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The Friend Who Came and Went
Today, I'm sharing an intimate account of a deep friendship forged through a shared diagnosis.
Years ago, I wrote a deeply personal essay about a special friendship.
The essay was published in an anthology and was a runner-up in a contest sponsored by Redbook Magazine (remember that one?).
Years later, I unearthed the essay, and reading it stirred my emotions all over again.
I’m sharing part one here.
We loved each other immediately. It was an unexpected love, as deep as it was sudden. Meeting in our thirties, we were brought together by an illness we shared, an illness that only one of us survived.
A well-meaning woman from the breast cancer support group at the Greenwich YWCA had slipped Shelley my phone number one night, a night when I, unfulfilled, decided not to return to the group.
“Here,” she had said, “call her. She’s young. Like you.”
Maybe it shouldn’t have been true, but as a 34-year-old mother of two toddlers, I felt no bond with the rest of the group, older women who seemed to accept their illness with a resignation that I, in the prime of life and feeling blind-sided by fate, could not begin to summon.
Shelley and I talked on the phone for hours, making a date to meet in person the next night. We were blown away by how much, besides breast cancer, we had in common. We lived about 20 minutes from one another. Her daughter and my oldest son had been born just one month apart. We were both Jewish. We both loved shopping, movies, and eating out. And we were both feeling isolated and alone with our fear.
When we first spotted each other in front of the Boxing Cat Grill, we hugged without self-consciousness, like old friends reunited after a long absence. We sat in the crowded restaurant, deaf to the hubbub around us, lost in our mutual discovery of a soulmate.
Shelley was my drink of water after a long thirst. A great sense of relief coursed through my body.
When I ordered, Shelley told the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having,” and although we both loved eating salmon, brown rice and healthy green salads, our plates sat untouched for hours, our mouths too busy talking to eat, the steam from our food long dissolved into the vapor of our chitchat.
We liked so many of the same things. We were both crazy about long dangling earrings, cowboy boots and sunglasses in all shapes and colors. We both loved coffee frozen yogurt, snacking on sunflower seeds between meals and bagels with their middles gouged out. We both sighed over George Clooney, Angelina Jolie’s lips, and Alice Hoffman’s books.
And after sharing the most intimate details about our childhoods, our families, and our careers, how comforting it was to realize that there was no need for me to explain why, since my diagnosis, I’d awaken in the middle of the night paralyzed with dread, my head throbbing with unanswerable “what-ifs”: What if the cancer comes back, What if my children have to grow up without a mother, What if the pain is unbearable. Nor did Shelley have to explain why, weeks before each visit to her oncologist, she’d lose her appetite and drop five pounds.
“Wanna see my scar?” she asked suddenly.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” I answered lightheartedly.
We jumped up from the dinner table, sending the silverware tumbling to the floor, and practically ran to the restrooms in the back of the restaurant.
Giddy from the red wine we’d gulped down on empty stomachs, giggling like schoolgirls, we crowded into a tiny stall. There, we lifted up our shirts, pulled down our bras, and stared at the mirror images of our own mastectomy scars. Shelley had lost her right breast five years earlier; I lost my left just four months before this night, four days before Christmas. The night I’d come home from the hospital, neighborhood carolers gathered below my bedroom window, with no clue that inside, I lay under piles of blankets weeping at the sheer unfairness of life.
Shelley went on staring. Another person might have looked, drawn in her breath, and uttered something like, “Oh…well…it’s not so bad…” and then quickly averted her eyes. But knowing how much we had suffered to get here, we also knew that our scars deserved more than a fleeting glance. Carved deep into our chests to preserve our lives, these emblems of a so-far-successful battle against a terrible adversary bound us together. At that moment, we were not only looking at one another’s scars; we were looking into one another’s hearts.
No one except my husband Alan, the doctors and my mother had seen me naked since the surgery. In fact, even before I could, I had insisted that Alan look at me when I lay in my hospital bed the day after the operation.
I leaned back on the rough pale sheets, giving myself completely to him like the first time we had made love. “Please look,” I said, as I gently pulled the bandages aside. I stared hard into his eyes, searching for some kind of reaction, a response to my changed body. But his expression never changed. After a moment, he moved the bandages back over my wound and re-fastened my hospital gown, then kissed the top of my head reassuringly, without saying a word.
It wasn’t until one week later, in the privacy of my bathroom at home, that I worked up the nerve to face my naked body in the mirror. I bit my lip and stared, fighting hard not to cry out, and at that moment, I realized that not only had my body been drastically altered, but I had been, too. I was enmeshed in a cacophony of feelings: although I had traded my breast for my survival, I immediately mourned my loss. I would never look –or be –the same again.
Friends, family, counselors – they all tried to help. But no one succeeded in finding the right words. Their pleas that I remain optimistic – focus on the survivors, not the victims! –fell on deaf ears. What did optimism mean in the face of cancer? How randomly the disease struck, how arbitrarily the survivors were chosen, how uncertain the fate of even the “luckiest” of us.
No one seemed to have a clue about the reality of living with cancer –until I met Shelley…
Click here to read part two on Friendship Rules, another Substack publication I write with my friend, psychologist, and co-editor, Irene S. Levine.
Do you have a special friendship story to share? Feel free to scroll down and lea leave a comment below!
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