I sit on my living room floor, lean my head back against my green couch and try to focus. Squint-eyed, I gaze up in awe at Katy, who sits above me and holds my cell phone like a bolt of lightning while she effortlessly dials Comcast. I think she might be a superhero.
I have been Internet and TV-less since Comcast cut me off two days ago. They had left me half a dozen messages. "Hello, this is Comcast calling. Please return our call at 1-800-COMCAST," said the customer service representative in a sweet and high-pitched tone. But then her voice dropped perilously, "This is not a sales call."
In the middle of a horrid few days of near blackouts, calling Comcast was not a possibility. But as soon as Katy walked in, she offered to sort it.
As she victoriously puts my phone down, I feel a potent mix of relief and gratefulness well up in my chest. And I can't help but wonder, "Why is she still friends with me?"
When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 32, more than six years ago, this was not how I pictured our friendship "growing" after cancer. Before I started chemo, I imagined Katy and I taking leisurely early spring walks along a beach. As if recovering from a cold, I would be bundled up in a large checkered scarf and a woolen hat. Katy would wear a cotton cardigan.
Meandering through the sand, we would swap talk of our usual, day-to-day dramas for the weightier topics. "Life lessons" and "philosophies of living" and other Tuesdays with Morrie insights would dominate our discourse. I would be wise. Katy would be eager.
There have been no walks along the beach. No enlightened teachings. No radically different life philosophies touted. Instead, Katy has received lists of tasks to complete, tasks that are sometimes physically beyond me. Call Dr. Milano's office. Pick up prescriptions. Look for juicer.
As well as my friends' willingness to be my chore whores, what I prize most about my friends is their ability to:
Fetch and forget. When you're stuck in your bed unable to do things for yourself, such as grab some Ensure from the fridge or remove a blanket, you have to alert your family and friends for help. My way of getting my friend Jeremy's attention, when he was out in the living room, was to throw a tennis ball against my bedroom wall. Jeremy would hear the thump and scamper in. One evening, when my friend Ruth was at my bedside and I was wired on steroids, I decided to show her how the system worked. I threw the tennis ball and Jeremy promptly came into the bedroom. "You called?" he said. "Oh, yeah, but I don't need anything," I responded matter-of-factly. "I was just showing Ruth our system." The fact that he didn't hurl the tennis ball at my head is remarkable. And that he still considers me a friend is testament to his power to forget.
Escape with me. In the early days of treatment, escapism meant spending hours with my friends watching Arrested Development and reading aloud from Matt Groening's The Big Book of Hell. We cracked ourselves up. A few months later, however, things got more serious and we shifted to escapism in the literal sense. A case in point was when my friend Carlina and I arrived at the hospital for my routine check between chemo sessions. Placing her fingers on my forehead, the nurse said, "You seem a little warm. I think you should come into this room here while I go get a thermometer." Crestfallen, I knew this meant she would keep me in this hospital room for days. I decided to be the empowered cancer patient I kept reading about. I snuck out of the room, grabbed Carlina (who was sitting outside in the hallway) and buoyantly walked out the big front doors. The best part was Carlina not saying, mid-break out, "Do you really think this is such a good idea?"
Protractedly nod. Listening is indeed an act of love. For me, being able to spill with friends who nod and commiserate makes me feel less separate in my sickness. For my friends, I am sure hearing me say, "It's been a brutal few days," more than a hundred times is crazy-making. But my friends' concerned acceptance of what I'm saying -- over and over -- has kept me from going crazy.
Tell stories about the outside world. My friends' tales of office dalliances, children's cheeky shenanigans and the latest twist in a celebrity scandal have successfully distracted me from the isolation of the sick world for years. Even better has been real life in action, like when my next door neighbor Maureen, or as my sister calls her, my 72-year-old roommate, stood over me as I lay in bed in a semi-hallucinogenic state of pain. "Oh, you poor love," Maureen cooed while softly petting the top of my head. "Now, what do you think of my new red shoes?" She stood back a few feet from my mirror, twirled her ankle and put her hand on her hip. "Aren't they very smart?" she asked, clearly delighted with the purchase. I used my remaining strength to lift up my head a few inches from the pillow. "They're lovely, Maureen. Really, lovely." As my head fell back down, I couldn't help but laugh at this otherworldly distraction.
Hold my hand. In my sickest and darkest hours, nothing feels better than when a friend takes my hand. This simple gesture demonstrates what great friendships can do: "to brush the gray from out your skies and leave them only blue."*
*Edgar Guest poem, "A Friend's Greeting"