A stranger stabs you in the front; a friend stabs you in the back; a boyfriend stabs you in the heart, but best friends only poke each other with straws.
In July of last year, my friend Carmen and I were scheduled to take a trip to Canada. It was a literary retreat where we would have an opportunity to meet other nerdy women who loved to read, meet the authors and do some sight-seeing. Carmen was always on the move. So, when she told me two days before that she was going to cancel, I knew that something was wrong. She had been sick on and off and had been to the Emergency Room a few times, but the doctors told her she had fibroids and needed to see a physician about surgery.
So, I went to Canada alone. But I was worried. Carmen had an exceptionally high tolerance for pain so the fact that she was complaining made me think something serious was going on. I kept calling her from Canada and she told me to stop calling her. I told her she couldn’t tell me what to do. She told me she was having surgery on Monday. I was due back on Monday. She was in the hospital and my sister had taken my mother to the ER twice in the few days that I was gone. I felt helpless, but there was nothing I could do.
When I got home Monday, I received a text from Carmen’s sister. Carmen had an advanced stage cancer even though she had, had a biopsy in late May or early June and tested negative. How could this happen? The next day I went to the hospital, and I was there when the ventilator was removed, but I was gone by the time the doctors gave her, diagnosis. She teased me that she was surprised that I had held it in because I was such a girl—her time for anyone that cried.
I was scared for my friend, but I thought if there is anyone that can bounce back from this it was Carmen. In the 20 plus years we had been friends I’d watch her bounce back from two hip replacements and then start competing in short distance triathlons. She had to have the same knee replaced twice!-and she completed a 5K. When the first knee replacement went bad, she was upset. She got the news the same day I sliced my hand open on the first day of a new job trying to open some mustard. When I sent her picture of my hand with stitches in it, she said that made her day. That’s the way we were with each other—always laughing and joking, but always, always in each others corner.
When she was going through chemo she said she didn’t want to talk to people when she was feeling bad, and so I respected that and checked in with her sister and stepdaughters. When she was up for it, we would laugh and tease each other like always. Money exchanged hands a lot between us and we never knew who owed who. When she was sick, she told me she owed me money, but because she was sick, she didn’t have to pay me back.
Our lives were indelibly intertwined. We were colleagues, triathlon training buddies, traveling companions and confidantes to each other. In the middle of March, I found out that the chemo wasn’t working and the hospice team was going to be called in. I remember getting my faced made up for the belly dance show and talking to her sister about a farewell party. It was Saturday, and I had just seen her the day before in the hospital. When I walked in the room, she looked up and said, “Hey Ninja Turtle Head,” a nickname that she gave me because she said I have a small head. We talked before she drifted off to sleep. She was discharged on Saturday and dead on Tuesday. When I got the call, I didn’t know what to do. I thought it was some cruel joke. She had been through so much, and I just knew she’d make it through, but she didn’t.
I am still trying to process her death. I know that the ache of her absence will lessen over time, but for now there is huge void in my life. What sustains me is the legacy she left behind. In her short time on this earth, I can honestly say that Carmen was a humanitarian in the truest sense of the word. She was compassionate, caring and selfless person. She was the epitome of unconditional love. In my reflections and remembering, here are some lessons I gleaned from her life. Remembering the person that she was and following in her footsteps allows her spirit to live on. This is what learned:
1. Give back--find something that you believe in and donate your time money or both. Find someone in need and off him or her helping hand.
2. Be adventurous--do what you've never done; do something you've always wanted to do but have been afraid. Now's the time.
3. Be silly-- laugh at yourself. Laugh at life. Have fun!
4. Stand on what you believe in and don't compromise the morals and values that guide you.
5. And when life hands you lemons, make lemonade!
I greatly miss my friend, but I have a friendship of 20 plus years to sustain me. And those memories-- there are many-- will get me through the bad days.