(this is for my writing class)
I grew up reading Nancy Drew novels and raking leaves with my best friend. She lived next door to me for as long as I could remember and I never knew a better friend. We spent most of our time outside with the birds, tending lilies and planting dogwoods in the flower beds behind her house. During the rain or cold, we nestled ourselves in front of classic movies – Old Yeller, Anne of Green Gables, and Black Velvet – with oversized mugs of hot chocolate. We were constant companions, my best friend and I, and I never feared asking her a question. She would always answer; she was always present. Reality knocked when she left.
Alice and my mother often found me scaling the tops of various oak trees between our yards. I was scolded, but my nine year old mind could not grasp the fear of falling past the rush of being so high. That was the goal – the highest limb. Getting there wasn’t carefully calculated or deliberated, but spontaneous and focused on getting to the top where I swayed carelessly with the wind. Alice always told me to climb. Mother did not agree, but let me anyway. Alice said to focus on the goal. Like seeds, you may not know what they are in the beginning, but you have to plant them anyway and anticipate buds in spring. She said trying to find the next step in climbing a tree was like making the choice to keep going – it could end up being harder than I expected, but it was a necessary choice and I must press onward.
I entered middle school with the same mentality, but encountered a life of painted, cinderblock walls and rooms with locking doors. To my displeasure, many friendships from elementary school faded. Classes increased in difficulty and homework filled my afternoons. It was here, after bombardment with assignments and grade after grade, that I first encountered the cage that is cancer. I rode home from school in silence with my mother on this particular day in eighth grade, anxious to get Alice’s input on my Silas Marner project for literature class. Waiting at the kitchen table, per usual, was my PB&J sandwich and juice box. Mother stopped me before I could walk to Alice’s to tell me I couldn’t go today. She cried and I was confused. Cancer meant I couldn’t see my best friend. She was gone for a while.
I finished my Silas Marner project alone and made a B, but still didn’t understand cancer. Alice left to stay with her daughter before I was able to see her again. She was gone for two years during which we wrote letters sporadically, but with her treatments there was no way to be certain when another letter would come. It was heartbreaking at first, but I learned to ignore it and simply become numb. I stopped climbing trees and planting flowers while she was away and focused instead on keeping friends and finishing homework.
Over these two years my understanding of cancer evolved into “separation” and “death of friendship.” Alice had not died in a physical sense, but I had lost her. Cancer started to ooze into my life elsewhere. My best school friend freshman year was diagnosed with cancer. Another family friend was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s Lymphoma around the same time. I witnessed more of their battles, but still existed separate and distant. They were gone for lengthy amounts of time for treatment and surgery. Often I went weeks without hearing from them. Neither of these people remained active in my life after their initial diagnosis and treatments, only strengthening my growing hatred of cancer.
Late in my sophomore year of high school, my best friend returned home to her flower gardens. I waved to Alice when I saw her outside, but rarely visited. The fear of separation was real and I couldn’t risk falling apart. Instead, I got into trouble, ran away, and fought with everyone who would argue. My goal in life was to make everyone as upset and confused as I felt. Over time my bitterness and confusion subsided—I visited more often and sometimes simply wrote Alice letters. She frequently told me about losing her husband in one of the wars and her choice to persevere in raising her two children and teaching, regardless of the pain and confusion she felt. Gradually I began to understand separation and the pain of death – of cancer.
Alice left her home for an assisted living facility early in my senior year at the advisement of her eldest daughter, but lived there shortly. After a dreadful fall she was moved to hospice – the cancer had returned more vigorously and spread into her bones. I was too scared to acknowledge her absence once more and her likely death. I sent her cheerful notes every week through her daughters with updates on my collegiate decisions and summer plans, but could not see her. Mother went once and said she looked like death.
My best friend died thirty-six days before my high school graduation. She was eighty-seven years old and spent her last five years battling cancer. I was devastated. Cancer had formally evolved into eternal separation with fear as its terrible sidekick. The numbness I felt at her first departure five years earlier returned with a renewed vigor. I ignored it until I found myself in a foreign country with unfamiliar people – disconnected from everything familiar. Amidst this loneliness I found comfort in the knowledge that life continued, even in the face of such a severance as cancer, death – life did not stop. Moving on need not be immediate, but at my own pace as I could handle it. And moving on did not mean forgetting, but rather remembering and growing.
I have lost many friends and family members to cancer since Alice’s death and death is still a very real separation. Fear, however, is not as gripping. Alice said to focus on the goal, not the fear. Like seeds, you may not know what they are in the beginning, but you have to plant them anyway and anticipate what they will bring. She said trying to find the next step in climbing a tree was like making a choice in life to persevere, even in the face of cancer’s rage and death’s finality – it could end up being harder than expected and perhaps painful, but necessary and, without question, a step worth taking.