On Friendship

(From what I’ve gathered, when bloggers — good god, am I a freakin blogger — return after a long absence, they often feel the need to apologize for the silence. I don’t. For me, writing has always been a process, a way I can think about whatever it is I need to think about at the moment. Sometimes I need to think about having cancer — hence this blog — and sometimes I need to think about class and work — hence my dissertation — and sometimes I need to think about childhood and travel — hence my poetry. I haven’t been thinking about cancer lately, but with the beginning of the new school year it’s starting to slide back into my orbit. So — hi.)

In mid August, I finally got to take a vacation. After almost 5 months of non-stop life with cancer — treatments, doctor’s appointments, exhaustion, body pain — while trying my best to maintain my life outside of cancer (the term “double life” will never mean the same thing to me again), I got to escape. I got a week off chemo, a week off needles, a week off having to think of myself as a cancer patient, a week off trying to squeeze a normal life into the four days a week I’m not too waylaid by treatment to do anything. For a week, I could lie in the sun and do nothing, be nothing, think nothing.

My first destination was Block Island, where my aunt and uncle have a house that overlooks both the island’s vast conservation land and the ocean on three sides. I brought Kate along and the two of us arrived on a slightly windy and rainy day after driving down to the harbor in a squall so intense that we missed the first boat despite leaving Boston 45 minutes early. We took advantage of the weather and borrowed the Jeep, spent the afternoon driving the island and playing tourist. And it wasn’t until we were standing at the old lighthouse, overlooking the Mohegan bluffs (and trying to figure out where exactly the bluffs were, since you can’t really see them from the lighthouse point) that I realized how important this escape was. How this vacation — and in particular, this moment — was the first moment of downtime I experienced in almost five months.

When you’re in treatment, your conception of time and how time should be spent shifts. Broadly, the week gets split into two parts: sick from treatment and not sick from treatment. I’ve learned to pit these two acts against one another — to use one as a break from the other. While I’m sick, I’m flu like and spend most of my time medicating and trying to stay restful. I use this time to watch TV with friends, cook, read, write — all things I enjoy. But the low energy atmosphere drives me insane and, at the end of those three days, I feel almost inhuman. Consequently, when I’m not sick, I frantically try to fit in as much of my “real life” as I can bear — which leads to days like yesterday, when I tutored, rode two horses, did two shifts at my barn, cleaned stalls, climbed for almost 4 hours, and then watched movies with my roommates until three am. And after I’ve spent four days in a row running around as if I were on speed, I can collapse, exhausted, into a hospital bed and get pumped full of poison — which, as it turns out, is an excellent time to sit with your friends playing card games and watching movies. In either mode, I’m exhausted and in pain, but endlessly grateful to be alive.

But that lifestyle refuses real downtime. Unlike my life before cancer (wait, did that even exist?), my brain no longer turns off, my body no longer truly rests. And yet, leaning over the rail with Kate at the imaginary bluffs (“These bluffs were a bluff! What a poetic letdown!”), I forgot I was sick. I wasn’t in lazy treatment mode or frantic alive mode; I just was. For the first time in almost five months, I was just Kiara.

Later that night, Kate and I moved all the furniture in the guesthouse living room to the walls, turned out the lights, and lay on the floor head to head. “I feel like I’m being prepared for something,” she said. “There’s scaffolding being built inside me.” I tilted my head closer to her and shut my eyes. “Yeah, that’s right.” “Like you over the last year. That’s also why you had last summer. Scaffolding.” As she said those words, I cast a net back a year and scanned everything that had happened. Too much, too quickly, too intensely — but not without purpose. The series of weird challenges that started last May fashioned some kind of internal scaffolding that now supports the weight of this weird, dichotomous period of my life. It is that foundation that maintained its structure when March 26th hit and my oncologist told me, over the phone, at 11:30 at night while I was sitting in the Brigham and Women’s ER waiting to go home, “It’s probably recurred.”

I opened my eyes and looked at Kate. To describe her as my best friend misses something, but I don’t think we have the words for what’s missing in English. She once told me that the cementing feature of true friendship is being in the trenches with someone as they go through their most painful and frightening trials. And earlier this week I was reminded of this when I came across the quote “True courage is the ability to face your fears for those you care about, no matter what the cost or how terrified you are.” I know Kate — and all my other true friends — are terrified of me dying, but never once has she or any of them run from or refused that eventuality or my need to explore it, think about it, process it. As I move through these weird double lives — neither of which feels right or comfortable — they support me, hold up my shelter when I can’t, get me to the end of each day and the beginning of the next. They help me remember who I am underneath the mess of everything else — so that I can do the same for them.

“I’ll be here the whole time. You know that, right?” Kate nodded, and I repeated words to her that she has said to me time and time again: “No breaks. No time off.” And right then –and still, now — the comfort inherent in that fact was palpable. The joy of knowing that I can be there for those I love and help them find peace is more important, reassuring, and enduring than any other source of happiness. The chance to be there for those I care about when they need me is both an escape valve from my own life and a reaffirmation of it. I am here — I exist — to be with others.

And now, finally easing toward the end of this chemo cycle (barring good scans in the beginning of October) and yet knowing there are so many more to come, I can sense the reason for this period of time. In the worst way possible (I mean, did I really have to get cancer for this to happen?), I’ve been given the tremendous opportunity to see, over and over again, the shape of friendship and how it brings joy to those who experience it. I think that’s one of the primary reasons we exist, as cliched as it sounds — to love one another. To be grateful that we can love and support one another. And in the same vein, I think one of the few insights into the human condition is that: love each other honestly.

In roughly five weeks, I’ll get the results from my next set of scans. And it’ll be me sitting there, waiting to hear if I can get off chemo or not, but it’ll be me surrounded and supported by the incredible energy my best friends give me, whether they’re with me in the oncology exam room that day or not. And regardless of the outcome of those scans, or any future scans, or any of this weird journey I seem to have stumbled on, I’ll know that the most important fact remains the same — a fact eerily reflected in a fortune I pulled out of a fortune cookie when I was 15 and have kept, taped to the inside of a special wooden box, ever since: “You will always be surrounded by true friends.”

Thank you friends. It has — and will continue to be — an honor and a pleasure.

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