Today is the fifth anniversary of my best friend’s death. There isn’t a word for being bereaved of your best friend. I am not her widow, I am not her orphan; and with that, it feels unseemly to grieve so deeply. She was not my child, my wife, my mother… my grief is secondary to her close family, and it ought to be and yet. And yet. We were best friends for 30 years. We told each other everything, witnessed wonderful, terrible moments in each other’s lives. We grew up together. There is so much to say, to rejoice in, to remember I don’t even know where to begin. So, I’ll share these few pieces I wrote for her, when she was very sick with metastatic breast cancer, because she read them and liked them and saying or writing anything else about her feels like a peculiar fiction.
There was once a little girl
Who’s understanding of loves calculation
Who thought addition and multiplication would only
Ever return a minus
Despite logic and Pythagoras
And the chalk figures scratched white on the blackboard
That seemed only to
Trick the mind with each sum
Subtraction lurked in hands and dark corners and the flat gaze of a paper mother.
But then, she met a genius
Who spun algorithims and binary codes that
Multiplied to the power of many
The numbers that connect infinitely
Who aged only ten herself held on and said
I will teach you to count on love.
And when doors where locked shut and pills made algebra of thoughts
She lay and stroked her pupil’s hair
And understood that when she said, I am a horse with only legs legs arms and a head
She meant only that words were dangerous, and running seemed sensible, nothing more or less.
The genius keeps an inventory of loves sum
The numbers piling up, keeping track in her heart
Sitting as she does
Her helix hair unraveling
Her pupil grateful to
Take over the account.
My Best You (originally published by Human Parts)
So, she says, I have a list of things I need you to do, alright?
OK, I say, sure.
Good, because it’s important, she says.
OK, where’s the list?
On my iPad, I’ll give you the code.
Cool, I say and write the code down.
Then she belches and breaks wind at the same time and we laugh. We laugh so hard the others look at us as if we’ve lost our minds.
This is my best friend, she says to the nurse.
The nurse nods and smiles as she adjusts the flow rate of the medicine, says hello. Friends since we were ten, she says and laughs to herself as if she’s just understood the punchline.
When I was twelve I broke my arm trying to hurdle in athletics class. That was the term before I gave up all sport, took up smoking and wearing mascara. It was her that called my mother and got me to hospital – the school thought I was faking. When I came back with my arm in a cast from shoulder to knuckle she cut my food up for me and threw evil looks at the teachers.
Everyone likes her, they always have, so it’s no surprise the doctors and nurses here do. Even my mother said, you should be more like her, she’s so easy to love. And I’ve tried, but it isn’t easy. Luckily she likes me anyway. They’ve put her in a nicer room with a view of the garden and check on her often, bringing her slivers of ice to suck. She remembers all their names and compliments them.
Hey Fuzzy-Hair! Come here! The teacher with the limp and one lazy eye shouted, pointing at her. We hated that woman and the way she licked her lips after speaking as if she were cleaning the words from her mouth. I don’t remember why she was in trouble, only that she cried in the toilets, I hate my fucking hair, she said and I held her close. It seemed like a catastrophe at the time.
Her hair is gone now. All those curls, left on pillows and in clumps clogging the plug hole till she got fed up and shaved it all off. You probably think I was selfless and shaved mine off too in solidarity, but I didn’t. She doesn’t believe me, but being bald just shows how beautiful she is – the curve of her head, her lovely big eyes. I fucking look like a cancer patient, she says. You are a cancer patient, I say and she gives me a dirty look.
The chemo and steroids have made her bloat. Why couldn’t I have got the skinny chemo, she says, at least I’d be a size zero. We both laugh to the horror of her mother and the young doctor who takes her temperature with shaking hands.
I get her ready for the children’s visit. Keep them occupied if I fall asleep, she says, don’t let them get scared. I promise I won’t and try and hide how terrified I am. When the kids leave she cries and asks me if I help her daughter with her periods and boys and getting her first bra. I will, I say, do you remember you helped me put my first tampon in? I expect her to laugh but instead she closes her eyes. She asks me if I’ve checked her list. Yes, I say. And can you do it all? she says. I hesitate, shrugging. For god’s sake, she says and tears lens across her eyes. I’ll do it, I say, of course I will, it’s hard that’s all. She blinks and the tears roll over her dry skin, as she wipes them away she says, I know, I fucking now.
Once, she rescued me. She always rescued me, but this time was real. I was in the mental hospital, my mind broken up into little pieces and she came everyday even though she’d just had a baby. She got me out of there, she signed papers and made promises to the doctors and she got me out.
I’m selfish, I want to say, who will I be without you? But her mother and husband, her children have a greater claim to her now. But who will I be without her?
I bring her flowers and a hat I crocheted and slowly do the things on the list. I buy gifts and cards for her to sign and then I put them away for future birthdays and anniversaries, weddings and graduations. I sign documents and listen to lawyers and doctors. I arrange and plan because I am good at those things. We impose a necessary form on the future that it may not obey. Love has become something planned in advance, a contingency.
Her lips crack at the corners and we rub salve into them. Her hands and feet are red raw and blistered. She cries in pain and then sleeps. Her breath comes in short huffs, but she’s still here. At one point she whispers to me – remember, you promised, no fighting no giving up. I stroke her arm, I promise, I say because it’s the only thing left I can do for her.
You’re quiet, she says, tell me something. And I don’t know what to say anymore because she is in different realm and I don’t know the language. I’m still here, bothered by bills, and work, and the house, and my husband. Superficial. My words don’t fit. Then she belches and breaks wind at the same time and we both laugh. Then I ask her, who will I be without you? And she says, you silly bugger, you’ll be my best you.