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Chicago Tribune Mary Schmich column: A special bond in life and death
[November 20, 2009]

Chicago Tribune Mary Schmich column: A special bond in life and death

Nov 20, 2009 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Sharon Durling went to the morgue a few days ago to ID Wanda Jean Taylor's body.

Durling, a part-time writer with an MBA from Kellogg School of Management, lives in a house in Chicago's Lincoln Park. Taylor lived on the sidewalks, on the "L" or, lately, in a $585-a-month SRO North Side hotel with the inapt name "Chateau." The two met when Sharon was 30 and volunteering at Deborah's Place, a women's shelter. Wanda, at 25, had a bed there. They played Scrabble -- "She cheated like hell," Sharon says -- and one day Wanda invited Sharon to a movie.

That was 22 years ago, the beginning of a friendship that Sharon learned was over when her phone rang on Monday, Nov. 9. She recognized the number: a psychiatric hospital where police had taken Wanda a few days earlier.

"Wanda," Sharon said into the phone.

Wanda, said the caller, was dead.

Sharon picked up Wanda's affairs, the things she'd been carrying when the police brought her in. They included seven orange medication bottles, an unopened bar of soap, a key chain with no keys, two Medicaid cards, six pens, a laundry card, three Starbucks cards and $1.84.

A hospital intake paper noted the reason for her admission: "impaired judgment." None of that struck Sharon as strange. She knew Wanda. Wanda who stuck out her tongue at cops; who hit nurses with her cane; who was rumored to have stabbed someone; who'd been banned from several shelters; who took and dealt drugs before she got clean; who mixed up her meds; who sometimes called her friend Sharon "an effin' ho." That was the same Wanda who always eventually apologized. The generous, gregarious Wanda who was wise enough to say, "Sometimes I have an evil mind." The Wanda whose poems had been collected in a couple of pamphlets and who scribbled constantly in notebooks.

A while back, Wanda had given Sharon one of those notebooks. The opening lines, in pencil: "Fear of my world. To my world I live in fear." Over the years, Sharon had pieced together Wanda's life from scraps of stories. She was one of 10 children in a South Side family. A relative raped her. A neighbor raped her. She was bipolar. She'd lost all contact with her family, including the four children who had been taken away from her. The father of one of those children had bashed her head open with a brick.

During the early years of their friendship, the women met occasionally for a movie or a meal.

By the end, Wanda called Sharon almost every day.

She used Sharon's phone number on forms, so Sharon never knew when she might get a call from an emergency room, a psych ward or a jail.

"I've seen her in critical care in a coma," Sharon says. "But she had 29 lives. She had such a will to live." Sharon had never met any of Wanda's family but introduced Wanda to her relatives, friends, boyfriends. Wanda wrote letters to Sharon's father. Her own father had died when she was 8.

Wanda had a life invisible to Sharon. One day last summer Sharon was riding her bike near Wilson Avenue and Broadway, where homeless people hang out. She spotted Wanda, who gave her a tour.

"It was like being with the mayor of a small town," she says. "Everybody knew that woman." Through the years, Wanda spent a few nights at Sharon's house, but Sharon says they agreed that wasn't a great idea.

"I never had to establish boundaries with her," Sharon says. "She had already set them up for herself and never took advantage of our friendship." She did let Wanda use her car trunk as a roaming chest of drawers, and Wanda, she says, thought of it as "their" car.

As Wanda got older, her maladies multiplied. Heart failure, strokes, asthma, epileptic seizures, vascular dementia.

Last year, when Wanda was declared unfit to care for herself, Sharon became her legal guardian. The judge looked skeptical.

"So you're just like a really nice lady who wants to help people?" she recalls him saying.

"No," she said, "I'm not." "So why would you want to be her legal guardian?" "Because I love her." When word came that Wanda had died at 47 of dilated cardiomyopathy, just a few hours after her last phone call to Sharon, Sharon wasn't entirely shocked but she was bereft.

"It's not a one-way white-girl-helps-black-girl kind of thing," Sharon says. "I needed her. I miss her." Sharon didn't really have to go to the morgue, but it felt right, so she did. She arranged to have Wanda buried and her lost relatives notified. On Wednesday night, she masterminded a memorial at Chicago Uptown Ministry, where Wanda recently had spent her days.

Eighty people came, Wanda's friends and Sharon's, black and white, well-to-do and not. One of Wanda's sisters, Mary Taylor, was there.

The only time she'd seen Wanda in years was on the "L".

She'd given Wanda her phone number then, but Wanda never called.

Sharon Durling can't say exactly why she and Wanda Taylor became friends. She's never had children and wishes she had. Maybe it was that.

Or maybe it was the simple mystery called love.

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