Sunday, June 6, 2010

Brenda, or, For a Rocker

I first met Brenda back in 1981.  She was my girlfriend’s roommate and best friend. 

She usually wore denim, but I like to remember her wearing a leather jacket, because she always reminded me of Chrissie Hynde, even though they didn’t really look all that much alike.

But, like Chrissie, Brenda was a rocker.  Not a loud obnoxious poser, mind you.  Just someone who loved rock and roll, a cigarette and a beer.  She was actually quiet and unassuming.  But a rocker, nonetheless.

My friends could never figure her out.  But there was nothing to figure out.  Brenda was there for all to see and know.  She didn’t try to shove it in your face.  I thought she was just great.

Brenda was on the “other side” of the big musical debates of the day – punk vs. metal, Grateful Dead vs. Led Zeppelin, etc.  (Let’s not even touch politics.)  But, man, she could surprise you.  She bought “Purple Rain” before any of us – because she liked what she heard on the radio, and was honest enough to go with that.  I always admired that.

A few years ago, I got "Hank Williams Greatest Hits" as a Christmas present.  When I first put it on,  I braced myself for my wife's reaction.  But she just sang along.  It seems that Brenda would put it on when they were cleaning the apartment together.

Brenda took my poke at Led Zeppelin with good humor, even though I know it kind of pissed her off a little.  She was good like that.  Or she was just used to putting up with my  bullsh*t.

We hung out a lot, drinking, talking.  Then everybody started to get married.  Me and my girlfriend.  Brenda and her boyfriend.  When the kids came along, there would be the baptism or communion parties, but we saw less and less of each other.  And when she and her family moved upstate, and then to Pennsylvania, we’d go years without seeing each other.

One of my favorite memories of her was from September of 2005.  She came into town with her sister Mary (another rocker, and pretty f*cking fearless, I might add) and daughters Kelly - Brenda’s spitting image - and Shannon, one of the sweetest kids I ever met.  Kelly wanted to see the White Stripes, who were playing at a local outdoor venue.  The Shins, who we loved, were the opening act.  So what the hell, let’s all go.  We had a nice barbecue at the house, and then headed out to the stadium with - what else? - a cooler full of beer.

Brenda had just gotten over a bout of cancer, so although her outfit was the usual denim, her hair was a post-chemo crew cut.  She was by far the coolest looking person there, even though she was twenty years older than most of them.  Kelly got into the show while the rest of us hung out in the parking lot, or wandered around the boardwalk.  It was a beautiful fall evening at the beach with music, beer and old friends.  We even ran into my cousin the police captain doing crowd control.  I’ll never forget his What the hell are you doing here? expression.  Anyway, it was great night with too much beer drank by all concerned, so everybody slept over.

My wife had her own battle with cancer the year before, with more to come later, so we had the added dimension of post-war camaraderie.  Being all city kids, we were sharp enough to understand that we may have only been between world wars.  So I’d be lying if I said “little did we know”.  We knew very well indeed.  They would both have to fight their wars again. 

We last saw Brenda a month ago.  Nobody was kidding themselves about the situation – she was clearly near the end- and hospice arrangements were being made.  I’d like to say it was like a Hallmark movie but that would be a crock.  Real life is always there, staring you in the face.  But Brenda always just stared right back at it.

I tried to impress her kids with stories of her drummer ex-boyfriend, seeing Rocky Horror how many times, and going to local clubs to see some unknown punk band.  But it really wasn’t necessary.  They already knew she was cool.

Both of us being Irish, we aren’t very demonstrative with our emotions.  But when we left that day, we gave each other the strongest hug I can remember.  Even though she was wearing a heavy robe, I could still feel her bones.

Brenda died last Thursday. 

Now her kids, who also lost their father a few years ago, will carry on.  Sean, Kelly, Shannon – you are wonderful, intelligent, beautiful young people.  Go make your mom proud.  I know you will because you have a part of her in you.

Brenda wasn’t a celebrity.  She wasn’t rich or famous.  But she had class, which means she wouldn’t rate a mention on Access Hollywood.  I consider that a badge of honor.  She was just a friend (and a sister and a mother and…) who you could hang out with.  Brenda just was.

So, if you read this, goddamn it, you’re going to f*cking know she existed.

Love you, Brenda.  Rest in Peace.

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