Alison and Barb hugging

For a person who loves to give and get hugs this social distancing due to COVID-19 has been tough.  I was talking to a friend the other day and said that when this is done I just want to invite all of my friends over and have a giant hug fest. But there’s one person I want to hug more than anyone – my friend Barb.

Barb has cancer. The bad kind.

Its’ been almost a year since her diagnosis and through that time I’ve learned a great deal about being a friend.

The Universe brought us together through our daughters’ shared activity of All-Star Cheer. Our first clue that we were destined to meet was the realization that I had attended high school with her husband and we had many mutual friends.

When you’re an All-Star Cheer mom you spend most weekends throughout the winter travelling to competitions.  Barb and I would share hotel rooms either by ourselves or with other cheer moms.  But the two of us were the early risers and the mornings were our time to drink coffee and have deep conversations about life.  Barb had already had a close call with death due to other health issues and my first-born Connor had died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at 4 months old.  We came from the same working-class background and had similar beliefs about life in general.

Her daughter’s All-Star Cheer career ended when she headed off to college but our friendship remained strong although we saw less of each other.

And then she received her diagnosis – Stage 3B liver cancer.

I remember just a few weeks prior we had been out to dinner with our husbands and she mentioned that she had been losing weight.  She chalked it up to stress due to new job responsibilities and her son starting active duty for the USAF as a 2nd Lieutenant for Pilot Training in Texas.

When she told me the news and we had our first “serious” conversation I didn’t have the right words yet.  Barb’s my only friend to have been diagnosed with cancer. So, I merely listened.  And then I hung up the phone and broke down crying.  I cried for many days.  This in and of itself was a strange experience for me.  When Connor died, I cried so much I didn’t think I had any tears left in my body.  And, in a way, it made me numb towards death.  Since then I have lost my father, my wonderful Uncle and several other people but few tears came. But Barb was different and it broke down a wall in me that I thought would be up forever.  My friend isn’t supposed to die! We have kids and husbands and shared experiences!

I remember after Connor died my peer support counselor told me that I’m allowed to have a pity party but then I need to snap out of it and get back to living.  I knew that Barb needed me to be there for her – I mean really be there for her.  The good, the bad and the ugly.  She immediately decided that she would not turn to Dr. Google to read about her cancer.  Rather she would focus on the task at hand of fighting it.  I intended to roll-up my sleeves and be in her corner of the ring.

Our first tough conversation was me admitting that I felt helpless and wouldn’t always know what to say but that I promised her I would always listen and really hear her. That I would not make false assurances or pretend things weren’t as grave as they were.

It’s not easy sitting with grief and death.  It’s even more difficult to actually discuss it.

Maybe it’s because my son died and through that experience I realized that the last things a person wants to hear are false promises of hope or platitudes. The person who is ill or grieving just ends up feeling as if they’re not heard or that their feelings are irrelevant.

Grief and facing one’s mortality can be an isolating experience.  Death makes most people extremely uncomfortable so by not talking about it we can pretend it’s not real.  As the saying goes, “Denial is not a river in Egypt

But there’s a difference between denial and optimism just as there’s a difference between negativity and pragmatism.

The type of chemo Barb went through required her to come home with an IV for 48 hours every other week.  Prior to the start of that she was in and out of the hospital at least seven times over the course of two months.  She was exhausted and scared. When her chemo started she asked if I could sit with her on the days when she had her IV. She wouldn’t be able to do anything and because of terrible neuropathy she couldn’t touch or be exposed to anything cold.  Even a cold drink was too painful. She would also be too weak to get up from the couch. As a person who had been a caregiver all her life it was, at first, hard for Barb to accept care.  Being cared for creates a level of vulnerability that leaves the person almost raw. For me, however, being the caregiver was an honor.

And so began a new journey in our friendship that strengthened every other Thursday. Every visit was different.  Sometimes she was so weak she couldn’t speak and so I would simply sit there next to her.  Other times she had strength and we would talk about everything from what was new on Netflix to what our kids were up to.  Out of the blue one day she said she felt like a burger so we ordered up a meal from McDonalds on Uber Eats. And yes, there were those times when we cried together and she shared with me her deepest fears.

We talked about death in a very real, honest way. About the randomness of life and death and that none of us know what tomorrow will bring.  She has discussed with me end-of-life plans in which I listen and respect her wishes.

As her chemo progressed and her numbers improved we began to tentatively talk about plans for the future, just not too far into the future. Yes, we’ve cried together but we’ve also laughed together. We went to a restaurant and celebrated her digging into a big plate of mashed potatoes and gravy. We share stories about how our husbands are wonderful and exasperating.

Because of COVID-19 it’s been far too long since I’ve seen her in person. We’ve done Facetime calls and Zoom double dates but I miss seeing her in person. The other day she said that the support of her family is wonderful, but she misses her friends.

This is the hug I so desperately want to give.

The hugs aren’t just about comforting her, they’re also about giving me the assurance that she’s still here. It’s about acknowledging that we’re still in this fight together.

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