A Free Spirit in the Driver’s Seat

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Patty and her Mustang, graduation day, 1979

“Nan, it’s been really fun and the greatest year – for us, not our parents.”

In her tiny script, this is a fraction of what Patty Lyon wrote in my yearbook in 1979 when we graduated from Steinert High School. In her rambling style, often addressing me as “Nanny,” she waxed on about our senior year – “nites out walking, nites out partying and cruising, nites out dancing and rockin’ to The Cars.”

We were in that unique group of New Jersey “kids” who were grandfathered in when the legal drinking age went from 18 to 21. And while we could legally drink at 18, we were certainly partaking well before that, both at house parties and at local clubs. Some of my fondest high school memories were of Patty and me drinking in a parking lot before hitting a club or a party, laughing, always laughing.

We were an unlikely pair in some ways, but in retrospect I can see that her free-spiritedness and ease with things were a superb complement to my insecurity and penchant for following rules. She was comfortable in her body, freely affectionate, while I was neither. She introduced me to blackberry brandy (or was it apricot?) and couldn’t believe I hated it, preferring cloying Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill instead. I feel like I spent much of my senior year riding shotgun in her vintage Mustang, The Logical Song or Shattered blaring from the radio.

All of this has been looping in my mind since last week when I learned that Patricia Lyon Wahlman died of a heart attack at age 54, leaving behind a loving husband and three sons. I can hear the lilt in her voice, see the smile on her face, and picture her dancing freely, her arms out-stretched if the song was particularly good. She would let it take her.

Patty and I lost touch for years, but reconnected at our 30-year reunion in 2009. We danced with our friends that night and it felt like years melted away on the dance floor as we sang every word of Paradise by the Dashboard Light. When another classmate had a group of us to her home the following year, Pat picked me up at the train station on a gorgeous day. I got in the car and when I saw that familiar smile I said, “Oh my God, this is like high school. You’re driving. I’m in the passenger seat.” We laughed and reminisced and missed the turn for our friend’s house, arriving late in true Pat fashion.

Lately we had stayed in touch on Facebook and I could not be more grateful for Mark Zuckerberg’s creation than I am this last week. In February a ‘Throwback Thursday’ photo of me drinking with three blue Gumbies in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, 1985, prompted Patty to post a flurry of her own. She had gone to college at LSU and when I visited her (and her new husband, Bob) there, we immersed ourselves in the scene. The bonus was that they knew the area like locals, so we experienced the best of both worlds. There we were, our faces painted, drinks in hand, decked out in beads, posing with strangers.

How could I have known that exchange would make my heart ache just these few months later?

I don’t want to reduce Patty’s life to some kind of lesson or platitude. I have no regrets. We had built our respective lives and maintained a deep affection for one another even though we didn’t see each other much. But I’d be lying if I said I’m not deriving a lot of meaning these last few days from how she lived and even how she died.

Patty had a master’s degree in nursing. She raised seeing eye dogs. At her memorial service, her shaken husband delivered a moving eulogy expressing pride and love in the woman she was. They had agreed as a couple to stay fit, he said, so they’d live long lives together; she was an avid walker and tennis player. He spoke of a woman who had recently taken up gardening and was serious about it. He told the story of how they met 34 years ago and he knew almost immediately that he had met his life partner. My dear friend Patty was so well-loved. I take solace in that.

The week before Pat died I posted a rant on Facebook about my visit to the doctor and my frustration with ongoing hypertension. I expressed dismay that doctors didn’t seem to be interested in my dietary changes and all the work I’d done around exercise and seeking out a physical therapist and trainer. I railed at genetics and prescription drugs.

“If only, if only we had total control!!! But good job on all you’ve done!” Patty commented.

An apt reminder from a nurse, a friend, a kind soul whose history is intertwined with mine.

If only, Patty. If only.

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8 Responses to “A Free Spirit in the Driver’s Seat”

  1. BJ Boyd
    May 31, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    Thank you for this, Nancy. I was Pat’s tennis partner for many years, and we were close. The Pat you knew in high school sounds like the same woman I came to know 14 years ago. Still down to earth and warm. I hear her voice, can still see her graceful tennis serve, and can picture her wink as she smiled.

    • Nancy Colasurdo
      June 1, 2016 at 3:12 am #

      This makes me so happy, BJ. I love how this landed on you. May we all continue to feel her spirit with us.

  2. Terry Castellano
    May 31, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    Dear Nancy,
    Such an out pouring of love, affection for your special friend, a time in your life that will be with you forever.
    I can relate to the disbelief and the empty feeling left in your heart, it does put things in prospective as you point out.
    Please accept our sincerest expression of sympathy for the loss of Patty.
    Warm Regards,
    Terry, Bob, John, Jesse

    • Nancy Colasurdo
      June 1, 2016 at 3:10 am #

      Thank you so much, Castellano family. I really appreciate it.

  3. Kate Cohen
    May 31, 2016 at 10:42 pm #

    Lovely. Reading your memories are mine with my best friend in high school. Right down to the Boones Farm and drinking age of 18.
    I’m happy you reconnected and each knew of your love for one another. So sorry for your loss❤️ Blessings to her family.

    • Nancy Colasurdo
      June 1, 2016 at 3:09 am #

      Wow, Kate, thank you. I’m so happy it resonated on several levels.

  4. Marie Papp
    June 2, 2016 at 5:14 am #

    Thanks for sharing the heartfelt story, Nancy. So sorry for your loss.

    • Nancy Colasurdo
      June 5, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

      Thank you, Marie.

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