Four years ago, a woman named Diane Naegel bought a set of my crochet Halloween amigurumi–pumpkin, ghost, candy corn–just a few weeks after I made and listed them on Etsy for the first time. When I saw that the mailing address was a few blocks from my first apartment, I sent her a message to the effect of, “Hey, I live in New York too!” We got to e-conversing, sharing a love of yarn things, Halloween and the 1920’s, so I invited her to an upcoming Crafts and Crumbs. She wanted to come but was setting up some kind of photo shoot for the 1920’s/30’s events she often put on. We continued to correspond, became Flickr and Facebook friends, invited each other to crafty and Jazz Age events over the next few years, but something always happened to prevent our meeting. Life, work, travel, the busy-ness of being New Yorkers, my bad health. Nonetheless, we never lost touch, penpals in our shared city, looking at the same skyline but from different angles.
When I left New York in June of 2010 for health reasons, we both expressed sadness over email at not meeting, but I told her that if all went well health-wise, I’d be back to visit for sure, and “we WILL meet!” A few months later my book Witch Craft came out and I was planning my first trip back to NYC, so I wrote to Diane, only to learn that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer: “I’m not posting about any of this on FB…I would love to finally meet you in person!” That’s when our writing to each other really picked up, when we were both in the midst of dire health situations. Young, social butterflies, New Yorkers, in love with life each and every day–my heart broke a little and I wanted to do anything and everything for her, 360 miles away.
I’d get teary sometimes reading what she wrote, “Know that you are an inspiration to me with how you deal with your situation and lead an amazing life…so THANK YOU for that!” I told her all about my friend Rose, who lived 15 minutes from me in Brooklyn but it took years to meet after so much writing, because of her cancer, because of my colitis. Before Rose, I didn’t have a young friend who battled something serious like I did, someone who understood the emotional repercussions of dealing with a merciless disease, of trying to put back together the pieces of a shattered life. In regards to Rose, to Diane I said, “she made me want to LIVE and that was hard to want. It’s not always easy, many tears shed of course, but I do believe 100% in the many quotes I turn to, ‘out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.’ It’s hard, but it’s true….” And that began a series of lengthy emails about being sick…
Diane: I’ve cried MANY tears over the last couple of weeks…but most of them are over how touched I am by so many people reaching out to me. I know I’ll never be the same after this experience…and that through these times of suffering, you’re really enlightened to so much and learn to truly and deeply appreciate so much.
Me: Yeah, I always want to fast-forward to the parts where I can just reflect on it and not be IN it, but that’s just not how it goes…I was reading this sociology book “The Wounded Storyteller” WHILE very ill this summer, which was hard…but “comforting” to me at the same time. I feel silly for recommending “a book” to anyone after any diagnosis, but it did really articulate what I was already feeling, ‘The ill person who turns illness into story transforms fate into experience.’ and ‘I would never have chosen to be taught this way but I like the changes in me.’ This last one=so true.
Diane: I wish I could fast forward the tough parts, too…if only! It’s totally sad, but I think knowing that I’ll lose my hair soon is a tough pill to swallow. I’m hoping to rock wigs with tons of glamour, but I know it’ll still hurt, too. But like you said- I think I’ll like the changes in me at the end of it. I’ll totally look into that book!!
I was planning to meet up with her that Halloween, but a video interview I did about being a sick creative person took four hours, and thus I missed Diane’s event. She bought my book and said I’d have to autograph it some time. She was halfway through chemo treatments in November when my health was finally taking its definitive turn for the worse. Our usual check-ins with each other, dreaming about crocheting together and not being in and out of hospitals. She tells me her surgery and radiation plans and I write back to her from the hospital in December. She has lost her hair, she’ll lose her breasts, I will soon lose my colon. She sends me a Zelda mag care package while I’m there.
In February I go to Philadelphia, visiting the Mutter Museum. I look at ulcerative colitis in a jar and at the megacolon, buying the postcard of the latter. I look at the photo credit and recognize the name, Don Spiro, Diane’s fiance! What are the chances…. Diane tells me she has had a “complete response” to chemo, meaning that the cancer is gone, but she’ll still lose her breasts in a week. “I was THRILLED. It’s SO good for the prognosis when it responds this well to the chemo. So now I’m way less nervous about it!”
She has the surgery, gives me all the details, how it feels, what her chest looks like, what the plan is for the year. She ends that email with, “Careful hugs to you as well…I’m so glad to have someone to talk to about illness that takes a long time to deal with! It’s such a unique situation!!”
In late June the cancer comes back, which was highly unlikely, so she starts chemo again. She writes: “And you know–you’re so lucky–you’ll be out of that bed ridden state before you know it and on with life!! I’ll be thinking about you leading up to surgery time…and if you ever wanna call or commiserate or whatever, I’m around!
We are both gonna be SO TOUGH after this!!!” I have a spare week in between jobs and my next surgery, so I plan a July 4 trip to NYC. This time around, I am determined to meet Diane, even if it means sitting in Sloan-Kettering with her. We start looking at potential days, our emails getting more giddy at the thought, and we set a dinner date.
She picks Supper Restaurant in the East Village and we text message a lot, as I return from CT that day and she tries to leave work early. “I’m leaving! Where u at??” she writes. “Walking along Bleecker, just got off the 6.” I walk quickly, thinking I am late, and then she calls because she is half a block from where I am, now on 2nd Street. And that is where we finally meet, in front of a community garden on an insanely hot summer day in New York, both of us smiling ear to ear.
We talk for 20 minutes at the restaurant before even looking at the menu, the waiter coming 3 times to the table and we have nothing to tell him. She talks about what she is feeling/thinking, that now the doctors are being careful not to promise anything like they did before, echoing when I was diagnosed with colitis and was handed a prescription and a “you’ll be fine.” We have tears in our eyes. We finally order and talk about everything. I wish I had a tape recording of this, what, 2 hours? I drive her to a subway station on 42nd St, she tells me to stay with her in Astoria next time I’m in town, we’ll have adventures.
That night we write Facebook messages about each other at the exact same minute. July 6, 2011, 11:59pm. I write: “So so glad we finally got to meet. You are even cuter in person!” She writes: “had a lovely dinner with Alicia Kachmar tonight! so wonderful to FINALLY meet my online crafty pal in person! xo.” I mention that we forgot to take a picture of us finally together and she says, “I realized that after I left! D’oh! Next time we will!! :)” and I say, “For sure!” Always exclamation points, smiley faces, xoxoxo’s at the end.
I return to Pittsburgh for my 2nd surgery and I have a slew of complications for a month after that send me back and forth to the doctors, to the hospital, to the outpatient wing. She is in the hospital again too with lung issues. I finally get back on my feet in mid-August and go to work on a care package/birthday box for Diane. I bake cookies, crochet her a Nurse Safety Cone, make owl soaps (she loved owls!), and buy little things like grippy socks, stickers, cocktail flavored jelly beans, hand sanitizer, pretty tissues. “i just got your package….you are SO dear!!! my mom and her friend are going nuts over all of it!! im in the hospital again and had a procedure yesterday to solve my little lung problem. YAY. but this SO made me smile and thank you so, so much for thinking of me!!! xoxoxox”
She was always encouraging and upbeat, she seemed to have a similar approach to illness: she took it seriously, was ready to fight, but didn’t lose her sense of humor or desire to live every day to the fullest. She wore her red lipstick and black eyeliner in the hospital, just like I meticulously painted my nails in there. Those things matter more than you would think, those small bits of control, trying to feel beautiful in the midst of so much ugliness. She was surrounded by her “medical team” of stuffed animals like I was. Diane was an accessories designer for OshKosh B-gosh, the editor and founder of Zelda Magazine, the owner of Lulette, involved in burlesque acts, and the organizer of many costume/vintage/cocktail/Jazz Age parties and events. She did everything with style and class and excitement and love. She lived. She really lived. She was truly one of the finest people I have ever known.
Diane passed away suddenly on Sunday from complications related to breast cancer. I cried until my eyes were swollen shut and drank wine until my mind shut down. Never once in this year-long battle did I think we’d lose her because it simply seemed too unthinkable, a world without this wonderful woman. From the looks of her Facebook page, she has touched so many people in addition to myself. I don’t think I even realized how much we wrote to each other over the years or commented on Facebook posts until I went through all of it last night, reading everything again and again, trying to remember our single night out together, what we talked about, what she was wearing, etc. I wish we had taken that photo of us we talked about, but I will always have our words and memories.
Diane’s memorial service will be so true to who she was: “Vintage attire is not required but is encouraged. To all those who knew and loved her, she would want you to be strong, enjoy every bit of life, and be happy celebrating her memory.” As she said in an email to me so many years ago in regards to a regular 1920’s/30’s costume dance party she helped out with, “It’s nice to have a great excuse to really dress up every now and then :)”
When learning of her death, I was asked if we were “close” and I hesitated to answer because it didn’t seem quite right to claim closeness when we had two hours in person together, like we didn’t earn that word. But now when I read the above and think about all the emails, just a few fragments of which are above, I realize I shouldn’t have hesitated. I am missing her beyond what words can accurately express. xoxoxo