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Visiting A Friend With Breast Cancer At The End Of Her Life

I've never formally said goodbye to anyone before.

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Women friends talking, drinking tea
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I went to see a sick friend in January, a woman I met in my 20s. She is a therapist and single mother and one of the loveliest, funniest people I know. She was diagnosed with stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer 2½ years ago and was treated homeopathically with something called Rick Simpson’s oil, a THC-infused oil.

For reasons of her own, she elected not to do chemotherapy or radiation. By the time she had surgery last summer, the disease had progressed to stage 4. The last time I had seen her was in November, when she looked thin, but still well.

I drove up to her cottage in Connecticut to say goodbye. I’ve never formally said goodbye to anyone before. Another close friend had passed away from colon cancer a few months earlier. This friend and I had grown up together and moved back to our hometown to raise our sons. We were in a book group together and wrote for the same magazine. After she was diagnosed, we did yoga together every Wednesday morning in a mutual friend’s basement. One day after yoga, I watched my friend’s tiny figure walk away from me. I wondered if this would be the last time I would see her, but only thought that, didn’t know it, and so said nothing.

I drove up to my other friend’s cottage with the purpose of saying goodbye. I couldn’t sleep the night before and woke up with a headache. I stopped in at a bookstore near our apartment and asked one of the salespeople for books that might be appropriate for someone with breast cancer. Coincidentally, the young woman who was helping me said her mother had had breast cancer. “It’s rough,” she said, though I had the feeling from her smile and contented attitude that her mother had survived.

The saleswoman recommended two books — Change Happens: A Compendium of Wisdom and A Woman’s Guide to Cannabis — as well as a memory game involving flowers. I took the package and drove up to Connecticut, where I found my friend’s house easily. It was a lovely cottage, surrounded by trees and decorated with Christmas lights.

My friend greeted me at the door. She was grinning broadly and wearing a white robe. She looked gorgeous and almost glamorous, with a small diamond around her neck and two beautiful rings on her fingers. One of her nieces had just cut her hair and it was shoulder length and wavy, the color a shimmering blonde. My friend looked thin but her face and hair looked so healthy, she didn’t look terribly ill. Then she said that her DNR bracelet had fallen off her wrist because her wrist was so thin, so she had wrapped it around her ankle.

She motioned me to sit on her bed with her, and we sat and chatted for half an hour about people we knew in common, raising sons, and the foods she was craving (ice cream and baked beans). She opened the books and laughed loudly over A Woman’s Guide to Cannabis.

“You’re going to meet my son,” she said, and a few minutes later, her handsome 26-year-old son drove up with his equally gorgeous girlfriend. They brought her a beautiful arrangement of flowers — lilacs, hydrangeas — and looked for a vase in the kitchen, then came and sat on the floor while we middle-aged ladies chatted on the bed.

My friend’s son and his girlfriend attended to my friend with so much patience and love, I was floored. My friend hugged her son’s girlfriend and said, “I want her to marry my son!” They both laughed, and then went through old photos of my friend as a young mother, smiling at her son posing and flexing his little muscles as a child. “He still does that!” the girlfriend said, laughing.

After an hour, my friend asked for an oxycontin. Her son suggested she eat something first. He went to heat her some baked beans and I watched as she nibbled at them. Her face looked pained. Her son had said his mother could only tolerate two-hour visits, but that was a few weeks ago. I knew that this hour-long visit was pushing it. I stood by her bed and told her how great hair looked, how smooth her skin looked. “I want to say something more,” I said, “but I don’t know what to say.”

“This is a pregnant pause,” my friend said.

“You look so good,” I said awkwardly, “maybe I’ll be back.”

She smiled and shrugged. “You are so precious to me,” she said. I wanted her to fight harder, fight back.

“Thank you for being so kind to me,” I said. “For always giving me such good advice.” She had said someone from hospice was coming to give her a massage at 2:30. I was glad about that.

I walked into the living room and heard her sobbing. I didn’t know what to do. Going back into her bedroom seemed like it would prolong the agony. I shook her son’s hand and asked him to stay in touch. I told him what a good son he was. His girlfriend had gone out onto the driveway to get the newspaper. I asked her if there was something more I could do, if other people had been coming to say goodbye.

“Yes,” she said. “You’re not the first.” Then I asked her how long she had been with my friend’s son. “Seven years,” she said. “No wonder she wants you to marry him!” I said. We both laughed.

When I got home, I did the thing I do when I don’t know what else to do: I went into the kitchen and turned on the oven. I rinsed a whole chicken, covered it with salt and pepper, melted some butter, chopped up some rosemary, poured it in the melted butter, spread it all over the chicken, and put it in the oven. This is the kind of chicken that you cook at a high heat for a half hour, then turn the oven off and leave the chicken in there for another hour.

While the chicken was in the cooling oven, I texted my husband, then took our dog for a walk. When I got home, my husband was standing in the kitchen, hungrily eating the chicken.

A couple of months later, my friend moved to a hospice facility in Connecticut. Her texts were filled with humor and colorful emojis — hearts, unicorns, mermaids and a pretty blonde avatar waving. In early April, she wrote: “Hi my love … this hospice is top of the line. Adore the staff. Have doubled the morphine as of today as my body now needs stronger meds. Very little and low energy but I couldn’t be in better hands.” I told her how reassuring that was and sent my love.

In early May, she wrote: ”Still here, defying odds! I no longer have any idea when the time will be. I do love the staff here and I’m treated with so much love and care and compassion. Maybe it’s what I’ve been waiting for all my life and I get to see who and what emerges from this kind of atmosphere. In the meanwhile I’m loaded up with morphine and sleep sooooo much!!! I love you.” She ended the text with nine colorful hearts and a tulip.

I continued to text her and included her son in the texts. In June, he wrote that she wasn’t in pain, “just out of it mostly.” He added she wasn’t eating much and wasn’t responding to texts. I told him I had begun seeing his mom when I was about his age and was grateful for her influence on me.

On July 28, he texted that his mother had passed away early that morning. It had been peaceful, he wrote, with just the two of them in the room. I told him how much I had loved her, and how much she had loved him. “Yeah,” he wrote, “she’s the best.”

Several weeks later, I read a story in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Strout called “Motherless Child.” With a jolt, I realized that my friends who had passed away had left behind motherless children, and I had no idea how these children were doing. I had texted them with increasing frequency as their mothers became sicker but had barely spoken to either of them since their mothers passed away. They were young men in their 20s. I wanted to reach out to them, but how would they react to an old friend of their mothers, texting to see how they were managing?

It was not as if I was an aunt or a neighbor who had been an integral part of their lives. But I thought about their mothers every day and figured that if I was thinking about them so often, their sons had to be thinking of them that much more. I decided to text them, but the texts felt intrusive. I hesitated before pushing Send. One responded quickly; the other took a few days to reply. One sounded great and wrote, “I want to stay in better touch too.” The other sounded as if he was managing. Both said they liked their jobs and were staying busy with work.

It is impossible to prepare for the death of a friend you’ve loved for years, especially when you have lived your lives in tandem and assume that friendship will go on forever. I had to say goodbye to my beautiful friends who left this earth too soon. But I don’t have to say goodbye to their children.

Cast-Iron Skillet Roast Chicken with Rosemary
(Adapted from Cal Peternell’s Twelve Recipes)
You will need a cast-iron skillet for this recipe.

1 chicken, 3-4 pounds
Salt and pepper
½ stick of butter
Fresh rosemary, chopped up (about 1 tablespoon), or ½ tablespoon dried

1. Put cast iron skillet in oven and turn oven to 475°F.
2. While pan is heating, chop up rosemary. Put in microwavable bowl with half a stick of butter. Microwave for 30 seconds or so.
3. Wash chicken. Sprinkle with salt and butter. Lay chicken on back, legs up, and cover with rosemary butter, inside and out.
4. Take cast-iron skillet out of oven (be careful, it will be extremely hot) and put chicken in it, legs up. Put chicken back in the oven for 30 minutes.
5. When timer goes off, don’t open the oven! Turn oven off and leave chicken in there for 60 minutes more.
6. Afterward, let chicken rest for 10 minutes before carving. (Total time in oven is 90 minutes, but only 30 minutes at high heat.)