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Wendy Soll, 1963-2008

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I wrote this for a memorial service for Wendy in October 2008, which I was unable to attend.  Wendy was my best friend in high school.

The first time I met Wendy Soll, she was ten years old, and I thought she was a boy.  I had moved to Evanston a few months earlier, and we were playing softball at the lot on the corner of Monroe and Ridge.  She had short hair – this was in the early seventies, when most white girls had long hair parted down the middle – and an amazing throwing arm, the best I’d seen on a ten-year-old girl.

We weren’t great friends at first.  I remember being intimidated by Wendy, who liked to do things like pretend she was a dog or cat and pounce on people.  Nonetheless, we lived a few blocks away from each other, went to the same school and the same temple, and played softball together.

During her freshman year of high school, Wendy told me that her math teacher was starting a math team and asked me if I wanted to join.  Math team soon became our primary social group at school.  We stayed after school to take math tests, had meets where we went to other schools and competed in oral and written events, and one year even had a little room where we could hang out in our free periods and do homework or play cards.  For parties, we played duplicate bridge at each other’s houses.

Sometime when Wendy was around fourteen, she and I went for a walk.  We were at my dad’s house in Skokie, and other than the general location, I don’t remember anything specific about where we went or what we talked about.  What I do remember is that at the end of the talk I felt like Wendy wasn’t who I’d always thought she was and that I wasn’t alone in the world, because Wendy and I understood each other.

We decided that we each only had half a personality.  Wendy sometimes seemed constitutionally unable to be polite to adults.  My grandfather was once coaching a base in softball and told her to do something and she saluted and said, “Yes, Master;” this was not atypical behavior.  She was banned from my apartment at one point because my mother’s boyfriend didn’t like her (that was a plus, I didn’t like him).  I, on the other hand, was a little too good at saying what adults wanted to hear.  So we decided that we really should have been merged into the same person and dubbed ourselves “The Mono-Twin.”  At one point we had t-shirts, and Wendy got us army hats and wrote “Half” and “Other Half” under the bills; we used to address each other as “Half” and “Other Half,” often rotating roles.  We got mad when people called us the “Mono-Twins,” because we were singular, not plural.

Once in my twenties, I sheepishly told a therapist about the Mono-Twin, expecting to hear how pathological I was, and she said that an exclusive friendship like Wendy’s and mine was actually a sign of healthy adolescent development.  I don’t think I ever told Wendy that, I’m sure she would have laughed.

Wendy could be quite morbid.  In the mornings before school started, we used to hang out in our math team coach’s room and Wendy would draw dead bunnies on the blackboard.  She was a good artist, although her only subjects were horses and dead bunnies, and every morning she would treat everyone to “bunny impaled on a fence spike” or “bunny run over by a steamroller” rendered in colored chalk.  She got mad if anyone called them dead rabbits, they were bunnies, not rabbits.  I hesitate to think what kinds of school counselors or anti-terrorism consultants would be brought in today if a kid drew such pictures.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people thought Wendy was kind of strange.  And Wendy didn’t care, she didn’t like them anyway.  I liked it that Wendy didn’t like most people but she liked me.  I felt like I could see her and most people couldn’t.  In many ways, I felt safe with her, because Wendy was incredibly loyal, none of that girly drama that so many high school students were into; we were friends, we were the mono-twin, and that was that; I could count on her.

One day Wendy was helping me practice a monologue from Othello that I had to memorize for English class.  I got stuck when I got to, “Oh, balmy breath,” and she prompted me with, “Oh doggy breath;” of course, I started cracking up when I got to that part with my English teacher.   Wendy made an amazing geodesic dome for her geometry project, using blue and yellow corrugated cardboard.  We decided once to wear skirts to school the same day, something neither of us had done since we were little kids, just to see the shocked reactions (and people were shocked).  We used to go to services and try to trip each other up by reading the words in the responsive reading out of order.

We both wanted to go to Princeton for college, because it was the Ivy League school that had the best engineering program.  I didn’t get in and went to the University of Illinois, and the next year Wendy went to Princeton, which she ended up hating, because it was too much of a country club.

We kept in touch and saw each other on school vacations.  In my senior year of college, I had my first girlfriend.  Wendy was trying to call me and I kept not returning her calls because I was scared to tell her.  Finally, she got me and I said that I’d been seeing someone, and that’s why I wasn’t returning her calls.  Wendy said she figured.   I got very scared and said, “Her name is Sue,” and without missing a beat, she responded, “I’d have been more surprised if you said, ‘his name is Bill.’”  Then she said emphatically, “I’m your best friend.”  When I think of it now, I can hear her voice, and there was a bit of jealousy in it, but all I remember from that time is how reassured I felt.  It had been almost as scary as coming out to my mother.

Wendy graduated from college a year early, so we graduated the same year, then she went to Israel for a year, and I went to MIT for grad school.  Although I tried to discourage her, because I didn’t like the place and didn’t think she would either, Wendy decided to come to MIT, and moved to Boston the next year.  People used to ask her what she wanted to do when she finished, and in an absolute deadpan she’d answer, “Be a housewife.”  I remember us making potato latkes in Boston one Chanukah and Wendy derisively talking about some place she’d seen a recipe for potato latkes.  Who needs a recipe?  You just grate some potato and onions; add a little salt and flour, then enough eggs.

After a few years in Boston, Wendy’s advisor moved to New Mexico, and Wendy decided to follow him to do research there.  By that point, we were starting to drift apart, getting into little political arguments and just generally being interested in different things.  Neither of us was a great correspondent, so we’d write or email a few times a year and keep each other posted.   I have many letters with her offering to pay for me to come out and visit in New Mexico, since it was too hard for her to travel with dogs.   I read them now and regret not going, when we were both healthy.

I got bits and pieces of Wendy’s diagnosis; I have several letters where she says she didn’t think she had MS, that really she was just lazy.  In January 2004, I was going to a conference in Phoenix, and decided to visit Los Alamos for a few days before.  I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that Wendy was quite a bit more disabled than she had let on, but nonetheless, it was hard for me to see all at once, especially since I had always thought of Wendy in such physical ways – walking, throwing, drawing, pouncing.

We had some good conversations while I was there.  I thought she was so much softer than she’d been, and it was good to see.  She had grown up.  I was glad that she was part of a community and that she let people help her; she said “independence is overrated.”  For old times, we also had an argument about whether the museum in Los Alamos should say more about the people who were killed at Hiroshima (she said everyone already knew about that, and the museum was there to promote the labs; I disagreed).  We went to Bandelier and some restaurants.

I think there’s always something a bit abstract about the death of someone you don’t see very often.  For months after I heard that Wendy died, I struggled to integrate the information, to find all my feelings.  I’ve had other friends die, and I’ve had older relatives I was close to die, but I had never had a peer that I was once that close to die.  As much as we dropped the mono-twin concept as we got older and barely spoke of it, right now, the other half is gone, there’s no one to hold that part of my history with me.  The loss is so incredibly particular, as I suppose universal things always are.

One Response

  1. Nalin Wikramanayake
    | Reply

    Dear Debra

    I came across this while trying to contact Wendy regarding a memento I am compiling for someone retiring from the Parsons Lab at MIT. I am afraid that I had not known even about her illness – let alone her passing away.

    I was prompted to write something because I found your memories very moving and because they reminded me so much of the person I knew for about two years at MIT.

    We were not particularly close but we did start at the Parsons Lab at the same time, shared an office, took some of the same classes, played on the Lab softball team together – and she did have an arm like a rocket! – and so on.

    I found something to like behind her spiky exterior and like to think that at least she tolerated me – I am in many ways her opposite. I am glad to hear that she passed away among friends.

    Thank you again for this

    Nalin

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