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Sandford Birdsey, Key West 1925-2010Today is Sandford’s birthday. She would have been 90. She died waaaay too young, if you ask me.

She has been on my mind lately, more than usual. I can feel her presence intensely, like she is right here! Her daughter and I were on the phone just now. She told me she talks to her mom all the time. I said, “Me, too.” Neither of us were surprised at that.

It was always good to talk to Sandford.

8 September 2010 – My friend Sandford died Monday night. I’m not sure what time or who was there. I imagine it was peaceful. She was in pain so had some pretty good drugs handy. Hopefully I’ll find out the details in the next couple of days. I’d like to know.

Sandford was more than a friend, she was my Key West mom. We had dinner practically every Friday night from 1989 till 2006 (when Hal and the boys and I moved to Costa Rica). Then we’d talk on the phone from Costa Rica.

That is, except for the one year Sandford and I had a fight and didn’t speak. Can’t seem to remember what the fight was about now–there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

She was a prolific and well-respected Key West watercolor and hand-painted fabric artist. You can read about her here. She had a pretty good attitude!

We had a good visit the Friday before she died. She told me more than once how lucky she was to have so many friends coming to see her, taking the time to visit.

Then Saturday evening, I was with her for about three hours. That was really special because we were alone, just quiet. She wasn’t talking much, but just before she fell asleep, she said, “That’s nice.”

“What’s nice?” I asked.

“You holding my hand,” she said. “That’s nice.” Then she fell asleep. Of course, you have to hear it said slowly, with a Macon, Georgia accent. I can hear it now 🙂

I’m glad to have those words in my head because I almost missed her last few days, not knowing they were upon us. I was already living in Kentucky and had come to Key West for a short visit. 

On Sunday morning, I went back to see Sandford and the door was locked. I called her daughter and was told that the [crotchety old] caretaker had ordered no visitors for the day. “She had too many visitors on Saturday and it wore her out. No one in today!”

Huh? Sandford was very likely dying (imminently, as it turned out). So her last couple of days were going to be sans the people who love her? So she could, what… not be worn out when she died? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but people are funny about death. And control.

[2015: I confess I’m still angry about that! Perhaps it’s time to let this one go?]

For the record, when I’m dying, all visitors are welcome. If there’s anyone left since I’m going to live to be at least 100. I’d rather die of excitement from too many visitors then live a day or two longer seeing no one. I am certain of this because when I was in the hospital, I practically counted the minutes until visiting hours. Those were precious moments indeed.

After Sunday’s banishment, I was determined to see her on Monday. I went back to the house around noon and very quietly let myself in (I know where the hidden key is), then super quietly tip-toed up the stairs and extremely quietly tip-toed across the living room… I was almost in her room when the caretaker spotted me: “No visitors!”

S-l-o-w-l-y I turned, and crotchety old caretaker and me, we had us a little Mexican standoff.

“Five minutes,” I said. “I am going to hold her hand for five minutes.” More standoff.

Even though she was a tall hefty redhead with a temper to match, she could tell I was going in that room and there was nothing she could do about it, unless she wanted to tackle me? She relented and I got my last little bit of Sandford time.

Sandford taught me literally everything I know about how to live life and be comfortable in my skin doing it. Not in words so much, it was mostly by osmosis… hanging around with her, hearing her talk, watching her deal with people and life situations.

She used words, too, of course. Like the time(s) I went to her about Hal, who I had just started dating:

ME: “He is such an a–hole!”

SANDFORD: “When is your period?”

ME: “It’s tomorrow but that has nothing to do with it. [I’m a little miffed now, because I can see she is going to put his character flaws back on my plate. She had an annoying habit of doing that. So I take it up a notch.] He’s a creton, a caveman. Sandford, I’m pretty sure he’s a psychopath!!!”

SANDFORD: “Don’t do anything rash and come back tomorrow.”

ME (the next day): “Hi, Sandford! Hal and I are going to the movies. Do you want to come along?”

sandford and salI’m pretty sure I would not be married now if it weren’t for Sandford. Lucky Hal, right?

One time I told her that Hal was so cool and I was a nutjob and what if he leaves me because he finds out I’m a faker? She said, “Water seeks its own level.” She wouldn’t elaborate and I couldn’t figure out what she meant for the longest time.

She told me I should take up sailing — she loved sailing — because when you are sailing, you are not in control. The wind is. You just do its bidding and make allowances. I didn’t understood the value of that one until years later, too. For a smart girl, I can be a little slow 🙂

I have a zillion moments and lessons stored away from the 21 years of our friendship. In some ways, I was her mini-me. In some ways, we couldn’t have been more different.

Everett, my fellow Sandford fry, called her Madam. She’d roll her eyes when he called her that, but she loved it. What a lucky person I am to have had such a great mentor — heck, to have had a mentor at all! She wasn’t perfect — oh, far from it. Infinitely human. It’s just that she was perfect for me.

I’ll tell her that when I talk to her tomorrow.

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