The Love Verb
We were clustered round a small table at the back of the brightly lit sushi restaurant, my three closest girlfriends and I, all of them meeting for the first time two days before my wedding.
Heidi and Dani were first to arrive, the two of them seeing in each other an instant recognition, a spark of friendship, both of them chattering in a frenzy when they discovered they once lived in the same neighborhood in New York, at the same time. They might have shared friends, might have been friends, were thrilled that today seemed to mark the beginning of something new.
Next arrived Jennifer, my newest friend, who knew Heidi—we shared snow days together sitting around my kitchen table drinking tea as our eldest sons built fires—and had spoken to Dani many times on the phone to plan a surprise gift for me.
It was a beautiful necklace, with a tiny charm of a temple. I fell in love with it instantly, and guessed that Heidi was behind the idea, Dani chose the charm, and Jennifer the stones. I was right.
They had written a group note, telling me they loved me, wishing me all the wonderful things you wish your girlfriends when they are lucky enough to find love the second time around.
It was signed "The Goddess Posse," and indeed, looking around the table at these women who were so important to me, they were goddesses. Each beautiful, wise, supportive and strong. Each like family.
Two weeks later, on a night I couldn't sleep, I checked my emails. At 2 A.M., I read that Heidi had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. She had found out the day after our lunch, after an MRI showed that the back pain she had been complaining of for three or four months was not a pulled muscle, or a trapped nerve, but tumors.
All over her spine.
Weekly doses of chemotherapy ensued. She called it chemoto, because it sounded like lunch at a trendy Japanese restaurant, and surrounded herself with friends. We brought chocolates and cookies, and tried to get the private room, because there was too much laughter, too much noise, too much energy for so many of the patients in the main ward.
When her hair started falling out, she had a hair-cutting party. We sat around her kitchen counter drinking champagne at ten in the morning, as we pretended that this was fun, exciting, something we were jealous of, cutting off our long locks, cooling off for summer.
"Is she famous?" others in the hospital whispered, watching Heidi, gorgeous with her newly acquired long blonde wig, her permanent smile, her glamorous friends. When new patients had questions, the nurses sent them in to talk to Heidi—her optimism, her spirit and her joie de vivre were the greatest mood enhancers they could offer.
She was going to be fine, she told us, the girls she referred to as "Heidi's Angels." She was going to fight it and win. She had a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old. What choice did she have?
But Stage IV Cancer? I worried to myself at night, back home. How do you win against Stage IV Cancer?
Those nights I went to sleep quickly, early, then woke up once the children were asleep, the house dark and quiet, and would reach beside me for my computer on the floor, learning everything I could, attempting to find hope in others' survivor stories.
I lurked guiltily on the breast cancer message boards. Heidi was on there too, able to reveal her true feelings amongst anonymous women going through the same thing. She revealed herself in a way she couldn't to us, the friends she was trying to protect: "I'm not ready for this," she wrote.
Reading about the links between cancer and animal products, I announced, one day, we were all going vegan, my family and hers. I stocked my bookshelves with vegan cookbooks, and made her tofu quiches, chickpea curries, spinach and quinoa kofta.
And in doing all of these things, in bringing her banana and Metamucil protein smoothies every day, holding the straw to her lips, guiding her gently from the bed to the wheelchair, I had become a different kind of friend.
I love my friends, and I lazily assumed they knew this. With a husband, a blended family of six children, a busy and chaotic life, I just didn't know how important it was to show them.
Faced with this awesome responsibility, came a profound and permanent shift in my understanding of friendship, and the sacred duty required of those few chosen friends allowed in to our innermost circle. Every day was weighed down with sadness, some nights so heavy I could do little other than sit, on my bed, staring blankly into space, too tired to even get up and go to the bathroom.
Yet amongst the weight of this grief, the tragedy of watching a vibrant 43-year-old woman, with two small children, disappear, I found the gift of perspective; a new approach to friendship. And life. I phoned other friends, told them I loved them. I meant it. They heard the difference.
Heidi went away for the summer, but came back early with debilitating headaches, and straight into the hospital, where her angels met her, all of us relieved to have her back home where we could look after her.
I opened the door of her room on the 6th floor, the cancer ward, and swallowed my shock. She was half the size—tiny, pale, and frail, her eyes and teeth suddenly huge in her face. The long silken wig was gone, just peach fuzz on her head.
And the light in her eyes had disappeared.
Every day, all day, doctors and nurses came to see her. Oncologists, neurologists, nurses, physical therapists. By this time, we knew her medication better than she did. When the doctors asked the questions, they would look to us for the answers.
Two lumbar punctures later, the diagnosis was made. Leptomeningeal Carcinomatosis. A rare by-product of the cancer: a diffused tumor in the cerebrospinal fluid.
She moved to Memorial Sloan Kettering. The team of doctors, almost young enough to be our children, surrounded her bed, sorrow on their faces as they talked, in matter-of-fact terms, about the treatment.
"When you say palliative," I said carefully, wondering if I had in fact misheard, for the word just appeared in the midst of one of their sentences, fluidly rolling into the next fact, as if it were just…a word. "You mean, there isn't a cure? This is about comfort?"
She might have a year, they said, if the radiotherapy worked.
And if it didn't? We asked, Heidi's Angels, her advocates, asking the questions no-one wanted to ask.
Six to eight weeks.
She came back home, and I did what I always do when I am lost: I cooked for her, pouring my love for her, for her family, into the food.
It was six to eight weeks.
When I curled up into her to say goodbye, tears leaking onto her shoulder, I held her and told her how little I had known about friendship before this. She knew I loved her, but not how much she had taught me about what it means to be a friend, how much she had changed my life.
Heidi's death was an insurmountable loss. It was senseless and tragic, and the only thing I could possibly have done to honor her, is to learn from it, to have woken up to what it means to be a friend.
Eight months on, I think about Heidi every day. Not all day, as I did for months, but parts of each day, and I think about my other friends. I phone them, meet them for lunch, leave them messages and make time for them, appreciate them, show them how much they mean to me, in a way I didn't know how to do, before Heidi died.
Excerpted from Promises to Keep by Jane Green (Viking) © 2010