FOR LIFE: Five women share a friendship of a lifetimePublished 8:07pm Saturday, October 12, 2013
Spread across a table is a lifetime of pictures. Point to any one and invariably laughter erupts — at the big hair of the early ‘90s, at the people, places, adventures captured in a moment, at the shared memories that have followed children to girls, girls to women. They finish each other’s sentences without realizing it and speak with the ease of never having to explain the thoughts behind the words, they know one another so well.
Take each separately and you’d never guess they’d be friends. There’s Tracey Respess, the happy one, the honest one, who’ll tell you not to wear something at the same time she’s giving you a hug. And Tracey Nixon, Beaufort County Schools’ Principal of the Year — strong, direct, a planner. Penelope Radcliffe is known as the Mother Hen — she’s the emotional one, the fixer, and never stingy with her hugs. And Angela Biggs, who’s been accused of being “too nice,” because she’s so sweet and dependable and generous. Finally, there’s Andrea Linton, Angela’s twin sister. They call her the powerhouse, the one who “tells it like it is” and moves on. Fearless.
These very different personalities don’t seem to go together, but put them in a room and it’s like watching a puzzle solve itself. The pieces fit. They mesh into one unit, known simply as “the girls.”
The girls have been friends for 33 years.
It started at Bath High School, five little girls who made friends in their kindergarten class. Growing up, they played hide and seek on the golf course at Bayview at midnight, put on makeup sharing one mirror as they got ready for a Saturday night. All of them learned to drive on the riverside dirt roads in “The Beater,” Nixon’s dad’s beat up, stick-shift Toyota truck.
“We’ve been together for 33 years and there’s never been a time we weren’t together,” Respess said.
“As we got older, we got closer,” Nixon added.
“And we were always together when we got in trouble,” Radcliffe laughed. “But we were good influences on each other too.”
The collection of snapshots paints a larger image of friendship that has weathered it all: the angst of teen years, marriages and divorces, births and deaths. But for these women, the biggest challenge lies ahead as they prepare to lose one of their own.
Look at the images, and one that stands out is a recent one, taken in August. It’s a shot on an Ocracoke beach: the girls smiling, their arms around each other, a repeat of so many pictures the five of them have taken through the years. But behind the happy smiles is another story — the story of Andrea’s battle with cancer, now coming to an end.
“Andrea wanted to go to the beach one time with all of us together,” Radcliffe said.
To get Andrea to the beach, Radcliffe carried her on her back. Someone else carried Andrea’s oxygen tank.
“We told her before we left, we would get her down to the beach if we had to tote her, so that’s what we did,” Radcliffe said.
The girls find it ironic, and unfair, that Andrea — the healthy one, the one who ate right and exercised often — would be the one hit by cancer.
“I’m in the middle — my job was always the protector. Now I have one best friend who’s losing her best friend and one best friend who’s losing her sister,” Radcliffe explained. “(Andrea) was a cheerleader — the flyer — we threw her up in the air. She always had faith in everybody else that we would catch her,” Radcliffe said. “That’s been the hardest thing for me — I can’t fix it this time.”
Andrea’s illness was diagnosed four years ago, just as she and Tracey Respess were set to run a half-marathon together. But Andrea called the night before, telling Respess she was ill, she couldn’t make it. Her appendix was removed the next day. But more tests revealed cervical cancer. Then ovarian cancer. A hysterectomy didn’t stop the spread of cancer to her lymph nodes and the disease took up residence in her lungs.
In the last four years, the girls have rallied around her.
“We have found ourselves, huddled in a group, waiting in the cancer treatment room with her so she is not alone; taking turns spending the night with her to make sure all her needs are met; spending time with her daughter so she doesn’t miss a beat; giving support to her husband, Kevin Linton, as he tries to work,” Radcliffe wrote in an email.
Their visits to Andrea’s hospital room look more like a sleepover from the old days, as they pile onto her bed, joking and laughing. They do it partly because that’s what they’ve always done, partly because they say Andrea’s not the type of person who’d want them to cry. But the challenge of Andrea’s illness, and her courage in facing it, has only made their bond stronger.
“I don’t think it will change our friendship, but it’s going to be so different without her,” Nixon said. “We still have each other, but missing that one piece is going to be like missing a piece of me.”
For Biggs, the loss of Andrea will be doubly felt: she’s losing not just a friend, but her twin sister.
“One of the questions I can remember the most while growing up is, ‘What is it like to be a twin?’ My response always was, ‘What’s it like to not be a twin?’ I’ve never known any different,” wrote Biggs in an email. “I’m sure all twins get asked the same question, and feel the same way. Once Andrea finishes her journey here on Earth, I feel like some of my identity will be gone, and I will know then what it’s like to not be a twin. Andrea and I fought a lot while growing up, as most siblings do, but we never, ever stayed mad at each other. I think she would agree, there was never a period of time when we didn’t talk to each other. If there was a short period of time when we didn’t, Tracey, Tracey, Penelope or even Carrie would encourage us to make up. Andrea is the meaning of my life and she’s my inspiration.”
Some would see only sadness in the wake of Andrea’s illness, but this group of friends is realizing how valuable, and unusual, their friendship is.
“I didn’t realize until later in life just how precious our friendship truly is. It seems like friends are so disposable now,” Radcliffe said.
“It’s made us even stronger, but we won’t take what we have for granted,” Respess said. “As strong as we think we are, there are stronger powers out there.”
“The bond we share is quite extraordinary, and many will never have or get to experience what a friendship like this means. We are all truly blessed to have each other in our lives. Each of us offers a different perspective on life and for that I’m truly appreciative,” Nixon said.
Though no one has said, when the time comes, they’ll be there for Andrea. And they’ll be there for each other, because that’s the way it’s always been.
“I know where she’s going — we have a strong faith — that’s what makes it better,” Biggs said. “Everyone’s always called me the angel, but now she’ll be our angel.”