|JP Deni when we first met|
She handed me a cheap acoustic guitar that needed new strings, I think, or maybe she just wanted someone to tune it, I don’t remember. Whatever it was, I did it as we spoke a little about music and who our favorite songwriters were. Like me, she was a confirmed folkie, our favorite folk artist being Bob Dylan. We also loved the Beatles, although they weren't folk. Our only musical difference was that where she liked Arlo Guthrie, I liked Donovan. Doesn't even count.
A few weeks later, on the first day of school, as I stood outside Russian class waiting for the teacher to open the door, Deni rushed up to me all smiles and exuberance, asking if I remembered her. Of course I did and as we talked, we discovered we’d both signed up to study Russian. What are the chances? It was a small class and a huge student body.
As we talked, more similarities revealed themselves. We were both newly transplanted from small towns, and we knew no one. Our musical backgrounds were similar, and the houses we lived in, just around the corner from each other, had the same floor plan. And in that floor plan, we had the same bedroom. We were both Libras, I a September and she an October, and she had an edge I respected, while I had a gentleness she admired. It was all kind of spooky, but in a cool, cosmic way.
I really didn’t want to make friends with anyone. I was very happy to be out of the small town environment I’d just left and I was ready to float through my senior year as a solitary, mysterious folksinger, free of the complications of friendship and invisible in the crowd. When this charismatic, intensely brilliant girl accosted me outside the classroom, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue any kind of friendship with her.
The next thing I knew, she was standing at my door in bell bottom Navy dungarees and a crocheted poncho, beads hanging around her neck and her guitar in hand. I was slightly miffed that she'd hunted me down like that, but I invited her back to my room. It didn’t take her long to win me over. She knew songs by Peter, Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and, better, she loved my music.
With your fist thrust in the air,
And your John Lennon hair;
And your circled glasses,
That’s how I best remember you…
How many evenings did we sit in each other’s bedrooms sipping Constant Comment tea and playing songs, both together and for each other, while incense cones sent ghostly shadows up the wall? How many weekends found us in coffeehouses and at folk concerts? How many chords did we teach each other, and how many tea bags did we go through?
With Deni’s advent into my life, everything changed. I’d met a fellow folkie who encouraged me to nurture that side of my creativity (everyone else wanted me to be a pop singer). My songs changed, growing deeper and more introspective. I began writing about art museums and beaches, and wooden stiles by the windswept Highway 1 that curved and climbed along the Bug Sur coastline.
When she began attending classes at a local college after graduation, I tagged along in my suede fringe and paisley, and we became active in protests and rallies. We marched in the national Vietnam Moratorium together. I brought my guitar and we led many choruses of I Shall Be Released and Come Together that day.
Not long after, I decided to hitch-hike to Haight-Ashbury and it was Deni who dropped me off at the Ventura Freeway entrance. As I got out of her VW bug she asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
God! How many times have I wondered how my life would have turned out had I said, “No, let’s go back to your house for a cuppa and a ciggie.” It was a major crossroads in my life and I can’t say I made the correct decision, but what the hell? What’s done is done and that was a long time ago.
We’ve been through a whole lot of life both together and apart, and we've surmounted some of life’s cruelest attacks. She helped me through widowhood at the age of 18 with a 2 week-old baby and I helped her when her 18 year-old daughter died of preeclampsia in the final weeks of her pregnancy in 1991. Deni was at my house for the weekend when her husband called to say he’d found Nicki dead on the bathroom floor.
And my twelve-string guitar,
Planning to take me far;
With all the years before us,
Do you really think we ever knew…
Deni never recovered from Nicki’s death and in a very real way I lost my friend that day. Still, we remained close. As I watched her slowly lose the will to live, which resulted in two decades of illness, I already knew that I’d never get my old friend back. I stood beside her though, even when it was difficult. Why? Because I knew she’d do the same thing for me if the tables were turned. That’s what friendship does. I never judged her, never told her to pull herself together, and I never said the most hurtful words of all, “Life goes on, get over it.” For her, life may have gone on, but it was a life she just couldn’t seem to grapple with. The young woman who’d so tirelessly thrust her fist into the air against war and inequality was defeated. The gifted mind that wrote, directed, and acted in plays got lost in the television. Drapes were never opened, dust and cat hair collected on retired volumes of literature and philosophy. Her guitar sat unused, the strings brittle from lack of resonance.
In January she was diagnosed with cancer of the liver and as I write this, she is making her journey to the other side; she is not expected to make it through the next 24 hours. In my heart I know that she will soon be reunited with Nicki, and I receive comfort knowing that the emotional and physical torture she’s been through the last 20 years will be turned into joy, but you know how it is for those of us to must remain a while longer. However, ours is one of those friendships that, no matter how many years pass between our visits, we always pick up right where we left off. I have absolutely no doubt that we’re going to have a wondrous reunion the next time we see each other.
We are water,
And the river keeps on flowing,
We are water,
And the love, it keeps on growing.
We are water,
We are water.
UPDATE: Deni passed at around 11:30 am PST.
We Are Water © SK Waller 1983