|Eleni and Lisa in her kitchen
“Marilyn, I’d like to cut your hair,” she said with certainty and a whiff of exasperation. Lisa Kourtis lived across the street from us on Crestridge Drive in Silver Spring Maryland. She was a hairdresser for many of Washington DC’s “rich and famous” including a couple Kennedy women and Newt Gingrich’s wife. Typically, I sloughed off to work in jeans and casual clothes having run a brush through my hair, while Lisa was always dressed immaculately with perfectly coiffed, styled, and colored hair when she headed to work.
We both loved to cook and entertain. Our homes were typically filled with relatives and friends on weekends and holidays. We liked to chitchat in our front yards. We were people watchers. We loved our children and thought about them a lot. We liked order, pretty things, and friendship.
We were opposites in almost every other way. My home was orderly but never fully clean—we had a dog that shed copious amounts of fur, kids, and we wore muddy shoes throughout. Lisa’s house was pristine, almost like a shrine with white carpets, gleaming counters, and ornate art pieces. I am a PhD scientist reading, researching, and studying everything. I love isotopes! Lisa loved hair! She knew from an early age that it was her calling. I am a mongrel American with no current religious following. Lisa was Greek, having moved to the US as a young woman, and a devout Greek Orthodox Christian. I was a master gardener planting flowers, bushes, trees, and vegetables. Lisa was learning how to do more than water a pot of flowers.
One spring morning, I was in my front yard talking to another neighbor, when Lisa was investigating one of her flowering trees. She had a mostly flat yard with a very low small hill—and it was on that 3-foot hill that she slipped, causing a serious injury to her leg. She cried out and was obviously in pain. I ran over to her, and after brief questioning called 911 to request an ambulance. I followed the ambulance to Holy Cross Hospital then spent the day with her in the emergency room. Her leg wasn’t fully broken, but fractured (and she was in pain). This precluded her from much—if any—walking and no stairs.
Somehow, stronger neighbors helped her up to her bedroom on the 2nd floor, when she returned from the hospital. She needed more help. We set up a schedule. I came over in the morning at 8 am, made breakfast, brought it upstairs to her bedroom, and sat with her while she ate, hobbled to the bathroom and got settled again in bed. I helped get her clothes from her dresser and closet. More importantly, I sat down and we told each other about our lives.
When I returned from work, I headed over to bring up dinner, straighten her bedroom and make sure she was safe. Most nights I checked in again before bedtime, and made sure she had her medicine and was tucked in for the night.
Her daughter and I talked frequently. Eleni lives in North Jersey with a business in New York City and three young children. She was unable to bust loose from her oblilgations to come down to help her mom immediately. Lisa was, naturally, disappointed. I listened to her and we talked this through.
We connected as women and mothers do. Eventually Eleni arrived and my duties were relieved. I missed them! But Lisa and I had formed a strong friendship.
She eventually recovered enough to walk short distances and after a few months was able to return to work. She was an avid swimmer, a bit on the heavier side, always hoping to shed a few pounds with exercise. As a hair stylist, she, of course, spent hours on her feet. Hence, her insistence when she’d recovered on cutting my hair.
On her front patio, she brought out a chair, a plastic cape,
and her scissors. I sat in full view of the neighborhood while she snipped and
styled. We gossiped as all close stylist-customer pairs do. And we laughed. After moving to California, we talked only occasionally and connected via Facebook.
|Lisa in her beloved kitchen: She hosted breakfast the day we left Maryland
When I received the ALS diagnosis, Lisa sent Chris and me a fruit and cheese basket. She worried about me and called often. I had to talk her down from worrying excessively about me. I said, “It’s OK. I’m OK.”
Then it was her “turn” again—heart surgery. It took longer for her to recover than I would have thought. She wasn’t herself. “This is hard,” she told me on the phone.
It was not long after that Chris rushed into the bedroom saying, “Bad news.” What? Lisa had died—suddenly. I suspect her generous heart had given up on her.
Her passing made me, once again, review my own mortality. Wasn’t I the one who was supposed to be dead and gone? Why Lisa? We never really know, do we, when our life will end.
As a mother and a grandmother, she did her best. Her daughter grieves the loss of her mom to this day, as do all of Lisa’s extended friends and family. Without question, Lisa left a legacy of her Greek heritage, her love of nice hair and concern for others.
Lisa was an ordinary, yet remarkable, woman.