“You need to come over immediately and get me out of here.” I spoke into the receiver as soon as my best friend picked up her phone. “Oh, no ya don’t” Angie answered, “Norma will kill me.” “Leave Norma to me”, I whispered, never knowing if my mother was crouched outside my door listening to me breathe, as I had recently caught her doing. “I need. To get. Out. Pleeeasseee.” “Listen,” Angie was pleading now, caught in a nightmarish people pleasing conundrum, “I’ll stop and get some treats and a movie and we’ll have a fun night in.” “Negative” I answered, “we are going out. See you in 10” and I hung up the phone.
I rolled over on my side and winced in pain. I pushed myself up to start to get dressed, but a wave of dizziness hit me and I thought better of it. I was still not used to my body betraying me. The melanoma, not satisfied to stay in its place, travelled to my lymphatic system. When the surgeons removed all the lymph nodes under my armpit they put a stint that acted as my lymph system- draining fluid into a bag. Now that the bag was gone I was free from cords and wires for the first time in weeks. My mother and father had stood on either side, distraught faces looking down, each gripping a sweaty hand, as the doctor painfully yanked the tube from my side.
The next stop from the lymph nodes, the doctors warned, was the brain and lungs. They cut me up and stitched me back together. Bruised and leaky they sent me home without answers, without assurance. We’ll do scans every few months to see if its hit your brain and lungs yet. Your job is to wait. But for a 20 year old, waiting is hard.
When Angie arrives, its like spring after a long cold winter. “So she went for it?” she asked, casting her purse onto my bed as she had done 1,000 times before. “She will.” I said, closing the subject. I was putting on confident airs, but I knew we’d only have a couple of hours until my energy was gone. I wondered if I could even last that long, considering my major accomplishment thus far that week had been showering.
She immediately started rifling through my closet looking for a shirt that would be easy for me to get into. That is the beauty of a best friend, there is no catch up, no pretense, the conversation just picks up where it left off. We hadn’t seen each other in months, although we talked almost every day, and it feels like no time has passed since the last time she rifled through my closet. And here is a mystery I cannot explain: even if breakups or disappointments or even disease has changed us individually, we somehow miraculously change together in the same time and pace, and the singular puzzle pieces that we are instinctively know how to match up in our friendship puzzle. She just walked in the room and somehow we fit again.
“We have a problem, though” I said, lifting my shirt. I showed her the hole underneath my armpit where the drainage tube was removed. The hole was oozing yellow fluid into a gauze pad that I had to change every few hours. The hole itself was not the problem but that 48 hours of ripping off and reapplying tape in the same square over this hole had caused the skin around it to become red, raw and bloody. It was so bloody in fact that I could no longer use tape to secure it to by body, I was just holding gauze squares on it by hand. She gently removed the square and peered into the hole. Angie has always been fascinated with anything medical, she loves blood and open wounds; it’s a sick obsession really.
But even she has her limits. Six months ago when I had my first surgery to remove the melanoma she was fixated on seeing the incision site. Since she had ditched school and driven 8 hours in a blinding snowstorm to be there, I obliged. I warned her that what was once a mole was now a 22-stapled line down my back. They did what they called a ‘football cut’. I was a few centimeters away from needing a skin graft. After examining it she turned to me, her voice high and chirpy, “Oh! It looks!….um…good! Itlooksliketheydidareallygoodjob!!!!!”
Later she told the truth that it looked like Frankenstein himself stapled me up, that she almost lost her lunch looking at it. This time she just squinted her eyes said, “Hmmm, is it supposed to ooze?” “Yes”, I said, “And the more I move around the worse it gets, so we need to paste it up before Norma sees it and declares me unfit to leave the house.” “Got it,” she said. We both looked around the bedroom for inspiration. We measured different lengths of gauze around the hole trying to figure out a way to adhere it to my body without putting tape on the raw bloodied skin. “Lets just stick a tampon in there and call it a day,” I joked. She laughed and then said “Oh!” She walked away and then came out of the bathroom with the biggest maxi pad I had ever seen. “Done”, she declared. And just to show cancer who’s boss, she took a picture of her handiwork.;
After an Oscar winning performance to my mother with promises to eat close by and come back when I got tired, we made it out the door. At dinner we ate ahi tuna sandwiches and caught up on the last semester. I had to drop French because I had gotten so far behind with my last surgery. She had changed majors. We were able to talk around cancer without having to actually talk through it.
About halfway through dessert I think I looked pale because she asked if I was all right. I said I wasn’t. She asked for the check and we paid in a hurry. I tried to keep the conversation going even though the room was spinning and I was feeling more tired by the second. She carried my purse.
As we walked back to her car a weight settled over us. Our conversation trickled to a close, our pace slowed. We sat down in the car seats heavily, like the weight was pushing us down. We didn’t buckle up, she didn’t start the engine.
Maybe it was the terror of change. Maybe it was the weight of feeling helplessly out of control. Maybe it was the sneaking suspicion that the rules of the game were changing: the world was starting to expect more from us. This was an awfully adult problem for kids like us to solve.
I looked out the window at the lazily setting sun. The first few days of summer in a cold climate are really remarkable. It makes you feel like you can do anything. It makes grown men wear short shorts in 65-degree weather. But this was no 65 degrees; this was a true first day of summer. I could smell it. The cobwebs had burned off, the sun was marking her territory for the season.
It made me remember a vacation Angie had taken with my family up to lake Michigan a few summers before. I remembered so vividly one afternoon we decided to swim to a buoyed wooden raft out in the water. We pulled ourselves up and relaxed in the heat of the sun all afternoon. Our conversation flowed seamlessly from heartbreaks to fears, to hysterical laughter, to day dreaming plans. The only indicator of passing time was the sun shifting its place in the sky. We had all the time in the world then.
I wanted so badly when I called her that afternoon for her to come and make things all better as she had often done for me. When I tell her something that troubles me, just speaking it into our common space makes it less scary. When we laugh together the world’s problems seem to melt away. Only this problem wouldn’t be going anywhere and we both knew it. I knew also, that as badly as I wanted her to take this burden away, she was desperate to relieve me of it. But she couldn’t, so we sat.
Defeat must have sunk its teeth into us both because when I turned to look at her, I saw a big tear slip off the end of her nose. Since my diagnosis I had been a pendulum swinging between shock and despair, fear and hope. I hadn’t begun to sort out my own emotions never mind the emotions of others. I had spent so much time wrapping my mind around the concept of leaving this earth that I hadn’t stopped to think about what it would feel like to be the one left behind.
We had both changed since my diagnosis and had done it again, puzzle pieces changing to fit one another. I inched myself closer to her and she clasped my hand, intertwining her fingers with mine. I thought of the millions of times over the years she had taken my hand the same way to pray, to show me something exciting, to comfort. I don’t know how long we sat there like that, foreheads touching, hot tears falling on laps.
A good friend would ask what they could do. A good friend would have said the ‘I love you’s’ and ‘I’ll be here for you’s’. A good friend would say that everything would be ok.
The best friend speaks no desperate words and makes no inflated promises. The best friend knows that her shoulder is the ultimate weight distributer so she moves it closer. The best friend sits like this for as long as it takes, shoulder to shoulder, helping to hold up the burden so that one is not crushed under its weight.