Fran was usually the first person I’d see after checking in at the YMCA’s front desk. She kept the place clean, especially the ladies’ locker room, but she did so much more than push a mop or a cleaning rag. She was the finder of lost things, the smile and joke I needed after a bad day, the shoulder to cry on after a really bad day. I went through a rough patch about nine years ago when I hurt my back and slipped into clinical depression and a major fibromyalgia flare. I knew I needed exercise; it had always helped me before. My physical therapist advised a return to activity, that I should get out and see people. But simply leaving my house seemed like a monumental task. I tired just thinking about walking across the parking lot, changing into a bathing suit, changing afterward.
Fran not only took care of me when I was there, she took care of all of us, like the self-appointed den mother to the ladies of the YMCA. She fastened the straps of my suit when I didn’t have enough flexibility to reach them. She listened and hugged me while I poured out my frustrations, from losing my job to having to learn how to walk again. When I passed out from a combination of a too-hot shower, a new medication, and the twenty pounds I lost while I was ill, Fran was the first one there with a cold cloth for my forehead.
She had been one of the few to notice my improvement. “I see you getting better,” she said. “I see you making eye contact and stuff. That’s a good sign, right there.”
One day when I came into the locker room, well after my recovery, Fran turned from what she was doing and flashed me a broad smile that showed the missing teeth on the right side. “I got somethin’ for you, chick-chick,” she said. She called all the women “chick-chick” or “chickie.” Then she gave me a pair of flip-flops she bought for a dollar at the mall, because she saw I didn’t have any.
I was heartbroken when the Y let her go last year in favor of an outside cleaning service. The place was never the same: the warmth, the chickies, and the Fran-ness were gone. It certainly isn’t any cleaner, either. Fran’s chicks were angry that the Y had done her dirty, and we were worried for her, that without purpose, without feeling needed, her health, already not the greatest, would fail.
And as we’d feared, it happened. We still don’t know the exact cause of her sudden death, but just a look passed among the ladies in the locker room spoke volumes: her heart had been broken, too.
The last time I saw Fran was at a potluck supper our aqua-jogging instructor hosted in her honor. It was a beautiful day and we were laughing, drinking sangria, and making jokes that we barely recognized each other with our clothes on. She always laughed the loudest. That’s what I want to remember about our chick-chick.