“Your friend is your needs answered.”*
It’s been another long weekend with no writing, but with another good excuse. I spent the weekend with my dearest friend, Jessica. We met in Minneapolis, a city almost exactly in the middle between our two homes, and one of only a few places where Jess can fly direct out of Helena.
Jess and I have known each other for 16 years. We became friends almost immediately in the fall of 1994 as freshmen at UNC. We met because we both attended Carolina on the same scholarship, and then we took similar classes (at least at the beginning, when I thought I was pre-med, too), spent many weekends together during the summer of 1996 (when we were both doing internships in the San Francisco Bay area), traveled through Kenya together in the summer of 1997, and lived together with another dear friend, Beth, during our senior year of college. We still saw each other frequently, though not as often, during her years at med school at Carolina, and since she moved to Montana in 2002, we still saw each other regularly—I visited her and her family in Montana in 2004, 2006, and twice in 2008, and she came east many times to visit her family, most of whom are still in North Carolina.
Before Hudson died, Jess and I had already suffered together through losses very significant for our young ages. I lost my mom in 2002 to pancreatic cancer. I was 26; she was barely 57. She lived only 8 months after her diagnosis, and spent most of that time in either great pain or in a morphine haze. In 2007, Jess’s mom, Caroline, died suddenly from Rocky Mountain spotted fever (another lightning strike in the world of things that are likely to kill you). Jess was 31 and almost eight months pregnant with her younger son; her mom was 61. Jess and Caroline were best friends; my mom and I were not (we wanted to be but could never figure out how to do so). So when Caroline died, I could only offer so much empathy, even though I had lost my mom as well. Jess was mourning the loss of one of the best relationships in her life, whereas I had mourned the loss of a relationship I had always longed for but never had.
When Hudson got sick, the progression of her illness was eerily similar to that of Caroline’s, down to the days of the week when Jess received a call for advice about an unusually high fever (Sunday) to when she flew east once it was clear something was terribly wrong (Tuesday) to the day both Caroline and Hudson died (Thursday). Caroline died on May 3, 2007; Hudson died on May 13, 2010. Hudson and Caroline both got the infectious disease equivalent of the world’s worst lottery ticket. In both cases, before we knew anything was seriously wrong, it was too late. I was with Jess and her family at the hospital when they got the devastating news that Caroline’s pupils were no longer responding to stimuli. It was all I could think about when Hudson began exhibiting the exact same symptoms. Up until that point, I had every reason to believe that she was going to respond to antibiotics and recover fully. After that point, I had little reason to believe she would survive. And I was right.
Needless to say, as Hudson’s illness progressed, Jess was practically thrust right back into the nightmare she had just lived through with her own mother three years before, complete with an ultimately hopeless vigil in the ICU and an unbearably painful goodbye. And yet she was there. She sat with me. She cried with me. She comforted my family. And when it was all over, she took over the task that would have been impossible for anyone in my family at that moment—planning Hudson’s memorial service. She found a venue, coordinated everyone else who wanted to help, managed visitors and friends, gave feedback on the programs and the slideshow, and yet still found time and energy to sit with me. To cry with me. To comfort my family. All the while dealing with her own grief over Hudson’s death and her continued grief over her mother’s.
So 11 weeks later, almost exactly halfway until the time we would see each other again in October at her sweet grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration, a long weekend in a city where we knew no one was just what the doctor ordered. For both of us. We sat. We cried. We comforted each other. We drank red wine and margaritas. We talked and talked and talked, until the point you’d think there could be nothing else to talk about, and then we talked some more. We walked and walked and walked, as if with each step we might pound some of our grief out of the soles of our shoes. We looked to the future, gravely hoping that we’ve borne the worst of what our lives have in store for us.
Friendships like ours are rare gems, both in my own experience and in what I know of others’ experiences. Between us, there is no pretense, no need for words, no words that can’t be said, a near-reading of minds, a shared understanding of both how wondrous and how wretched life can be. Although Jess and I would trade it back in a heartbeat, the depth of the friendship that has resulted from our terrible losses is a gift. This past weekend, and every day, while we spend our fair share of time mourning for all that should and shouldn’t be, we also cherish what is—that in our grief, we share a friendship largely unequaled in its ability to bear that grief and in its ability to find hope in the depths of despair. And that is One Good Thing that our dearest Caroline and our dearest Hudson left behind for us.
* Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, “On Friendship”