It was classic Ann as she answered the phone. Clear, almost firm. “Hello.”
"Hey Ann, just wanted to touch base on details for lunch today. Are we still on?"
I was back for a few days from my year abroad in Germany, this was my homegoing day— my last chance to hang with my pal.
"Ummmm. Yes. Kerry? There is no good way to say this. I have cancer."
I couldn’t speak for a minute. I hoped she was kidding. We went running on Saturday. I could keep up with her. She was kind of grumpy that day. A little impatient. She postponed the run as long as she could. She shortened from the four or five miles I thought might happen and into the there-and-back to see her mother a mile away. Seriously. I should have known something was wrong.
You think you know cancer because you’ve seen it before. You’ve been friend to someone with cancer before. You don’t know cancer though. You can’t know cancer.
There is only one thing to know about cancer: it is deceptive, and it is never going to show up the same way twice. That is all I’ve ever learned from this devilish disease.
There were days when we cancelled all plans because she felt so bad, and others when she chose to walk instead of drive to the restaurants we habited for lunch-- mostly just to snub her nose at cancer I think. It never mattered what we did--go to a movie, watch a movie at her place, go get our nails painted, have me paint her nails, sit quietly in front of the fire at her place. Our expectations resided only in being together, our focus never on the cancer, but on the life, the joy of living it, sucking every deep breath right out of it.
The joy would be in seeing her, and the cancer always took at backseat to life. Even though we all knew this eventually would mean she would die.
I have a favorite picture of Ann and me, it’s been on my desk for more than a decade. Our golden locks merge together at our ears, smiles as pure and holy as they have ever been. It was at Shelley’s wedding, an event I had to find just the right attire for, not knowing how large or small my baby bump would be by then. I’d ditched my intended date, my marriage crumbling quickly; our friend Sue was a much more perfect companion during that time. It was hard enough to show up at a wedding. My lungs and world had collapsed that week, yet next to this dear friend, my joy emanated from within. That felt like life or death to me, and looking back, I see it very much was, in a very different way. In a way I had to choose the silver lining every day, and with Ann as my friend she relentlessly coached me to look for the silver instead of that storm cloud of gray. That was just one time I chose life in her presence, and there are about a million more tiny choices to love the life I’ve been given that she has taught me in this rich deep friendship.
I picked that photo up from my writing desk before I left town to return to Germany the day of her diagnosis. I trembled and wept just looking at it. I see how many lives and deaths we’ve been through since that photo was taken, and I know now the only thing I need to: we will survive this next one, too. We will find our way into what is next even though she is physically not here.
I can’t even remember what I said that afternoon she was diagnosed, enough to tell her I was dumbfounded that she had cancer again, and that I loved her perhaps more deeply and differently than I did any other friend in my life. I told her I would see her soon.
I found ways to come home repeatedly that year, to hug my friend, to listen to her laugh, to try to make her laugh more. Even though she never really wanted to hear it, I told her what she meant to me and that I would miss her when she was gone. I told her how grateful I was to have her in my life.
We didn’t have lunch alone that day. A cancer diagnosis brings with it the tribe, one that brings to it the balance of humor found in the gap of 14 hours of knowing our new reality, one that can fill the voids with medical data and ask the necessary questions about when I am coming back and how I want to interact with the group while I am gone. The tribe that will go for cake and coffee long after lunch is over, that will hold hands in the street, all five of us in different mixes. This band who has carried me through every life and death I’ve had since I was 22, and who will gather time and again in the future to ensure we keep doing these things, keep being the lungs for one another when the collapse comes too soon or too unexpectedly.
Ann died a month ago. She left us too soon, but having taught us so richly how to care for one another.
Her service was last Sunday. You can watch it here: http://www.transparentworks.com/portfolio/ann-st-johns-memorial-service/ (my comments at 3:18) Her tribe gathered, we were 500 strong, and we will carry her legacy forward, each of us in our time and in our own way— this arc of unending friendship.