Cancer ate my (best) friend(ship)

Photo / Dave Webb

This is the story I’ve been avoiding writing about my best friend, who died last August after 12 years of coping with metastasized colon cancer. It’s something I’d love to talk to her about—especially today, which would have been her 71st birthday—how our friendship slowly evaporated as the cancer took over every bit of her.

Not only because she moved two states away but also because I stopped bringing her my stories of successes and difficulties. I mean, really, did I want to pour my heart out about some minor slight to a woman who’d had every kind of chemotherapy and radiation possible and spent most of her days in ungodly pain, even with the best drugs?

No, I did not.

And she, in return, didn’t want to keep whining (her term) about that unending pain or all the things she’d rather have been doing than being cared for by her nearest and dearest as she slept sometimes up to 20 hours a day. Georgann had good days, when she’d rise and shower, head for the kitchen to cook for her family, one of her favorite activities. Maybe take her daughter and granddaughters shopping. Talk on the phone and listen to the stories of what her favorite people—especially her out-of-state children and grandchildren—were up to.

We both agreed that that’s what best friends do—listen well—along with having to forgive each other a lot. And we did plenty of that, too, for the unasked-for advice or the thoughtless, off-the-cuff quip that was meant to be funny. And God, was my best friend funny.

About the phrase “best friend”—“best” did not mean “only” to Georgann. I would argue (and I suspect so would she) that Georgann had many best friends. At one point, early in our acquaintance-ship, when she was studying at a university in Wales, she said, “If you write to me, I’ll be your best friend.” I did, and so did she, finishing a degree in politics as a 40-something single mum, communicating across the pond on thin blue aerograms that could be sent cheaply between Britain and the U.S. And through those letters, we did become close friends.

Georgann returned to her hometown of Sacramento (and to me) earlier than she planned because her mother died in a car accident. She often said then how grateful she was for our friendship, that I helped her through that difficult time. She returned the favor years later when my husband died at age 48. Each of us had other friends and family who were of great support, but Georgann was the one I could call at 2 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep, when I couldn’t stand crying alone. She was the first person to call me her BFF, that new, younger, hipper acronym. And I was one who babysat the three kids she adopted (again as a single woman in her 40s) and a few years later stood up for her as her “best woman” after she met Ron Turner, the wonderful man who became her second husband.

Georgann and me on her wedding day, 1996

It’s my favorite photo of the two of us on her wedding day—younger, slender, each of us in casual off-white dresses we bought at our favorite midtown shop, both of us with a wreath of dried flowers in our hair, she wearing her mother’s pearls. We are beaming at the camera. That was a good day.

*

One of the things that has hit me since her death is that I’ve not had many close friends who’ve died. I’ve certainly lost friends and relatives, including a husband, but Georgann was a sister to my heart. The only other death (which, fortunately, hasn’t happened and, please God, won’t in my lifetime) I could imagine being as devastating would be that of Donna, my only sister, or my childhood best friend Sue, who feels like a second sister.

I learned decades ago that there are things that make friends, well, friends, thanks to Oxford psychologists Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson who in 1984 published a paper called “The Rules of Friendship.” The six rules cited as most important were that friends should trust and confide in each other; show emotional support; share news of success; strive to make the friend happy; volunteer help in a time of need, and stand up for each other in his or her absence.

We did all of those for each other and more.

After writer/playwright Nora Ephron died in 2012, her friends were shocked. They had no idea how sick she was because she hadn’t wanted them to know. As Jennifer Senior wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” Ephron’s friends were “mourning all those dinners they never had. It’s the dying that does it, always.”

I completely understand this. I’d pay any amount of money for one more dinner out with Georgann, one more evening cruising the aisles at Borders Books. But Borders died, too.

COVID didn’t help, of course, but I can’t blame our lack of regular contact on a pandemic—even if it did send me home to teach journalism and creative writing via a laptop in those early months with little to no support from my college. I had to depend on (hello!) two local female friends, also professors, with more up-to-the-minute tech skills to bail me out. And they did—again and again. I also have to give a great deal of credit to a young friend—a former student who transferred from my program at the community college to the “big school,” the university in our city. I literally couldn’t have done my job without those women. (Thanks, Timi and Rose and Dani!)

It’s also taken me a bit to realize that these friends—who volunteered in my time of need and showed tremendous emotional support—have become among my closest. Whether our relationships will last for many years has yet to be seen, but perhaps I don’t need to do what Georgann suggested, which is to take applications for a new best friend. It’s not a job one can apply for. It happens or it doesn’t, this best friend thing, with one or more people. And it can end, too, not necessarily because of disagreement or abuse or neglect. It can be no one’s fault.

Long before Georgann died, I realized that in so many ways—because of the effects of her illness and massive amounts of opioids she took to try to keep the pain at bay—she was not the BFF she had been.

She, of course, noticed it first, and would say on our increasingly rare, in-person visits and phone calls, “I’m the worst best friend ever.” I’d respond, “Of course, you’re not.” And she wasn’t. Neither did I automatically pick up the phone to ask about the kids or her (since the answer to, “How are you feeling?” was, inevitably, “crappy”) or enthuse over an accomplishment or send her my latest poem.

But, as always, she had a point. It wasn’t the same relationship we’d had when she’d need to download the latest anecdote about a frustration with one of her kids or a disagreement with her husband. Or when I’d need to mull over something I’d said or done to upset a student, or the time a dear friend dumped me, saying that we could no longer be friends without saying why.

“He’s an idiot,” Georgann reassured me and then proceeded over the coming months—as I obsessively tried to figure out what I’d done to drive this friend away—to list the many traits that made me a superb BFF. One was “best to wander a bookstore with.”

I still treasure that.

*

I have regrets, too. I apologize to her now—just toss an “I’m sorry” into the air—for the harsh judgments I sometimes felt it necessary to relay to her about situations in her life. I regret not traveling to Washington state more often to see Georgann where she lived the last decade of her life. I did visit her before she died, staying in the little guest house next door to hers in the small bayside town where she and Ron lived. She loved it there, said she’d have to be taken out of that house feet first… and she damn near was, though she ended up dying at a hospice not far away.

Over the week that I was with Georgann, one day I got to take her, via ferry, across the bay to the cancer center for the last time where she had an infusion of fluids. And though she was sleeping more than 20 hours a day at that point, she rallied, lively and chatty on the ferry, hungry (which she typically wasn’t), she told me at the cancer center. I walked to a nearby restaurant and brought back her requested burger as well as an order of fish and chips for me. When I returned with the containers, she wanted the fish and chips. I set them next to her on a small table and watched her devour two big pieces of halibut and a fair number of chips, which she pronounced “perfect.”

“As good as the ones you ate in Wales?” I teased her.

She looked into space for a bit. “I don’t remember,” she said. “But they sure taste good now.”

That was a good day. Before her body shut down completely. Before, seven weeks later, she became my newest companion spirit, as I call the dead loved ones who linger nearby.

“What do you do with friendships that were, and aren’t any longer?” Jennifer Singer asks in her Atlantic piece. She’s talking about friendships that end because of disagreements or simply growing apart. I’m talking about the ones—the most important ones—that end in death. And I’ve come to realize that Georgann, who was not my longest-lasting or oldest best friend, but “best” in every sense, is teaching me in her absence the answer to that question.

What do you do with friendships that were? If you’re lucky, you continue them with your companion spirits, sending words into the ether, talking and writing to them—even if you don’t know the ZIP code of their new location. Because the Beatles had it right: Love is all there is between BFFs, and forever, thank goodness, is a very long time.

The Little Guest House on Oyster Bay / photo by Jan Haag

About janishaag

Writer, writing teacher, editor
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2 Responses to Cancer ate my (best) friend(ship)

  1. Donna Just says:

    Lovely! And I plan to be around for a long time.

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