I heard some good advice recently: If you are going to be jealous of someone, then you must be jealous of everything about them. This means you can't just covet Angelina Jolie's lips, you also have to live with her reputation as a home wrecker and deal with Brad's phobia of foot selfies. And you can't just want Michelle Obama's arms, you must also be trailed by the Secret Service and be married to someone who travels a lot.
But I was never that aspirational in my envy. I was just jealous of a friend at work.
We started working together about seven years ago. She was hired in my department shortly after I was. And I'll get right to the point: She was gorgeous. Younger than me, with silky brown hair, twinkling blue eyes and a brilliant smile, her laugh would burst out from behind the cubical wall whenever someone offered her the smallest irony. She was a regular at a kick-boxing gym and a former competitive swimmer, so she sported all the muscle definition and the fitness needed to punch a heavy bag. Michelle Obama's arms had nothing on hers, and neither did Angelina's loveliness.
I didn't meet her right away, but instead collected details about her life through overheard conversations. She was married and had two kids. This did nothing to lessen my prejudice, because I really wanted children and was struggling to get pregnant. She seemed to have it all.
Then, one day, someone asked "Have you met Bridgette?"
"No. It's nice to meet you," I said, holding out my hand. Her grip was firm and her smile was inviting. This is kind of nice, I thought.
"I love listening to you talk to people on the phone," she said to me. "You're so good at talking to people. And you're great at delivering bad news in a nice way."
I was stunned. I assumed that she didn't know who I was, but obviously she did.
"Wow, that might be the best compliment I've had," I said.
We beamed at each other and then she went back to her desk.
Shortly after that, I lost track of her. I was moved to another department, and then got pregnant and had a baby. She got divorced.
When I came back after maternity leave, I was busy with a newborn, and she was busy nurturing a new romance with a man who was named after a lesser-known super hero and who laughed just like my brother.
I would pass her in the hall where we would say hello, compare notes on our workload and size up our mutual ambition to be doing more work that inspired us. Every so often, we would wind up in a big group together at happy hour where she savagely defended her favorite football teams and I admired her sports lexicon.
In the office, I saw her wedding pictures on her new husband's desk and again felt a twinge of envy about how her life seemed to keep righting itself, perfectly. Then, she got pregnant and had a big pot roast of a baby named Beckham, who practically bubbled out of every picture on her desk. I stopped by to offer my congratulations.
"I can't believe you have four boys," I said. Her new life had brought two new sons -- one through childbirth and another through remarriage.
"I know. It's crazy," she said. "But they all get along really well, so it's not as insane as it seems."
I told her I was pregnant with my second child. And then we talked about trivial stuff, like how summer birthdays for kids are harder to plan and how lame we were for no longer being able to stay up late.
Then, she got cancer.
Her hair fell out and her skin became ashen and plastic-looking. Her throat raged with pain from the chemo. She cried endlessly from grief and the emotional roller coaster of treatments and drugs. And on top of all of that she felt guilty for robbing her new husband of the fun life they were supposed to be having in their 30s. I was shocked at the intensity of her suffering.
At work, we rallied by raising money, buying groceries and hiring someone to clean her house. Most Tuesdays before work, I would send her a text to see what I could pick up at the grocery store for her family. Once she wanted organic cucumbers, so I hunted through the vegetable aisles of the unfamiliar store hoping for the best. When I finally found some, they were small, over-sized pickles.
These are all wrong, I thought. They are too expensive. I should go to another store to get the right cucumbers, but I don't have time. And then I started crying standing there right next to the Braeburn apples. She was the one who didn't have time. Her youngest son was barely a 1-year-old and her oldest was not out of elementary school. She was too young to be this sick, and the perfect cucumber that was not going to make any of this better. I cursed the cartoon cucumber wearing pants and a goofy smile on the packaging and put it in my basket.
That fall, her cancer went into remission just long enough for her to grow a sweet, blond pixy hairstyle, cheer for her favorite football teams and hug her kids on Christmas morning. Then, her cancer came back more vicious than ever, attacking her bones and not just her breasts. It tore back through her life taking her energy and her last defenses, like her eyelashes.
"I can't tell you how many times I have ended up with Kleenex in my eye because I had no eyelashes to stop it from actually going in my eye," she wrote in one of her last Caringbridge.com journal entries.
She died on July 25, 2013.
It seems stupid to say that I'm not jealous of her now. I don't want her Michelle Obama arms the way that I'm sure her toddler wants to feel them around him today. I don't want her blue eyes the way her husband must want them before they closed each night. I don't want her body, and not just because it's gone. It was never mine to covet in the first place, just like her life. My body and my life are my own to appreciate now more than I ever did before, simply because they are still here for me to use and not to objectify. To love and not to hate. To enjoy but also to remember that they are not mine forever.
This post is written in loving memory of Bridgette Duda Storms, who was 38 when she died last year of breast cancer. She was a mother, a wife, an athlete and a fierce and loyal friend to many.