My Friend Died Before I Could Say Goodbye

skyThis morning when I got into work, I found a message waiting for me. It was from the husband of a friend of mine: "Cherie passed away Tuesday from metastatic cancer..." Cherie, who I'd known nearly 20 years. Cancer?!? What cancer? I scrolled through my emails to find the last time I'd heard from her. It was June 14, when she congratulated a mutual friend on a new job: "Great news!" she'd said. "What are you looking forward to in your new job?" She was diagnosed with cancer just a week after that, June 22. It ravaged her quickly.

I never got to tell her goodbye.

This cancer was sneaky. Her husband says she'd been feeling fatigued -- what working mother doesn't feel fatigued? But it was severe enough to keep her in bed for a week. By the time she checked into a hospital and was diagnosed, the cancer had spread throughout several organs. Her husband says she had an averse reaction to the chemotherapy, which probably contributed to her rapid decline. Meanwhile he was too busy dealing with his wife's illness and their two children, plus teaching her summer college course, to alert her friends.

More from The Stir: It's Not Fair My Mom Died Before I Had My Baby

Oh yes, she leaves behind a young daughter and son. I can't stand that they will have to grow up without her.

Cherie was brilliant and funny, a Russian historian with a PhD from Yale who was writing satirical news stories long before The Onion came along. She was also wise and compassionate. She was part of a small, close group of girlfriends of mine scattered all over the globe who'd kept in touch for the past 14 or so years. Whenever someone complained about their husband or colleague, she was always the first to affirm your frustration while also helping you see things from the other person's perspective.

Her compassion was driven by curiosity -- it was her nature to wonder about someone's apparent foibles and weaknesses before judging them.

My former husband and I used to drive up the three hours to Connecticut to visit Cherie and her husband. We would cook together, argue about art. The hostas that grow in my front garden came from her garden. Over the years we had our children and these visits became infrequent. We had talked about getting together for years, but just never got around to it.

I'm furious that I let so much time pass, that I didn't try harder ... but of course I thought I had all the time in the world. You always do. Her friendship was a treasure I carelessly took for granted, like a gem you keep in a box and pull out only every so often, when you think of it.

I wish I could tell her what she meant to me over the years, how much I loved her nerdiness, how she challenged me to think more critically, to be more curious about people. How I think of her every time I ride my bike up a particular hill in the park near my home -- I think of the Russian word she used when she went running, to urge herself on. I can't remember the exact Russian word, actually, only that it sounded like "donuts," and that she found the coincidence hilariously absurd. "Donuts! Donuts!" I think, as I pedal uphill.

Anyway ... the day won't stand still just because I miss my friend. But I think it's time to pay attention. Pay attention to your health, to the little things that seem off. Moms, we're awfully busy, and it's hard to make time for ourselves and give our bodies the attention they need. But we all want to stick around, for ourselves and for our families. An early death is inevitable for some of us, though, so pay attention to that breeze brushing your cheek, the freedom of your arms swinging as you walk.

Pay attention to your loved ones, your children, your friends. Especially your oldest friends, the ones we think will be around forever just because it seems like they've always been there. No one is a permanent part of your life.

Have you ever lost a good friend suddenly?

 

cancer, breast cancer, breasts