I met Joanne when I was doing a psychiatric rotation during medical school. She was the ward clerk of the unit I was assigned to. We loved telling people that we met at Bellevue on the psych ward and letting people come to their own conclusions. Though our personalities were pretty opposite, Joanne and I hit it off right away.
She would be there when I arrived in the morning (her shift started at 7:30) and we would immediately head off the ward to make our “rounds” which meant going to the coffee shop for breakfast and socializing (read flirting) with people all over the hospital. Then I would have to attend the real rounds of the ward, see some patients, write some orders and be ready to go out for lunch (sometimes a liquid lunch) with Joanne. After lunch, I would head back to try and work until she went home.
Joanne was full of life, always smiling, always laughing. She spoke in a sexy, purring voice that men couldn’t resist. Women either. Me either. She was blonde, thin, and beautiful without a stitch of make-up. Joanne never tried to look good; she didn’t have to. Her beauty was natural. She smiled and her face lit up the room.
I was more reserved and quiet but Joanne brought out an adventurous side of me I didn’t even know I had. Joanne took me out dancing at clubs; we especially loved going to reggae clubs where the dancing was so close we joked it required birth control. We learned the first friend you should make at a club is the bouncer. We once went out for breakfast with some guys we met who then tried to stick us with the check when we refused to “go home” with them. Luckily, the waitress took our side and distracted the guys while we sneaked out and drove off.
One night we were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and Joanne had that mischievous look in her eye. She was holding a big spoon of guacamole and aiming it at me. I warned her, “Don’t you dare” and then flick – I was covered in green avocado. But I was cool. I got the check, waited until she paid the bill, put on my coat and then dumped an entire pitcher of ice water in her lap. We left the restaurant, hysterically laughing, while random guys on 2nd Avenue stopped and asked us if we needed to come to their apartments and borrow their towels. Joanne was such a magnet for guys but she never acted as if she noticed. I’m sure that was part of her appeal to them.
Wherever we went, we ended up talking to strangers. When I was with Joanne, I was fearless. Well, maybe not fearless but certainly more fun. We loved being silly and seductive and getting reactions out of people. We might sit in a bar and have an ice cube fight with each other that got a lot of attention. We were young, in our early 20s. Life was meant for fun. But I was still the more cautious one; after all, I was 4 months older than Joanne (and didn’t she love when she would get carded but I wouldn’t). So I was the one who made sure things didn’t get out of hand, I was the one to rescue her from some overzealous guy by pretending we were sisters and saying we had to get home “before Dad got mad.” That usually worked better than saying Joanne was “with me” as that only got the guys even more interested.
We laughed so much about all our little adventures that we got a reputation we really didn’t deserve. In my last year of school, Joanne casually suggested we take a road trip to Florida where her parents own a house. None of our friends would come along with us. They thought we were planning a wild, “Thelma and Louise” kind of trip. They couldn’t have been more wrong. We had fun but we never got into trouble. I didn’t even believe that trip would happen. I had barely ever been out of the state and Joanne had a very important entrance exam for nursing school that she had to take (a phone call from me pretending to be her mother got her an extension). But the morning of the trip, Joanne called and we were off on our cross-country adventure.
It was no “Thelma and Louise” trip. The highlights: I drove through Georgia because I was convinced we would end up in jail if Joanne drove at her usual speed, I went into my first Wal-Mart, I saw my first cow, we went to Disney and Universal Studios, we went shopping, we ate, we shopped more, we ate more, and we didn’t flirt with one guy. Exciting, huh? But we had lots of fun and it’s still one of the most precious memories of my life.
When I graduated med school and moved back to the Bronx for my residency, Joanne and I still hung out. She would drive all the way from Long Island to the Bronx, pick me up, drive us back to Long Island to go out, then she would drive me all the way back to the Bronx and return to Long Island. Joanne loved driving.
When I had a Halloween party at my apartment, Joanne was the only one of my guests who came in costume: a French Maid outfit, of course. She looked beautiful and I, in my devil costume, had her serve the guests. I remember going shopping with her for those costumes and the haunted house we went through where instead of being scared, we laughed and flirted with the people dressed as monsters.
When Joanne moved out of her parents’ home and got her first apartment, she decorated the living room with an inflatable pool, a beach umbrella and piles of sand. She got a little black cat that we, together, named “Fudgsicle” (a private joke). Then she went back to school, having changed her aspirations from nursing (she didn’t want to have to touch anyone) to accounting. As she got busy with school and work and I got busier with residency, we didn’t see each other as often and suddenly, years had gone by. What I wouldn’t give to go back in time realizing that you don’t always have forever with the people you love; what I wouldn’t give to get back the years we missed.
Over the next year, I traveled to her house quite often and when she was in the hospital, I was there too. My role became one of keeping the family in good spirits. I brought paper and crayons to keep her young niece busy in the waiting room. I brought Playgirl magazines that made her mother and sister laugh. But I was uncomfortable – our friendship had always been based on fun and there was nothing fun now. This was serious, sad and scary.
We had the first real serious conversations we had ever had in all the years we knew each other. I told her it was ok to talk to me about being scared, about chemo, about losing her hair (she swore she didn’t care; I swore she would when it happened), about dying, about whatever she wanted to talk about. She cried about how unfair it was that she would never get married, never have children – things she always wanted. I agreed it was unfair. I wished I could trade places with her. Joanne had a family who loved her and would miss her; I didn’t. Joanne had dreams of a future that included marriage and children; I didn’t. She loved life, she deserved life. I wish I could have given her mine. But I couldn’t. I could only give her my time, my support, my friendship and my love.
I went to her house or the hospital, wherever she was, as often as I could. I tried to give my support to her family who called me their “3rd daughter.” I came to love her family as my own. When Joanne was scheduled to have surgery to remove the tumor that had spread to her brain in November, her family made an early Thanksgiving dinner in October “just in case.” I brought a pin-the-penis-on-the-man game I got in Greenwich Village but Joanne was quiet that night, understandably. I spent most of the night with her sister and we became very close for a while. Joanne had made me promise that I would look after her little sister, she was so worried about leaving her.
When the cancer, which they never specifically diagnosed, continued to spread aggressively, Joanne decided she didn’t want any further treatment. I was angry; I wanted her to fight but that was probably as much for me as for her. How could she die? She was so young; she was MY age! But she had suffered a long time and she was realistic about her prognosis.
In October 2003, I was at her house. Joanne was lying in bed, unconscious. It seemed as soon as she got home, she gave in to her fate. I stood by her bed and watched her sleep. Easy listening music was playing on the radio and I joked to her that it should have been reggae music. Then a priest showed up to give her last rites. I had never witnessed last rites before; I found nothing comforting about it. While he was reciting the prayers, Luther Vandross came on the radio, singing “Dance With My Father.” I remember it seemed fitting that this song of loss was playing. After the priest had administered her last rites, he asked how old Joanne was. Her mother replied “37” but I quietly said, “29. She’s 29.” Another one of our private jokes. We would forever be 29. Everyone laughed; that was my role
Joanne died the next night, around 11 p.m. on October 19. I learned of it that next morning. I was on my way to work and also on my way to meet Tom for the first time. We had a blind date scheduled for that afternoon. While I was on the bus, on my way to the subway, I called Joanne’s house and her father told me she had passed away the night before. I continued on my trip to Manhattan but Tom didn’t have a cell phone so I couldn’t reach him to cancel our date. I ended up meeting him at Starbucks that afternoon, telling him in tears that my best friend had died. We spent our first date with me talking endlessly about Joanne which had me laughing as well as crying. I told Tom lots of the stories, stories I couldn’t tell at the funeral when they asked if anyone wanted to share memories. I wish Joanne and Tom had gotten to meet each other but he did get to know her family and for a while, he felt at home with them and loved them as much as I did. I speak about Joanne so often, I’m sure Tom does feel as if he knew her.
When Tom and I eloped, it felt strange to celebrate a happy occasion on the day after the 4th anniversary of Joanne’s death. I emailed her parents to say that even though I was happy about getting married, I was not forgetting what this time meant to them and to me. And as I stood and waited for my cue to walk down the aisle alone, I spoke to Joanne, believing that she was my Maid of Honor in spirit as she should have been in person.
I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t think about or talk about Joanne. She is part of all my best memories and definitely, all my best stories. Like I said at the beginning, she’s the kind of friend that is a gift and I give thanks that she was (and will always be) a part of my life. I miss her so much. I miss her family. If there is a Heaven, I know she is up there with my Poochie who knew her and loved her as well. And I know she would be making everyone smile up there, dancing to reggae music and probably leading a few angels into temptation…just to have a little fun. I even named a star after her and surely, she is the brightest one up there.
To honor Joanne’s 9th anniversary in Heaven, I wanted to make something that reminded me of our time together. Every morning when we would go to the coffee shop in Bellevue Hospital, we would get banana nut muffins and hazelnut coffee. We loved our banana nut muffins – how perfect for us – 2 nutty bananas that we were.
So even though I hate baking, I made a batch of Banana Walnut Muffins. They are vegan and gluten-free. The muffins are incredibly moist and flavorful with big chunks of walnuts in every bite. The taste brings me right back to the hospital and Joanne and I smile. And cry. And then smile again.
Thank you, Jo, for all the fun, all the adventures, all the memories and all the love. I miss you so much and you’ll forever be my best friend and the sister I always wished I had. Love, Dr. Mango
Joanne’s Banana Walnut Muffins
Makes 12 muffins
¼ cup olive oil
1/2 cup raw sugar
3 ripe bananas
¼ cup unsweetened almond milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour mix (I used Jennifer’s Way)
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
¼ tsp. allspice
1 cup walnuts, chopped
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl, combine the oil and the sugar. Add the bananas to this mix and mash them up. Add the milk and the vanilla. Mix all the wet ingredients well.
In another bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and allspice. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix to just combine. Add the chopped nuts to the batter.
Using an ice cream scoop or a spoon, fill a muffin tin that has been oiled about 2/3 full. Bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Share them with your best friend.
The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.