A friend of mine died this month. She had been fighting the good fight against an especially virulent type of cancer for over five years. Still, I wasn’t expecting this, not now. But when I saw an email from her son in my inbox, I knew. John had never written to me; I was just one of his mother’s many friends.
Jayne and I met at work. Though we didn’t work in the same department, our offices were near each other. We exchanged hellos and goodbyes, but little else.
One day she came into my office. My office used to be hers, so she was interested in seeing how I’d put my own mark on it. While we were talking, she noticed a small rock I keep on my desk. Seeing that rock in my office, among the high tech tools and the reams of paper I churned out every day, she saw a piece of nature, and it spoke to her, and it told her something important about me. Suddenly the room was full of warmth, of recognition, as if a voice called out, “Oh! I know you!”
Maybe you’ve experienced this – how one day a stranger might be just a sort of familiar face, and the next day you strike up a conversation and discover you both love the same music, the same books, the same kind of movies, the same ice cream at Beecher’s, or the same landscapes. When I told Jayne that I kept this plain-looking rock on my desk because it felt good in my hand, she picked it up, and said she knew just what I meant.
I got up from my chair and said, “Come here; there’s something I’ve been dying to show someone,” and led her out to the windows of our sixth-story view. Down below was a long row of bushes, growing in a narrow island in the middle of the parking lot. I pointed out the way the bushes were planted in waves, and how beautiful they were from our vantage point, no matter the season. She got it. She got me.
By the time Jayne moved away, two or three years later, our friendship was solid. I’d been to Galena to see her house, meet her dog, and do some power shopping. We had shared all kinds of stories about our pasts, dreams for our futures, and concerns for our children. She had a son, while I had one of each, and we shared one uncommon experience. Our ex-husbands – the fathers of our children – had both died a few years after we’d divorced them. This is an odd, nearly indescribable turn of events, and it was a relief to meet someone who had also been through it.
Jayne moved to Minnesota with the man she had fallen in love with. She met him in Galena, but a great job beckoned up north, so they went together. She, too, found a job she loved. They got married. Her son enrolled in a Minnesota college, and graduated with flying colors. (Pun intended – he majored in aviation.) He married and gave Jayne and Tom an adorable grandson.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Not long after she moved away, Jayne learned that she had cancer, and that it was already in stage four by the time it was found. Stage four means it had traveled to one or more other organs – in her case, her lungs. Still, Jayne being Jayne, she was unfailingly upbeat in her emails. She still wrote to individual friends, but she also took to sending out a “Jayne’s Health Update” whenever something new happened – a new course of chemo, a visit to the hospital in Boston that specialized in her kind of cancer, a scary bout of pneumonia.
By “upbeat,” I mean this was a woman who could write about the challenges of chemo as something interesting, rather than an excuse to feel sorry for herself. Thus I learned that not only does chemo make all your hair fall out, but also your toe- and fingernails. She tried wrapping colorful bandaids around the ends of her fingers, but reported it was kind of hard to type like that.
In her situation, I don’t know how I would do. I mean, I feel sorry for myself – well, okay, it’s more like “angry at the universe” – because I have a migraine nearly every day. And because I had to have major surgery for yet another problem last summer. One thing about Jayne – I could tell her anything about my health, about these undependable bodies we walk around in, and there was no such thing as Too. Much. Information. What a relief.
Now she is gone, and her grandson may not have many memories of his Grandma Jayne. That’s a pity, because they don’t make too many of them like her.
Early in January, around the time she died, we are used to seeing and reading about Famous People Who Died Last Year. I sigh when I hear that someone like Liz Taylor or Heath Ledger has died. But that’s nothing like losing a genuine friend.
Where I work, we sometimes take employee-engagement surveys. They consist of statements like “I have what I need to do my job well” and we are to answer whether this is true or not. A lot of people have trouble with this one: “I have a best friend at work.” I used to joke with Jayne that I still answered “strongly agree” to that BFAW statement even after she left, because I could still discuss my work with her. Next time that survey comes around, I don’t know how I’ll answer. I had a best friend at work. And I miss her fiercely now.