Tina Rolen, 1949-2009

The last time I saw her, in June, she took me to lunch to celebrate my fellowship. She was in stage four of the non-smoker kind of lung cancer that would soon steal her life. Her eyelashes were singed from the treatments. She walked slowly, stopping every few steps to catch her breath. She joked that finally she had lost that 15 pounds she’d been trying for years to shed, but dammit: Food no longer tasted good.

We knew it would probably be our last visit, but she didn’t make a fuss. A big hug at the end, some awkward words from me and that glorious eye-twinkling smile of hers, letting me knowing that, yes, this did seriously suck — but she had made peace with it. Now all she had to do was convince her loved ones they’d be OK too.

She worried about her daughter, Sarah, whom she’d raised on her own through the rough times and the good and who always — no matter how dicey things got — would make her beam, shake her head and say, “Yep, that’s my girl!” She had the closest sibling relationship with her sister, Susan, that I have ever seen. Her best friends were her ministers, Bob and Dusty. Her secretary Carolyn loved her so much she would have taken the cancer for her if she could.

As friends go, we could go months without e-mailing or visiting, and pick up right where we left off. We were lunch buddies — sometimes quarterly, sometimes twice a year. She liked that Italian place on Route 11 just north of Hollins that doubled as a gas station, especially on spaghetti day.

She was the kind of person you could cry in front of, and she wouldn’t turn it into some big dramatic deal. She was full of kid-rearing advice that wasn’t exactly out of the parenting books. It was the kind of stuff you could actually follow, like let your kid be who he’s meant to be and, if you can help it, try not to freak out. If he’s four years old and wants to wear ruby slippers to preschool, break out the glue gun and sequins. She accepted people with a full heart and reveled in their quirks. At the end of every lunch, I invited her to bill me for the free therapy.

She could do amazing things with a canister of crescent rolls and a block of cream cheese. Her white-bean chicken chili was simple and crockpot-ready, meaning she wasn’t above throwing in a can of cream-of-chicken soup and calling it a day. When Heironimus closed its doors a few years back, she stopped by to thank the hair-netted ladies at the cafe, all of whom she knew by name. She swore they made the best chicken salad in the world.

She had a gift for language that was Flannery O’Connor meets “Fried Green Tomatoes” meets Quentin Tarantino and by that I mean, she was a Southern lady through and through and she could cuss and talk about sex, though sometimes she whispered when she did. At Hollins University, where she ran the career center and led a course called “life planning,” she taught god-knows-how-many students of a “nontraditional” age that, yes, they could go to college and, yes, they could get better jobs and, hell yes, they could make it on their own because, if she could do it, they could too.

To my knowledge, she never left her condo without a careful application of lipstick and tissues in her purse. Not once did she fail to ask to see a picture of my kids.

Tina Rolen died Friday at the age of 60, leaving behind a lot of people who aren’t going to know what to do. Her friend Jan, the Hollins chaplain, told me she saw Tina the night before she died; that she was peaceful, awake and semi-alert but that she seemed to be looking somewhere else, at a different horizon.

Tina always did know where she was going, and she never minded the journey, not even the occasional detour or flat tire. She usually came back with a funny story and a tip about some great new food she’d tried and, before you knew it, you’d be laughing so hard you were crying and making plans to meet there for lunch.

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