On October 10th, I heard the news I’d been expecting for the past few weeks. My friend, Maricela Ochoa-Henderson, had succumbed to breast cancer after a five year battle. She spent her last years contributing time to cancer charities while living near her family in Texas. She opened up about her experience for a documentary coming out early next year called Pink Ribbons, Inc. Tributes filled the newsfeed on my Facebook page, which for days had flashed photographs of her with various friends and family members over the past two decades. She was 48. The shock of her death is still sinking in, but the beauty of her spirit and her life is something that I don’t think will ever leave me.
Mari and I met when we shared a room at the Markel Evangeline Residence on West 13th Street in New York City during the fall of 1983. Both of us were attending NYU. She, to study theatre; me, music. She’d just arrived from Galveston, Texas, and she threw down her bags and embraced me the moment we met.
“I’m Mari,” she said, sweeping me into her arms. I am a good six inches taller than her, so this was quite a feat. Her voice was smoky and warm. The way she said, “Mari” sounded like “Maudy” to me. I was a shy girl from the Pacific Northwest, a wallflower, and a waif in those days. Tiny as Maricela was, she filled up the whole room. Her spirit was effervescent, her laugh contagious. I loved her from the moment we met. That fall, we shared bunk beds in a room with six others: Carla, a grad student from North Carolina; a young woman from Cincinnati named Cyndi; and two nameless Swedes who spent most of their time in our room walking around naked. We quickly discovered how much we had in common: Elton John, films, theatre, music and a certain infectious joie de vivre. We became friends on the spot. Mari was like that. She walked in and sat down in the middle of your life, and within minutes, you felt sure she’d always been there.
“Let’s go to the Feast of San Gennaro,” she said, grabbing me by the hand, a few days later. Once out in the street, she hailed a cab and ferried me down to Little Italy. Along with a throng more than a million others, we gorged on pizza, calzones, and glass after glass of wine with peaches floating in it. We people- watched and salsa-danced in the street. We giggled like school girls. A lot. Mari made it easy to laugh. My first years in New York have her fingerprints all over them. We regularly hung out in a creepy loft she shared with another girl from Texas named Shelley. We drank lattes and compared notes on our lives. She was the one who took me out for my 24th birthday. We ate dinner at Beefsteak Charlie’s and got plastered on sangria.
“Sangria, we just met a girl named Sangria,” we sang to the tune of Maria from The Sound of Music. We staggered home, singing and stupid drunk, laughing our butts off. I smashed birthday cake in her face after I opened my gifts. It was always like that with Mari.
The last time I saw her, I didn’t know it would be the last time. She’d invited me to come see a new David Mamet play called The Blue Hour. It was part of what later became The Goldberg Anthology.
At the time, Mari was summering in Burlington, Vermont doing theatre and working as Mamet’s nanny. Predictably, I remember little of that night, other than the fact that Mari was wildly happy. We chatted amiably over drinks and canapés and fruit. She hugged me fiercely when we said goodbye. In a matter of weeks, she left for Chicago to work in the theatre. We wrote letters back and forth for a few years, but lost track of each other after I left New York City in 1991. A year later, I saw an article about her work in a new play in Backstage, but our circles never crossed again.
During the mid-nineties while I was in graduate school, I saw her one night on an episode of ER. She played the wife of a patient who died after a fall from a ladder. Most of her dialog was in Spanish, but the grief she portrayed as a young mother losing the love of her life, felt palpable and real. She was so good. I was thrilled to know that she was still pursuing her dreams. Later, I saw her play the role of God in a guest spot on Joan of Arcadia. I figured she was living in LA, but I had no way to reach her. And the trail to where she might be stayed cold until about a year ago when I searched for her, first on Google, and then on Facebook. That’s when I found out she had stage IV cancer. It seemed impossible to believe.
I sent her several messages of support, but we never had any direct contact this past year. Still, she knew how I felt about her. I know she did.
Last week, she was interviewed by a local TV reporter in Austin, TX. She looked like a fragile baby bird, gaunt and tired, but still burning with life. She told the reporter, “[Cancer] taught me how to live. And it taught me the goodness of people. […] It [has] nothing to do with dying.” She spoke eloquently about love, saying repeatedly, “It’s all about love” (austin.ynn.com). How can mere words capture such a spirit? How can we possibly hold onto such a fierce, spitfire, siren-song of a girl? Mari shimmied and danced and sang her way through almost five decades, lighting up every room she graced. She loved tamales, and her Mexican heritage, and her husband, Mark, and her whole extended family with absolutely nothing held back. She celebrated her life, even on her deathbed, squeezing every drop of juice out of each moment. I’m proud to say I knew her; I sure as hell will never, ever forget her. So, Adíos Marquita Linda. You did good. You did so much good.
© 2011 Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved
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