No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. – C.S. Lewis
I have a friend who is dying from cancer and I don’t know how to tell her goodbye.
Backstory: We met over 10 years ago, she a roommate of a temporary friend of mine. I invited her to my wedding in 2010 and she brought her new roommate, whom I also became very good friends with. I lived on their couch for a few months for a job, we bonded over growing up with horses in NJ, and she eventually moved to Boston. We haven’t had an actual conversation in years, but thanks to Facebook, we have followed each others lives, every once in a while commenting and liking various posts and photos. On one of my anniversaries I posted a picture of us dancing at my wedding, her hair flowing, our dresses spinning, and our smiles wide.
Five months after my wedding, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage 3. She did a ton of treatments for a year and a half. For a while things were looking pretty manageable. Then less than a year after going into remission, the breast cancer upgraded to stage 4, code for terminal, and they found it had spread to her lung, liver, spine, lymph node and, eventually, her brain. Her second go prompted her blog, Words from Ward Four (I can only aspire to be as great a writer as she), allowing those who were far away access to the intimate details of living with cancer while keeping her life going, such as choosing not to have children despite her wanting them, keeping her body healthy with horseback riding and rock-climbing, breaking with her boyfriend, only to find her true love husband, everything that came from life with a side of impending death.
Her body has started to fail for the last several months, unable to keep up with her incredible spirit, with the last month or two being the worst. I’m talking no longer being able to walk without a cane and bleeding pints of blood out of her gums in a single night. Her doctors told her after her latest episode in September that she has weeks, at most months, to live. Reading this statement was a kick to my heart, especially as I had just earlier that day gone through her first few blog posts from 2013, and she had written if she was lucky (and she almost always is), she would have 10-15 years left. And that had been downgraded to 5 years within a few months of that post.
But like I said, amongst all the pain, sorrow, and years of plans being derailed, my friend managed to find and marry the love of her life. Recently, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary, so I went onto her Facebook page to wish her well and ended up sitting for 10 minutes, trying to see the computer screen through my tears while coming up with anything to write.
What is so difficult about saying “Happy Anniversary”? Nothing; it’s the sentence that comes after that stopped me dead. All the usual clichés don’t work. “Here’s to the first of many” “They say the first is the easiest” “Wishing you many happy years in the future” None of them work. Because there won’t be any more years. There will be weeks if they are lucky (and don’t forget, she is very lucky). They will not live their long lives together; they will be planning a funeral. They will not have hard years or worry about the threat of divorce; they will love with fiery passion until the end.
And here I sit on my end of the computer, staring at my friend’s photos, feeling helpless and wishing I could gather the courage to call her. But just thinking about saying hello makes me cry uncontrollably because I know hello is actually goodbye. And every day I let go by could be my last chance. But I still cannot pick up that fucking phone.
I don’t know how to express my sorrow that my friend is going to die soon. I know I haven’t dealt with it, probably because I don’t like death. I am all for the natural cycle of things; you are born, you live, you die and replenish the earth. But I don’t like not knowing if there is anything after. I don’t believe there is a heaven or hell, although I certainly wouldn’t mind if it was what the Robin Williams film What Dreams May Come described; you get to create your own heaven. I don’t want a vast blackness for eternity. It saddens me to think our time on Earth is all there is. But these ideas are ever unknowable. If “the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take”, that helps those who must travel that path; those left here on Earth still have to remember and grieve. They don’t help me with is dealing with the pain of my friend dying.
It’s not fair that a woman barely out of her twenties won’t have years ahead of her, that someone who teaches others and leads a healthy life will be struck with the cruelty of an early curtain call. And as someone who, statistically speaking will have those years, I am used to thinking about and speaking of the future as a guarantee. I have to, as plans today become the actions of tomorrow. But to speak with someone who has no tomorrow, it appears I cannot. I’m afraid of saying something wrong or stupid. I don’t know how to get through the thought of seeing her without breaking down in tears, let alone actually seeing her in person. And I know I cannot put the burden of my pain onto her. I have tried penning letters, but once again I find myself blubbering and unsure of what to say other than I’m sorry. I’m sorry random happenstance will allow me to live for years beyond you. I’m sorry our friendship has deteriorated into a purely social media connection. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there in the hospital with you, to be a shoulder to cry on like we did years ago. I’m sorry I’m such a selfish prat for complaining that I can’t talk to someone without crying. I’m sorry you have felt so much pain. I’m sorry I haven’t dealt with this before now. I’m sorry I won’t call you before you die.
And I know I won’t. I can’t. I honestly don’t think I have the courage. I can’t even write these paragraphs without my cries breaking through my throat, forcing me to stop writing to sob into tissue after tissue. And I hate it. I hate feeling so much, feeling this sadness over and over, knowing I’m the kind of person who cries easily and from now on when I think of her, I will always tear up. Knowing that even if I had the courage to pick up the phone, all she would hear would be my heart breaking, my shame crying out that I know this isn’t about me, and how I wish I could fix this and how I don’t want to see her beautiful life end.
So here I find myself, trying to stifle my sobs so as not to wake the baby as memories of my friend and I flicker through my mind. I desperately want to give her support and a hug and hope that her afterlife is full of horseback riding, chocolate, and an amazing climbing wall. But I don’t have the words or the emotional control to do it. So I guess this is my goodbye; the emotional mess that is me amongst my inability to express myself.
It doesn’t feel like enough, but I think it’s all my heart can take right now. Maybe if I’m lucky, I will find the strength to hold my shit together long enough to tell my friend that I love her before she dies. But I doubt it.