The nametag stopped me in my tracks. I immediately swung around to talk to the gray-haired woman with a friendly face sitting in the author booth at the March 2023 Tucson Festival of Books.
“What caught your attention?”
I pointed to author Sandra Butler's title: “Old. Jewish. Queer.”
“Do you know someone who might enjoy a book about being old?” Butler asked, pointing to her book “The Kitchen Is Closed, and Other Benefits of Being Old.”
“I do, but she just passed. I attended her celebration of life in Michigan three days ago.” I felt my eyes filling. “She meant the world to me.”
“You’re still feeling raw,” Butler said empathetically as her hand covered her heart. Tears flowed as I told her about my friend Sybil, who my daughter described as “classy, sassy and a little smart ass-y.”
When I came out as a lesbian at 56, my married friends didn’t understand my “new” life. I needed to find a community and friends. I signed up for MeetUps, searched for resources and started going to Affirmations, the LGBTQ+ community center in Ferndale. In my freshly out lesbian mind, every person I met became a potential friend or maybe a partner.
One Friday night I went to Lesbian Movie Night. The roomful of women seemed to know each other, and I felt alone. The room darkened and the forgettable movie started.
Afterward, a few of the women went to a coffee shop to chat and I was invited to tag along. During the conversation, an older woman with gray hair, glasses and kind eyes mentioned tennis and my ears perked up. I'd played tennis for 20 years and was eager to find players in my new community.
“Where do you play?”
“I play in White Lake and at the Novi Sports Club. She plays too,” she said, nodding to a young brunette.
"I play too," I said, excited about the possibility of playing with these new people. "It would be fun to get together to play, if we can find a fourth. My name is Deb."
"I'm Sybil," said the older woman.
It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. First, we shared our coming out stories. Me, leaving my marriage of 27 years and coming out as a lesbian once I realized feelings I had long hidden and stuffed deep inside. Her, coming out at 72 after a career as a physical education teacher…we laughed about that stereotypical irony.
At 77, Sybil was fit: she walked regularly, loved golf, and still played a wicked game of tennis with the skill of placing the ball exactly where you couldn’t reach. Sybil was the one I confided in when I signed up for an online dating app and had my first date.
When I was struggling with the challenge of dating a lesbian, Sybil was the one I called to meet for lunch to vent and get perspective. We commiserated on relationship challenges and when we were leaving, I saw the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) sticker on the rear window of her car.
"I'm curious. Why do you have the NAMI sticker on your car?"
"My son is mentally ill. It's an organization that’s helped me a lot. I support them."
As lesbians who came out later in life, we shared more experiences than having been married and having children…both our lives had been touched by family members with mental illness.
"No wonder we connected,” I said. “My mother was mentally ill."
I always felt alone in the world, seemingly the only person having a relative with mental illness. No one talks about it. Hearing her say it factually without emotion was refreshing.
Sybil supported my dream to run a half marathon and was there cheering me on at the final turn to the finish line at the Detroit Free Press International Half. When I trained for the Marine Corps Marathon, she gave generously to the fundraiser. When I began a writing practice, she often was the first person to comment.
Sybil and I also had awesome adventures together. While at the Lesbian Film Festival in the spring of 2014 in London, Ontario, we met a couple who lived near Toronto who invited us to visit and come to World Pride. We couldn’t refuse the offer and, in June, we drove to Toronto. We both enjoyed getting to know our new friends and taking part in the festivities, capped by marching in the Dyke Parade. I took Sybil’s photo near a group carrying a Pride flag and a sign that said, “Come on baby, light my menorah.”
In December 2014, Sybil planned to spend a month in Florida and asked if I would accompany her on the drive from Michigan. She picked me up and drove the first leg. I drove the rest of the way, and she loved calling me her chauffeur. Before leaving, I suggested renting a two-person kayak to take a tour around the Rookery Bay mangrove forest. Silently we paddled through the tranquil Reserve, gliding among the mangroves, in awe of mother nature.
Sybil was a social justice warrior having had some grand adventures herself: she was on the steps of the Supreme Court when the epic marriage equality decision was announced. A life-long Democrat, she worked hard in the political trenches in the 1960s to elect Coleman Young, Detroit’s first African American mayor. He subsequently appointed her to a trustee position on the Human Rights Commission. As a former Detroit public school teacher, she was a card-carrying union member and defender.
“As an Army civil servant, union membership isn’t required,” I once said.
“Who do you think fought for the benefits you enjoy?” was her only response.
After she moved to Plymouth, she was active in the Plymouth Dems and worked to elect the trio of women now running Michigan. Sybil was on a first name basis with Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel. From abortion rights to civil and voting rights, Sybil was an activist to her core.
In the summer of 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Sybil was the one who helped my daughter and I prepare for a move out of state. Our relationship transitioned to keeping in touch via texts and phone calls.
The next spring while playing tennis, Sybil started experiencing shortness of breath. A CT scan showed a spot on her lung, so surgery was scheduled for August 2021. I had planned to travel back to Michigan, so I spent a few days with her before retiring. We even went out to hit a few tennis balls with a mutual friend. Sybil still had that special touch.
They removed a seemingly benign nodule from her lung. A week after her surgery, I returned to spend two weeks with her to ease her convalescence. When she mentioned I’d be there during Rosh Hashanah, I asked what traditions she’d like to observe since, as a lapsed Lutheran, I was unfamiliar with Jewish traditions. She spoke of challah and a favorite cake her family used to enjoy. I suggested we take a drive to her favorite Jewish bakery to buy them. Later, we listened to her rabbi’s message together on Zoom.
After I hit the retirement road, I learned the benign had turned to malignancy. Sybil had blood cancer. In the winter of 2022, she had a severe reaction to chemotherapy and was hospitalized. Not long after, she was under hospice care. Since I hadn’t seen her in a year and a half, the news left me bereft. Once in hospice care, they stopped the chemo. Thankfully, Sybil recovered, went home and began the healing process, weakened but alive and ready to fight. Her mother had lived to 103 and Sybil had been physically fit her whole life; she was determined to get back on the tennis and pickleball courts.
Last spring, knowing we almost lost her, I planned a Michigan trip to introduce Sybil to Kate, my new partner. Although she stayed close to home and was dependent on transfusions, Sybil’s “fight like hell” spirit was intact. While we were there, we celebrated my May birthday and our friendship. Later last summer, Sybil got special permission from her community to let us camp in her driveway. The highlight of the trip was taking her to Comerica Park to see her beloved Detroit Tigers come back to beat the Kansas City Royals.
Back at the Tucson Festival of Books, I told Butler, “I’m going to buy this book for me,” as I pulled out my wallet. She signed the following on the inside title page: In memory of Sybil’s life and legacy.
Caring, compassionate social justice warrior. A life well lived and a beautiful soul. Sybil was a friend, a confidante, and the best Jewish mother a baby dyke could have…or as she would say, a mensch.