The summer going into my sophomore year of college I signed up to play in a summer basketball league by the beach in order to stay in shape for the upcoming season. On the night of our first game, I strolled over to the court with my Nikes laced up, and I could not believe that she was on my team. She was the same girl whose team had beaten my sixth grade squad in the league’s championship game; she was the seemingly innocent blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl who defeated me in a foul shooting contest by just one shot; she was the killer three point shooter whose high school team convincingly pounced on my team, handing us one of our only losses during my junior year; she was Beth Hartman, and now we were teammates.
As the summer progressed, Beth and I became fast friends. We had a natural chemistry on the court, and soon thereafter, the girl who I considered my greatest nemesis became my best and most trusted friend. We were an unlikely pair, however, because Beth was the mild-mannered, sensitive girl who had a quick, playful sense of humor, while I was the girl with the tough exterior who used sarcasm as a defense mechanism. Of course we spent countless hours shooting jump shots and playing intense games of one-on-one, but we also shared a love for music, the Yankees, and our families.
When the summer came to an end, I packed up my bags and headed back to upstate New York, and Beth loaded up her car and drove back to Long Island. And so began the onslaught of ridiculously high phone bills that surprised our parents and their wallets. We forged a bond that was unbreakable, and a day did not pass when we weren’t on the phone chatting about papers that needed writing, practices that nearly killed us, or just plain old stories that needed to be shared.
After we graduated from college, I will admit that we grew apart. She was coaching basketball and working on her master’s degree at Hofstra, while I was coaching basketball and living in Connecticut. Of course we always reunited when we came home, and it was during one of these visits that my entire world changed.
I vividly remember calling Beth on a random Saturday night to see if she wanted to go out with me and a group of my friends. She told me she couldn’t; she was sick. I, of course, retorted by saying, “Oh, what? You have the sniffles? Come on, suck it up. Come out.”
The next exchange that we shared over the phone is one that is engraved in my memory, and I can’t erase it no matter how much I will myself to. She said, “Jackie, I have cancer.”
Cancer?! How?! Why?! I was dumbfounded. How could my perfectly in shape, athletic, healthy, 25 year old best friend have cervical cancer?
The following months involved surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, and I was in awe of the fact that Beth never complained, not even once. We never really talked about her being sick; she didn’t want pity or tears; she just wanted to laugh and smile that contagious smile of hers.
Sadly, on October 6, 2007 Beth passed away at the age of 29. Her father called me to tell me the news, and when he spoke those words, I just fell to my knees. I was helpless, but I sought solace in the fact that her fight was over.
At her funeral, Beth’s mother took me aside and shared something with me that I will never forget. She told me that Beth just wanted me to find true, unabashed happiness in my life, and at that time, I never thought that finding any kind of peace or happiness was possible now that she was gone.
As the years have passed, I have kept Beth’s wish for me close to my heart, and this fall I will be marrying the love of my life. Knowing that Beth won’t be there to stand next to me at the altar causes my heart to ache, but I know that she will be staring down at me smiling that smile on my special day because I finally found the happiness that she wanted for me.
In the ten years that I had with Beth, I learned how to trust, and I learned the true meaning of carpe diem. She was the teammate in my life who would never let me down; she was the teammate in my life who played every single day’s “game” with tenacity and vibrancy. When the final buzzer sounded, she played this game of life with more grace, dignity, and bravery than anyone I’ve ever met, and I would never be polishing my crossover move to happiness if it were not for her.