jimmy spun around and announced to his dad and the entire table: “OUT!” He was seven years old. We were all in tears.
How ironic it is that the brother who is farthest from me in age would end up becoming one of my best friends in adulthood. Jimmy and I lived in downtown Chicago for many years and neither of us had kids. We’re both creative types, and our overlapping questions and confusions about this inscrutable world just kind of clicked. When we were all younger, I would joke to Debbie about how Jimmy was my favorite of the four Fishbein’s. She would laugh and always agree with me that he had a heart of 24K gold.
Debbie and Kenny raised four confident boys. Really confident. If you couldn’t hang, you wouldn’t hang. But they all had the lionheart of their mother. More than once, that same kid I’d fought with as a 12-year-old at camp was busting up fights I was losing in high school.
With age came college visits, standing up in their weddings — and always more golf. Our friendships sustained a few scrapes along the way, but the foundation could never be rocked.
Debbie Fishbein was too special a person for me to even try to write about at length — and the tributes spoken yesterday by her son and granddaughter could not possibly have been more perfect. But she was a constant in my life. I’ve lived in seven states, and there hasn’t been a single birthday where the card she sent from her and Kenny wasn’t waiting in my mailbox.
The last time I spoke with this 77-year-old warrior — who’d beaten cancer three out of four times over four decades — I made it Windex clear just how thankful I will always be for the kindness that she and Kenny she showed me when I was a clueless 13-year-old. And I promised that anytime she wanted to call — I would not fail to make her laugh. Debbie laughed at that, and then said:
“I will, honey. Your texts and calls have been just the sweetest.”
“Ok, good! I’ll see you in the spring or summer. Love you, Debbie.
“Love you, too, sweetheart. We all love you.”
It can be very hard at first to see any silver linings when a family loses a loved one. I think it’s even harder when that person was the Superglue of an entire clan. Debbie was even more than that.
When I lost control twice during Jeff’s poignant eulogy, it wasn’t just because I felt sick about Debbie being forced to leave this earth far too soon. I realized right then, as I was listening, that I could feel my oldest friend’s pain as he spoke. All of their pain. I could feel myself crying for how much I loved these guys and how much I missed spending time with them in the way we did when we were younger.
As I left the Shiva, I made my rounds and kissed every one of the boys’ shaven, cue-ball heads (™). Though these four oldest friends and I live different lives in different places, we all expressed wanting to spend more time together. If Debbie’s spirit is even 10% as powerful as it was when she was running the show down here, I think her guiding hand just might bind us together in a whole new way.
In Debbie’s impossibly graceful transition through her horrifying ordeal, she once again reminded her beloved family — and countless friends — to stay connected and to take care of each other.
And to enjoy the day, as she did, every day of her life.
** Friends who’d like to honor Debbie’s life may do so by making a donation to the Rolfe Pancreatic Cancer Foundation.