A friend’s diagnosis

Imagine me saying “You know, I just thought you shaved your head. I mean, hehheh, your parents are hippies and everything.” That’s what my childhood BFF Rebecca said, yesterday when we talked on the phone for the first time in over a decade, as she reflected on having seen me bald without knowing I had cancer (I know there’s others of you out there, who assumed I’d just shaved my head bald….). She said it, but I could have said it. If I had said it, I would have placed the hehheh exactly as she had, and I would have used the same up turn  at the end of the sentence. Because you see, we sound exactly alike. Apparently, during all those years that were pretty much just an ongoing sleepover at each others’ homes, we developed identical speech patterns. Or so we discovered, twenty years after the fact. It was uncanny. In her words, “I feel like I’m talking to myself.”

We were talking because 24 hours earlier, another close friend from those years was diagnosed with cancer. How weird, right? I kind of thought everyone connected to me was safe, like I took one for the team and the statistics would just never allow for someone I know to also get cancer at this age. But, as a cancer friend once said, “Haven’t you learned we’re not statistics yet?” And so, here we found ourselves, on the phone after all this time, though she sounded exactly the same as she did on the phone twenty years ago. Which must also be how I sounded, and how I sound. But more to the point- we have someone else to support. Someone else, young, body contaminated, facing stats and scary surgeries and the dreadful chemo. And so we lapsed into our old patterns, into conversation that could only be described as the most familiar.

I am so heartbroken for the other friend, D. Rebecca is so speechless. She will make it through, but D will be lonely. Lonely. Cancer is lonely, I explained to the childhood BFF. No one understands, no one we know has had cancer (except, of course, me) and no one knows what to do. And as we talked about being alone and being lonely, about getting the other friend wigs, about how f*cked the environment is, about how our parents are just as weird as ever, about that one camp counsellor who turned us vegetarians as children, about cancer-lonely, I realized. I realized cancer sometimes has to be alone. I realized there are people, like Rebecca, making plans to visit the other friend and who care with all their hearts and souls, people like Rebka who would literally do anything to wipe it away, but still. Still, cancer is lonely, because there is no way to wipe it away. It is writing on the wall, writing with a permanent marker that can’t even be scrubbed off with sandpaper.

D is at the very beginning, the time when the words roll around in the mouth like they don’t belong, so big and awkward that they are unspeakable. Rebecca will love on her, I am sure of it. I will stay in touch. A childhood friend, turned cancer buddy. But I know, things will wane. D will get through treatment, and the meal train can’t go on forever. The visits can’t go on forever. Friends cannot support forever. They will get D through this chaos, this madness, this challenge. They will make sure she has chemo buddies and movies and meals. I know because Rebka told me so, in the same voice I would have told you so, and that voice is so close to my own I can do nothing but trust it. How fortunate I feel to have reconnected with this wondrous person, this person I spent most of my childhood with, this person who sounds just like me, this person who now must be protected from cancer, now that both her childhood friends have been diagnosed so young. But I also know, that this won’t be over for D when her hair starts to grow back soft and fuzzy, and I know it won’t be over when she returns to work, and I know it won’t be over when everyone else is breathing a sigh of relief because it’s over.

It likely seems pessimistic to you, reading this. But it’s real, the loneliness that is cancer, the solitude that is the aftermath, the heartfelt sadness and the physical pain that lingers are real. I know that afterwards, when she is looking aghast at the life that has crumbled, that the friends will be tired. They will want to keep giving, but at some point, they will be tired. And they will need to step away to nourish their own bodies and souls and spirits, and by definition cancer does not nourish, cancer taketh. And then D will be there, alone as she really is even when they’re there, and the din of distraction will wane. And that is cancer. D cannot step away. She can’t opt out of the heartache or the doctors appointments or the lingering side effects. I cat yet tell her this story, but that is why my heart is broken for her. That is why my eyes fill with tears for her. It is terrible to endure the treatment, of course. It is the worst when hair falls out, when skin turns dry, when the body aches. And the enduring solitude is expansive, even as the body heals.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to go down to the beach, where the water meets the forrest. I’m going to sit and think of D, and I’m going to ask the earth to take care of her, and I’m going to hope she feels the ways we are interconnected. Because, we must. We have friends, the best of friends, but they can only accompany, and they can only sometimes witness. We cherish them when they do, especially those old friends like Rebka who can pick up the phone and ask all the hard questions, and who can really listen and feel our responses. And sometimes we must be alone, sometimes there are no witnesses, sometimes we must be where the ocean meets the forest and where ultimately, we can heal.

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