August 17th, 2010
The landscape of my friendships has shifted during this past year. Don’t get me wrong. I feel unbelievably fortunate. On the whole, my friends have come through for me in every way imaginable. Some of my friendships have deepened, as people have come to know me differently, have reached out to me in new ways. At the same time, as is inevitable in a crisis, there have been a few surprises in the other direction as well.
I love all the cards my friends have sent me. I look at them when I feel sad.
Yesterday, the New York Times published an essay about how others respond to you when you are in crisis. We know quite a bit about how people respond to their own crises. Ideas like resilience, resourcefulness, support and social networks get tossed around when we hear about what helps people make it through. It turns out, however, that we know very little about how people respond when those near them are in distress.
I have thought a lot about this because my circumstances have put me in an extended state of neediness. Between losing my step-brother and my own diagnosis, I have become a person who undeniably relies on others. I also look at others whose crises have hit close to home, like my friend’s recent death. Many of the tears I shed at his memorial service came out of the horror of realizing how close my family and I were to sharing his family’s fate.
The first thing I noticed when I shared my news was that friends who, as children or young adults, had lost a parent to cancer took the longest to respond. They all did eventually, always apologizing for the delay. Perhaps it’s my social scientist self, but I was so struck by the consistency of this phenomenon, it was easy to forgive. There was something much greater than flakiness at play. The emotional depths of the notes I eventually received confirmed that these friends were not being nonchalant. In fact, compared to so many people, they knew too well how serious my situation was.
One of these friends has continued to struggle in connecting to me through my treatment. At first, I was disappointed. This same friend stood out for the opposite reason during my brother’s time with cancer. She was literally there for me from the beginning to the end, holding my hand, accepting my grief.
I was with her during the hellish week of his diagnosis. He had been hospitalized for unclear reasons, and each day brought new test results signaling increasingly dire news. I kept ending up on the short end of all the bargains I was making with the Universe. Please just let it be a tropical disease. No? Then please let it be a treatable cancer.
After a few days of falling through this hellmouth, I awoke out of a dream sobbing. My friend was there, ready to delay her morning plans, to listen to my fears and offer her support. Later that week, she literally picked me up off the floor and got me to eat when the gravity of his disease became an inescapable truth, and I felt the world collapsing around me. As his treatment went on, I knew I could call her any time of day or night. In the end, she traveled a long distance to be there for me, to hold my hand, watch my children, do whatever was needed, so I could cry at his memorial service.
In between his death and my diagnosis, she confided in me that her mother’s death from cancer suggested she could carry the BRCA gene, a marker that would put her at higher risk for ovarian and breast cancer. She had decided not to have testing, because a positive result would open a course of medical decision making she did not want to endure. Even though her risk for breast cancer would increase dramatically from 12% to 60%, it would still be a less than certain outcome.
This wonderful friend, in a certain way, has kept her distance from me during my treatment. It’s not that she has ignored me or tried to sweep me under the carpet. Not at all. She sent me a really cute hat during chemo. She bought one of my t-shirts. She has supported me in many, many ways. But something has shifted. A subtle distance settled between us.
I thought of how consistent the silence was from all friends who had lost a parent to cancer. I recalled our conversation about her own cancer fears. I recognize how many similarities we have in our lives. I put the pieces together for myself and figured out that my situation spooks her deeply.
A couple of months back, she called to apologize.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you something. I don’t know how to say this.” Her voice filled with emotion. “I’m sorry. It’s just so hard for me…”
“I know,” I said as gently as I could. “I get it. You don’t have to explain.”
And it’s true. I do get it. As much as the landscape of my life has shifted, I know she will be my friend on the other side of all of this.
Maybe there are certain parts of our journey that even our dearest friends can’t tolerate. The fear, of course, is that maybe our crisis will become too deep for any of our loved ones to endure with us.
Sometimes, other people’s suffering just cuts a little too close to our own worst fears. I think it’s human. And I think, sometimes, it’s forgivable.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 8:27 pm and is filed under Treatment, Wellness. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.