Learning to Savor the Moment

It has been seven years since I lost my best friend to cancer at the age of 48. We had been best friends for 35 years. We even shared the same name. Over the years, we would often laugh and say we had been to hell and back together so many times that we’d carved our own road. Since that time, I have been to hell again without her, and am still struggling to find my way back.

During our younger years, I suppose we always took these attributes as simply a part of the wonderful bond we had. Because we both married and had children at an young age, our lives held common joys and fears. We laughed and cried together, played our guitars, wrote poetry and turned it into lyrics and taught each other new songs we had learned. As we got older and life became more complicated, we enjoyed just being together, doing yard work or house work, watching our kids from a porch swing, listening to popular music.

We met for lunch when we could find precious little time to enjoy our friendship. Even though both of us had supportive extended families, we often found that it was easier to reveal our greatest fears and disappointments to each other. It seemed to us that our families had a pressing need for us appear strong, and we were. In truth, we helped each other stand strong.

My best friend allowed me to lean on her at my weakest moments, and I accorded her the same strength. In this same way, I found that we often delighted in the successes and achievements of each other. There was never any jealousy if one of us was going through a rough time when the other was doing quite well. Our lives sometimes found us on different paths, yet we always stood ready to be there for each other.

I imagined that I had conquered my demons during early adulthood. I rose from the ashes of my own poor choices and struggled through a four-year university in three years. During this time, I worked and raised two children as a single parent. Sometimes, we would spend the night with her and her children. I would get up and go to work just as her husband was coming home from the night shift. I had faith that if I kept on the right track, that those days of poverty and loneliness would be behind me. She encouraged me to believe in myself.

Years passed. One day, I went to see my friends new baby and one of her husbands co-workers was there. When she and I were alone, she saw a chance at match-making and suggested we have a meal together. Unknowingly, my best friend had introduced me to my future husband. Before long, we married and soon welcomed two more children to our family. Our friendship became even closer. For years, our families spent a lot of time together. There were cook-outs and trips to the lake for a picnic or camping. Together, we watched the fireworks on the Fourth of July or took our kids to the Christmas Parade.

I was aware that what goes on behind closed doors is often quite different from what is seen in public. I remembered the many times that my friends marriage had drifted from periods of relative happiness to insecurity and even fear. She wanted her marriage to work, her kids to have a father. Her faith told her to hang on, and she did.

Life sometimes throws us a curve when we least expect it. My beautiful best friend learned at the age of 33 that she had an advanced stage of cancer. The stress of the disease was the final blow to her marriage. As she fought for her life, her marriage came to an end. It was then that I became aware of the truly amazing inner strength that my friend possessed.

Over the years as she struggled with illness and heartbreak, I saw in her, an ability to look straight into the face of her deepest fears, even when her future seemed hopeless. Especially during the 15 years that my friend battled cancer, her strength and determination left me in awe.

I remember helping her pack a suitcase with soft pantsuits and warm socks for her impending months of tests and treatment at a hospital hundreds of miles away. As I saw her visibly shaking in fear, she would sometime laugh at the irony of packing for this hospital stay instead of wrapping presents to put under the Christmas tree. The doctors told her there was no time to waste, and a few days before Christmas, she and her mother made the trip to the specialty hospital.

It was February before she came home from the treatments, Her Christmas tree was still up, she was determined that her kids would have Christmas with their mother. During her time away, I had sent her “care packages”. There were rolls of quarters for vending machines, cuddly stuffed animals and countless cards of encouragement. I helped care for her children many times when she was away.

When I first walked into her house after her return home, I didn’t know what to expect, Would her long, luscious, wavy dark hair be gone, would she be pale and hopeless? I was probably as concerned about my reaction as she was about seeing me again. When I walked in to see her Christmas tree flashing multicolored light on beautifully wrapped packages, I was at once, relieved. I carefully looked over at her as she lay on the couch and saw that, miraculously, her hair was still there. The radical treatment she had been given was not chemotherapy. It was, however, a treatment that would later cause another type of cancer.

As I saw her joy at being home, her determination that neither she or her children would be robbed of their Christmas, I began to see a strength in her that continued to be a source of awe as she fought battle after battle with both disease and other issues. When she was able to return to work, she would go when I know she wasn’t able. She would struggle through financial difficulty, family issues and everyday difficulties with a faith and determination that everyone around her admired.

She tried to live life to its fullest, always with the knowledge that the cancer would return or that her immune system had been compromised by the treatment. She found a new relationship, and dreamed about a future. Perhaps it was a trip to look at land where they hoped to build a cabin, or a new amethyst ring from her beau that made her glow. She would go out on dates, dressing up in deep colors that brought out the bounce in her hair and the sparkle in her soft brown eyes. It was hard to see the relationship with her boyfriend in the same light as she did, but I upheld her, knowing that her need to live, to thrive, depended on finding some sense of normal in her life.

Sadly, it seemed that every few years she would become ill and end up in the hospital. I sat beside her and braiding her hair as she lay quietly in her bed, IV’s in both arms. There were times, when she was too sick to respond to my voice with more than a smile. She would question the medical staff as to why they were unable to figure out exactly what was wrong. I am sure that she knew, just as they knew, that it all came back to the cancer and the treatments she endured to save her life.

When she was well, we planted strawberries in her yard in the shape of a heart, cooked spaghetti, visited friends, and watched our children play. Again, after a period of hospitalization and more cancer surgery, she endured the end of another long term relationship. She focused of living, she drew close to her faith, and once again she got well-for a while.

During this time, my life was at one of its most fulfilling times. My husband had been able to transfer to a better job with daytime hours. We had welcomed two more children into the world and I had been able to stay home with them most of the time. When opportunities came, I worked in their schools as an assistant, a substitute teacher and a volunteer, still able to put my children first.

In time, she found another man, whom she eventually married. To those of us who loved her, we could not see the relationship in a positive light. She wanted a dream wedding, a man who loved her as well as her children and grandchildren. Naturally, we all felt that if anyone deserved to have that dream, to be that miracle, it was her.

Only a few months after their marriage, she found out that the cancer had returned. She was told that it was likely caused by the radiation treatments she had endured 15 years ago. The doctors gave her months to live. She insisted on having chemotherapy, and it seemed to be working. This time, she lost some of her beautiful hair, but the doctors were surprised, that she didn’t loose more. In six months, the cancer had again receded. She was deliriously happy, and once again, she felt that a miracle had occurred. Sadly, four months later, just as her hair began to thicken again, test results showed that the cancer had returned. They gave her two months to live-she made it six months.

It had become obvious that her marriage was not what she had hoped.. Her husband did not like for her family and friends to visit. He would leave her alone rather than let those who loved her be near her. He took her to a Bible study meeting nearly every night when she was too sick to even sit up. Nothing seemed to shatter her faith. On occasion, I accompanied her to her last series of chemotherapy that summer.

In August, she met me for lunch and showed me a trunk full of Christmas presents she had bought for her family. She bought a tray overloaded with much more than a healthy person could eat, because she knew that soon, she would be unable to eat at all. She would insist we come to see her in spite of her husbands wishes. After a week in the hospital, she asked me to visit her. She made popcorn for me as she ate a small sandwich. Just out of the hospital and so nauseas she could barely move around the house, she insisted on sitting in a recliner to watch a movie with me.. It was her favorite movie, “The Princess Diaries”.

In early October, “The Princess Diaries II” came on at the theater. Her friends were told, not asked, to take her there. We had to hold her up as we walked from the car to the theater. She insisted on posing for pictures with all of us individually and in groups, including her two daughters. It was a glorious autumn day, but she was dressed in a red stocking cap to cover her bald head accented by a heavy sweater and scarf. She would tell us that she was “so cold”. As we took turns posing and taking pictures on a bench inside the theater lobby, she would look at us and demand that we “Stop looking so sad!” “We’re here to have fun,” she’d say. “Smile.”

She entered hospice in October, mainly so that her friends and family would have access to her. She had been going to have fluid pumped out of her abdomen every few weeks for months and continued to do so during her first month at hospice. She would ask her oldest daughter and me to roll her wheelchair around the grounds so that she could see the beautiful fall leaves. When I visited she liked to have me roll her wheelchair out to the patio and enjoy the autumn breeze. Smiling, she would tell me how beautiful it was and how autumn had always been her favorite season.

She posed with her sisters and me by a piano in the hospice “family room”. Always smiling, she would make us laugh as her sister rubbed the stubby fuzz on her bald head and said, “You need a haircut.” While in hospice, my friend planned a shower for her daughter, whose young family was moving into the home where she was raised. The long hours she had worked as she fought the cancer had enabled her to fulfill her last wish for her daughter. It was difficult to remain stoic as she was wheeled in to the shower. Her pale face was aglow as she watched her daughter open gifts in this room filled with people who loved her.

Her family was always there, she would radiate with joy when she was with them. I went to see her nearly every day. She would ask about my family, what we’d been doing. When my car had broken down and I couldn’t go see her, she was worried about me , telling me how sorry she was that I was having a hard time. On rare occasion, she would whisper softly, “I feel so miserable.” She would look away, hiding tears, as I would scoot the IV wiring out of the way so I could sit and hold her hand. She would ask if I was comfortable. I continued to be amazed at her ability to think of others when she knew she was dying.

In early November, her sisters sneaked in to her room in the middle of the night and put up a huge beautiful Christmas tree with the presents she had wrapped and made cards for, all while laying in a hospice bed. I watched her strain to sit up enough to write, her lettering, shaky and broken. I had to turn away when I saw that there were even presents for me and my children. I brought decals with a Christmas theme to put on her windows. She was thrilled. When she would say, “Its not Christmas yet.”, her sisters would tell her, “Well, we are going to start celebrating a little bit early this year.”

Her son, who was in the military came in a few days early and was able to have a meal with them family, provided by the hospice cafeteria. She was wheeled to an outdoor patio for family pictures, smiling that beautiful smile in every one of them. When she could no longer eat, she begged her mother to bring her the juice from the delicious home cooked green beans she remembered. She wanted to savor the taste of them one more time. Only a few days later, she was unable to even do that. Her sister, a nurse, had to put a tube into her stomach to keep her from throwing up bile.

Through all of this, she was thinking of others, refusing to let us be sad or depressed. I truly believe that she felt she would be “God’s miracle” right up until her last few days. After a meal with my big family on Thanksgiving Day, I went to see my best friend for the last time. I had spoken to her the day before her death. She was in and out of consciousness during the night and morning hours. I was in the waiting room with her youngest daughter and a college friend when her oldest sister came in and softly whispered, “She’s gone.”

Her oldest daughter told us though tears, as we held hands and prayed around her bed, that the last words she heard from her mother were, “I’m happy.” Her sisters invited me to help them prepare her body for the funeral. She wore her wedding dress and we carefully fixed her wig with baby’s breath streaming down the sides, just as it had been in her “dream wedding” only 18 months earlier. Her last request was that we wear bright happy colors to her funeral. “No black and I mean it.” She had ordered. I wore a pink blouse with a rose at the side. I must admit, it has been hard to wear it again.

My daughter handled her chosen music from a stand in the balcony. I sat with my daughters and some of my friends family beside me. All of us were wiping tears from our cheeks. It was surreal. The haunting sound of my friends favorite song echoed through the church. “In the arms of the angels, may you find some kind of comfort here,” Her father played in a country/gospel band, all of the girls had beautiful voices and were talented musician in their own right. I see her, imagine hearing her sing that song even now.

Only a few short years after her death, I was faced with rebuilding my life for a second time. Without my best friends’ encouragement and fearless optimism, I have failed to uphold her boundless determination to not simply live, but to savor every minute of life that we are given. I have seen that my weakness in the face of adversity has become a great disappointment to my family. They had always seen me as a source of bravery and strength. Though I am proud that I have fought to live through so much, I have not been as brave or strong as I once was. The losses, illnesses and injuries I have faced were a blow to my very being. With everything in my soul, I wish that I could have faced my adversities with the grace and courage that my best friend did.

I lost my 15 year old son very suddenly and became deathly ill from the traumatic stress of his loss. For me, the past five years have been filled with many illnesses, injuries and great pain. My health has been compromised many times. My faith is all but lost. My family and I struggle to hang on to the closeness we shared for so long. Earlier this year, I lost my mother and have seen my fathers insatiable grief, much like my own, nearly destroy him. I struggle everyday to be the mother to my young teen that I was to his siblings. My inability to rise over my grief, pain and loss is a daily hurdle.

But this story isn’t about me. It is about a woman who stood by me through the worst of times, both mine and her own. As I try to regain the essence of life that I have lost over these years, I am reminded of a woman who was not only the best friend I could ever imagine, but an inspiration to me through every thing I do. I can only hope that one day, I can be half as brave as she was, bring half the smiles that she did, be half as selfless, strong and beautiful as she was. It is with this hope that I face each day, trying to savor the moments with my children, grandchildren, my family. I want to live to honor my son and my mother by letting them see me smile again and mean it.

I try to remember her wisdom, “It’s not whether we win or loose, but how we play the game that counts.” She was, without doubt, a winner.

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