Its been 24 hours since I got the call that my cousin Bonnie, my lifelong friend, lost her battle with cancer. I have struggled to find the words to capture what losing Bonnie means to our family, to her family, to the Pajama gang, to me.
I guess to give meaning to Bonnie’s death, you must first understand Bonnie’s life. She wasn’t the first-born or even the first daughter in her family. Three sisters, four brothers, you would think she would have gotten lost among the crowd of kids. But Bonnie’s strength was her love for her siblings and family. She was quite content to sit back and support and guide the others. And that attitude was shared with us, her extended family.
Bonnie and I and the rest of our cousins had a unique upbringing compared to our school friends. Our parents were siblings so we cousins spent much of our youth together. There were 31 of us first cousins and we grew up truly knowing each other….all 31 of us. From the oldest, Raymond, to the youngest, Theresa, we knew each other’s Birthdays, favorite colors, and favorite foods. We knew each others strengths, weaknesses, the little tics and which buttons to push to irritate the other.
The boundaries between cousin and friend blurred and we formed smaller circles within the larger one. For us girls, it was the Pajama Gang. It started with 6 of us in the middle of the pack; Kathy, Bonnie, Eileen, Donna, Debbie and me. We were all around the same age and it was easy to form friendships with people who loved you unconditionally. Each Summer, Uncle Jack and Aunt Judy would take the six of us to their home in New Jersey for the last week of August. It would culminate with a huge family cookout, our parents coming to pick us up, celebrating Debbie’s Birthday and my grandmother’s Birthday. Secretly, I think our parents were celebrating the fact we were all going back to school the following week.
Whatever the reason, it was a letdown for the Pajama Gang when the week would end. We didn’t know it then, but we were creating memories and strengthening our relationships to last our lifetime. My memories of those times are a bit out of focus, but “what happened in New Jersey, stayed between us and New Jersey.” Putting six little girls under the age of 10 together for a week, trouble was bound to happen. Let’s just say two of our number always ended up spending a timeout on the sofa for some minor misdemeanor. It was an amazing time in our youth. We were cousins, friends, sisters.
From a young age, Bonnie was the calming force among us. She rarely raised her voice, yet she always managed to get her message across; always managing to make you rethink your own stand in an argument or disagreement. Bonnie always treated you with respect, listened to your opinions and concerns with empathy and gave back gentle reflection and advice.
Bonnie was an amazing artist, never boasting about her talent but quick to share it; drawing artwork on the walls of her nieces and nephews nurseries, framing her sketches for wedding gifts, handing out an art piece just because you mentioned you “liked it.”
Bonnie was a pioneer in the area of Art Therapy. At a time when using art as a tool in psychology was new and bold, Bonnie believed in the method and would not be deterred when she got the doubtful look when explaining her chosen career. Her reputation preceded her and she was a highly recommended and sought after child therapist. Bonnie’s calm demeanor and tremendous capacity to love was the perfect combination for her field and she often used these gifts in our family interactions. Trust me, we needed a calming voice in our extended family.
To me, what truly defined Bonnie was her Faith and spirituality. Bonnie’s belief in God came from her parents, but her Faith was her own. Deep, genuine, unwavering, Bonnie believed in the power of prayer and in God’s plan. I envied her her Faith. When the rest of us were angry with her cancer diagnosis, Bonnie stayed true to herself and her Faith, believing a miracle would be hers. Over these past months, when Bonnie and I spoke about her Faith, I told her I envied her quiet, strong belief that God would heal her. I told her I wished I had her Faith but it just wasn’t in the cards for me, that I was a born doubter. She smiled and in that soft, knowing, Bonnie voice, told me it was okay to doubt….but she knew I had it in me, that she and God had Faith in me; I just needed Faith in myself. It was as if her Faith was the beacon from a light house, flashing its signal, beckoning everyone to it and to her.
As the Pajama Gang grew up, graduated HS and college, got married, had children, we continued to celebrate all of these milestones together. Back in 2008, our family gatherings started to become more somber as death crept into our lives. We decided then to recreate our Pajama Gang days by coming together on Cape Cod for a girls weekend. We included our younger siblings and indoctrinated them as honorary members of the Pajama Gang. Actually, I think they just indoctrinated themselves. But, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Our theme was “leave your troubles at the front door.” We have continued this Pajama Gang tradition every year since. These past nine years, we have created memories that STILL include time outs on sofas. Our theme now is what happens on the Cape, stays on the Cape.
Now one of our number has been claimed by the death we so hope to keep at bay for many years. I know Bonnie loved us. I know that even though she would not want us to mourn, she would understand our anger and sadness. I think she would like us to not stay angry for too long. Bonnie taught us that the world is filled with happiness and pain, with miracles and disappointments but Faith will get you through all of those things gently, patiently, and with forgiveness and love. I am grateful for those weekends spent with my cousins and with Bonnie. The memories will help to sustain us as we move forward in life without her.
Knowing Bonnie has made all who met her better for the meeting. We can keep Bonnie’s light alive by taking everything that was amazing about her and making it our own. I love you Bonnie, and I miss you. Rest easy, rest well. You have earned your place in Heaven. It was just too soon for you to go.