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The Bounds of Friendship

By Lori Parks

 

I remember when she told me. I was sitting at my desk on a humid August afternoon, sifting through the avalanche of paperwork that accompanies a real estate closing. I took her call, grateful for the break, chirped “Hi” and waited for the bright, familiar voice. She said, after a round of polite how are yous, “My doctor thinks I may have cancer.”

Beth and I have been best friends for six years. I met her at Wesleyan one autumn; she was the first person I encountered at the admissions office, where I demurely inquired about transferring. After spending  two years at an Ivy League school entrenched in pre-professionalism, I had decided that the remaining undergraduate years would be better spent learning about myself, not analyzing supply-and-demand curves. As the receptionist in the admissions office, Beth had a warm, broad smile. She spoke swiftly, melodically, making me miserable and longing to escape a university I felt was swallowing me – feel at ease at once. We talked about Penn, men, English literature; she invited me to stay with her that weekend; I transferred four months later.

We spent the next two years of our lives together: Saturday night dinners alone, poking fun at the college social scene; coffee at Howard Johnson’s at 2 a.m., discussing how we deceive ourselves and others; smoking our first cigarettes in her narrow dorm room (neither one of us had been a rebellious adolescent); discovering feminism.

Through those years, we remained each other’s closest confidante, the person who knew when we lost our virginity and to whom; how we wanted to change the world with our novels (mine) or clinical practice (hers); what frightened and infuriated us. For Beth, who had dozens of friends, I was the first person with whom she could really be herself. For me, more insular, more cautious, she was the first person I believed accepted me unequivocally, without judgment. Even after we graduated, we stayed in constant contact, making frequent phone calls to each other to recount the details of our days.

I remember making the trek to Beth’s home the day she told me that she, indeed, had lymphoma. Her parents’ sprawling, four-story house – musty and cluttered with antiques collected from around the world – felt more oppressive than usual when I entered. Upstairs, lying on her parents’ bed, Beth was surrounded by bouquets of flowers – slim yellow roses, lush white mums – situated haphazardly around the dark room. We sat together for hours, I patiently listening while she took phone call after phone call from friends wishing her well. I had a sense then that she was about to embark on a journey without me, to undertake something I could not help her with, but neither one of us said so that day. I don’t even know if she sensed the same thing; she was more fearful, I think, of the grim future that now was before her.

Beth spent the following year shuttling into Manhattan every Friday, alternating between radiation therapy and chemotherapy. We still were in touch, but rather than call her every day, I would phone a few days after her treatments, always aware on those intervening days that she was scared, alone. Those days she spent in agony –vomiting, her entire body aching – were as unfathomable to me as the size of the universe, as untouchable as the farthest star. I couldn’t imagine what those days were like for her, those hours of wondering whether she would ever celebrate her 25th birthday, bear children, see her sisters grow old. She spoke about those days only afterwards: She slept a lot, read a lot, thought a lot.

Today, two years later, with Beth 95 percent certain that her cancer won’t return, there are things she has been through that I will never know. She lived at the threshold of her own death for a year, and I can only wonder what that was like. And, for all our wanting to intertwine our lives, for all our shared moments of laughter and anguish, she survived this ordeal – those moments flung up against her own mortality – with only herself to sustain her.

We still are close, still see each other every week for coffee, trying to unravel the meaning of our lives, lives growing more complicated as the years pass. Yet sometimes when I look at her, I remember the journeys through tunnels of darkness that each of us must make: alone, afraid, with only ourselves as our guides.

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