Once upon a time there were three little girls growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. All through school, Sandra, Carol and I hung out together, laughing, exploring the city and getting into mischief.

When Sandra’s sister asked us to baby-sit, we’d experiment with smoking by stealing her sister’s cigarettes. We went to dances, talked about boys and wondered what “it” was like. From teenagers to young women, we told each other everything.

Sandra was there to hear my woes about boyfriends and school problems, and to help me deal with my volatile relationship with my mom. I spent many nights at her house because my home situation was so tense — especially the night the boys threw me under the stream of a fire hydrant and ruined my clothes. There was no way I’d go home drenched; my mom would have killed me.

One of my fondest memories is when I was 17 and Sandra was 18. Sandra’s mom offered to chaperone our trio on a trip to Florida. None of us had ever gone on a faraway vacation. No one in my family had ever flown! That trip remains clear in my memory. Leaving the hotel in the morning I looked down and there was a water bug as big as a turtle.

At breakfast I ordered grits, something I’d read about for years. When my food arrived I said to the server, “But I ordered grits.”

“Those are grits,” she said.

Looking at what appeared to be hot, soggy popcorn, I could not believe people actually craved this dish.

That was a wonderful vacation; we laughed ourselves silly every single day. How Sandra’s mom put up with three hysterical teenagers baffles me.

When I married, Sandra was my maid of honor. When I got divorced, Sandra was there to hear about what went wrong. Sandra married a wonderful man. Carol married a few years later. Both of them remained in New York.

Although I moved to California, each time I visited New York, we’d have dinner. Over the years we exchanged birthday and Christmas cards. The last time I saw Sandra was about six years ago when I was in the city. Remarkably vibrant, she looked the same, always a smile on her beautiful face.

When I moved to Tucson three years ago, my life changed radically. For some reason, I didn’t talk to Sandra even though I continued to send birthday and Christmas cards.

I decided to call just before Christmas and her husband answered the phone. When I asked for Sandra he said, “She’s in the hospital and I can’t talk. Call Carol.”

I spoke to Carol on Dec. 20 and she told me Sandra had Parkinson’s disease and didn’t want anyone to know. “She fell on Dec. 6. Bobby wasn’t home. She is in rehab but having a hard time.”

When I said I’d send flowers, Carol said that would not be appropriate. She gave me the address of the rehab facility and I sent a couple of get-well cards.

She passed away three weeks later. The opportunity to say hello is gone. No more talking about the fun things we did. No more dinners in New York.

Now I think, maybe if I’d known she was ill, maybe if someone had told me she had Parkinson’s … maybe a lot things.

The lesson here is stay in touch with those you love. Take the time to call. Make sure they know how much you care about them. Because one day you’ll call and they won’t be there.

Alexis Powers is the author of several books and lives on the northwest side. Email her at northwest@azstarnet.com or view her website at www.alexis-powers.com