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Blog Essay: My BFF

“How was the cruise?” she asked me, excitement in her voice. “Tell me all about it!”

I had just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas. It had been my husband’s first cruise. Anna, an avid cruiser with 15 or so cruises under her sun bonnet had spent a few hours with me at our last visit the month before giving me all the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of the cruise line we were going on. I drone on for an hour, interspersed by Anna’s clarifying questions.

“You were right, that beach wasn’t very nice.”

“The Piano bar was a favorite place. The pianist was amazing.”

“Yes, Grant definitely has gotten the cruising bug.”

An hour.

An hour of her reveling in my happiness, along for my vacation reminiscing as only my gypsy travel buddy could.

An hour before she says, “So I have news.”

I KNOW her. For thirty-four years, we had seen each other though marriages, children, the death of my two spouses, her daughter’s open heart surgery.

I know the tone in her voice. I have heard these words before. I know they are never followed by happy news.

“I had my mammogram last week.”

Oh God.

I try to breathe.

“They found two lumps. One in each breast. It isn’t looking good.”

The sunlit memories of the cruise crash like the Titanic.

As I listen to her tell me about the repeat mammogram, the ultrasound, the bloodwork, the scheduled biopsy, I try not to breathe. Because if I breathe, I know I will cry. I also know this is not what she needs.

I flashback to earlier the same year when I got a phone call from Tom, her husband, telling me she had been severely mauled by their daughter’s Mastiff. My first response, the only question that mattered in my entire world, “Just tell me she is alive. Is she alive?”

I remind myself of this response, as I try to focus when she describes the location of the lumps, their size and shape, the count in the bloodwork that implies it is most likely cancer. I try to focus on the fact that she is, indeed, still alive. Right now. In this moment, she is still alive.

She is distracting herself with her family’s final family cruise together in a few weeks. She doesn’t want to get the results until they return. She doesn’t want to ruin her little family’s last memory together before her daughter gets married next year.

“Will you shave your head in solidarity?” I hesitate for a half a second before I answer, “I will do anything if it makes you feel happier.” She laughs and says she won’t ask me to do that, but I could make her colorful turbans with the days of the week embroidered on them, like her underwear in elementary school. I laugh because I can’t cry. She reminds me she will need the turbans because the dog mauling earlier in the year has left her with terrible scars all over her scalp.

I try to reassure her. Tell her maybe it isn’t cancer. Maybe she will just need a lumpectomy. Maybe everything will be fine. (Maybe. Please let it be Maybe.)

She tells me she can live without her breasts. “Who needs them anyway? Tom is an ass man. He won’t even miss them.” We persist in our usual dark humor banter about having her breasts removed. It is our way. Once when a neighbor told me my first husband was going to burn in hell for committing suicide, I called her in tears and she offered to make cardboard flames for my lawn. This what we do.

Then she gets quiet. She gets real. “I don’t care about my breasts. I can stuff my bra. I’ll get one of those knitting ladies to make me some falsies. No one will know. But I can’t be bald at Ally’s wedding. I just can’t.” I tell her not to worry. One step at a time. “Don’t borrow trouble” as my mother used to say. I say this because I have no real words. I hear the sadness, the horror, and the fear in her voice.

There is nothing I can say to make it better and that breaks me. I remind her, selfishly, that she isn’t allowed to leave me. She laughs, but only a quick guffaw before she says, “I kinda want off this ride.” I timidly whisper, “not yet,” more as a wish to the universe than a response.

It is time for her to go make dinner. A woman’s duty to her family never ceases. Even in the face of all of this. We must be strong. We must make their world normal. We must alleviate their fears that Mom is still mom and Wife is still wife. Who then, might I ask, alleviates our fears? Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to stay mom. Didn’t have to stay wife? If we could just crumple on our spotless floor we mopped earlier in a heap and let out a gut-wrenching cry without worry that our breaking would somehow disintegrate those we love? We should give our families more credit. They should allow us less.

I say, “I love you so very much.”

She replies, “I love YOU so very much” and I wonder how many more of those I will get. What once seemed infinite now feels numbered.

© 2023 Jennifer Deshaies

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