I know, I know…who the heck wants to talk about death. After all, we’re here and alive. Let’s embrace what we have in front of us, right. But life sometimes throws us curveballs. Those of us privileged enough to live a longer life are going to, at some point, have to deal with death. Even in friendship.
In October of 2015, I lost my best friend of 40 years to breast cancer. Sandy had her faults, just like I did, and still do much as I loathe to admit it. But that didn’t matter to either of us.
Sandy and I had been friends since we were 16. Together we’d survived various ages and stages throughout our 4-decades-long friendship, sometimes together, sometimes not so much. We could go months apart—in fact at one point we went a couple of years without connecting to each other because she had moved so far away—but we could always pick up where we had left off and share excitedly of all our experiences.
But it wasn’t all good. We had our challenges. Like when she wouldn’t take my calls for 6 months, without any explanation. Or when she didn’t disclose to me that the cancer she thought was well under control had actually begun to ravage her body.
So…what was present between us that allowed us to weather even the worst of storms? Two words: connection and commitment.
Despite Sandy’s declining health, I confronted her about why she stop calling or taking my calls and why she hadn’t told me about the acceleration of the cancer. “I’ve pulled away from everyone,” she told me, as if that was reason enough, as if that was supposed to appease me. She admitted that it was difficult to talk to people who were phoning and asking about her health because they seemed to expect to hear that things were improving. That she sensed she was bringing them down when she was honest, but when she tried to sound uplifted, these friends sounded hopeful. But all that did to her was feel less supported, so she opted instead to pull away.
Bullsh*t to that!
I want to know what you’re going through. I want to know every little detail, every big or little fear you carry, everything good or bad. I am NOT one of those friends who has suddenly come out of the woodwork to reach out now that I’ve learned you’re dying. After 40 years, you know you have a devoted friend in me, so don’t EVER forget it.
Yup, I played the 40-years-long friendship card. Adamantly and unapologetically, I let her know how I really felt.
“I KNEW you wouldn’t give up on me,” she said, choking it out through uncontrollable sobs.
And so began daily calls between us for the few remaining months she had left. We had always been open to talk about anything, but our talks became more about the fear she was experiencing about her pending demise. She worried about her son and her aging mother, and what they would have to deal with when she died. She was moving back and forth between one belief and another over what would happen when she did transition. She started second-guessing her beliefs, and then third- and forth-guessing them. I remained completely open-minded. I took her cue to be the kind of friend she needed in the moment. But I also stayed true to my own intuition, my own sense of commitment.
One day, I woke up compelled to drive the 3+ hours to her place and spend some time with her. Normally I would call ahead, let her know I was coming. You know the drill when you want to visit someone. You want to be considerate. But this time, I decided to simply show up. I didn’t want her or her stroke-affected mother to fret about food in the house or making up the guest bedroom. I could take care of myself on both fronts.
“I’m here because I think you need me right now and I didn’t want you running around the house getting the place ready for me,” is the practiced answer I gave to Sandy as she stared at me in disbelief when I showed up unannounced at her doorstep.
I was with her for 2 full weeks during that heartrending visit, in service to her. I gave her massages. We talked for hours on end. I did whatever she needed and wanted done.
It would be the last time I would spend real time with Sandy. And though we did speak every day afterward, and we did see each other again when she was in hospital in her last days, that 2 weeks together will forever remain among the best of my 58 years on this planet.
It’s difficult to find the right words that say how much I miss Sandy every day. Some of you can relate. But what keeps me heartened is that our connection lives on within me. What we lived together, what we shared together, how we were there for each other during the most challenging times is what made our friendship so bloody special. Especially as she was facing her own demise. I am a better person for the connection I was privileged to have with Sandy for all those years…notably, the last one.