The news of her death wasn't necessarily a shock. She was, after all, only a few months away from her 95th birthday. But learning recently that my dear friend Elizabeth Canfield had died has put me in a reflective frame of mind.
It wasn't until recent years that I realized that much of her strength and courage came from the challenges of her early years -- watching Nazi troops march into Vienna when she was sixteen years old and then, late that year, fleeing Austria with her family -- first to Holland and then to the U.S. -- though her grandparents and other extended family perished in Auschwitz.
I had never guessed that she was a Holocaust survivor -- mostly because her parents had converted to Christianity before her birth and I knew her as an avid member of a socially activist Episcopalian church in Los Angeles when we first met. She told me that she hadn't spoken of her past for many years because it was so painful and she didn't want to spread the pain to her children or her friends. But she finally began to share her wartime past while participating in Stephen Spielberg's Shoah project and began to speak about the Holocaust in schools during her later years. During the last two years of her life, she shared her Holocaust stories with me in a series of letters -- which I will always treasure.
And I'm struck with wonder, too, that Liz and I ever had a chance to become friends. There are so many variables: what if her family hadn't been able to escape from Austria in late 1938? What if, like many Jewish families who had fled to Holland, they had been unable to get visas for the U.S.? (Her family was fortunate that her father was a noted Austrian composer and conductor who was offered a position at a major U.S. university and was able to get his immediate family out of Nazi-occupied Europe just in time.) What if she hadn't married the person she did and ended up in Los Angeles? What if my boss at 'TEEN Magazine hadn't insisted on my doing a story about abortion in those days just before the Roe vs. Wade decision that led me to the medical clinic where Liz worked as a health educator and counselor? What if I hadn't seen the kindness and caring behind her initially unsettling frankness? What if...?
Maybe but for chance you would never have met a beloved spouse of many years. Maybe a lifelong friendship happened to you because of chance -- an accidental meeting, a chance pairing for a work or school assignment, a stranger who passed your way one day and became a treasured friend. We all have so many unexpected blessings -- as life so often surprises us.