Best friends are those who hold our history and create a sense of family essential to our well-being. As the divorce rate creeps higher, it may be these friends we've collected who stay around longer and are there to hold our hands -- except when they're not.
It's been almost four years since my best friend, Gloria, died and left me alone in our cul-de-sac in the suburbs. And I still feel her absence.
She used to call me if someone rang her doorbell, to ask who was there. I would wander over and drink hot herbal tea from mismatched china and we'd spill secrets. Time's passed, though, and it's been long enough that no one asks about her and I miss her more. I haven't filled up an hour of time talking about her since she died.
I was sound asleep when the call came.
"Martha? She's gone. I told them they couldn't move the body until you got a chance to say goodbye. Can you come right now?" It was Danny, Gloria's husband, calling from the hospital in the middle of the night. I drove through empty streets, took a fast walk-run through two buildings and a long hallway and a slow elevator to say goodbye.
She had passed away after a struggle with breast cancer that had spread to what seemed like her entire body. We were standing outside in the middle of our street, as we often did, and she wouldn't raise up her face to talk to me, so I knew before she said it. She had been worried about an unexplained ache for weeks. "The cancer's come back. It's in my bones. Don't tell anyone, though. I'm not ready yet."
"Okay," I said, and it was all we would say about it for quite some time. We were best friends; she didn't need to give me the back story or tell me how she felt.
Before we went our separate ways, I blurted out an idea. "Every Friday, starting this week, I'm bringing over dinner and you and I are having dinner together." I wanted something deliberate, expected that occurred each week we had left to make sure we didn't act too casual.
"Okay," was all she said. We used the time to talk about our children, our ambitions, world affairs, the neighborhood, the exercise we knew we should do, and we celebrated every small thing we were grateful had come our way.
There were moments, sitting around the yellow pine table just off their kitchen, that I wondered if maybe it would be all right and Gloria would somehow live.
But things progressed to the hospital and the dinners changed to ice cream until one afternoon I came in with ice cream and babbled on, watching Gloria struggle to understand what I was saying and becoming afraid when she couldn't. I knew what was happening, but I fought it. Just enough of what we had was gone that our conversations, the sharing of our lives, were over.
So, I did what I could for my best friend and I let go of who we were, letting it quickly slip away, and held her hand, whispering to her in the same way I used to comfort my son, Louie, when he was small and had a nightmare.
"It's okay," I whispered slowly. "I'm here. I'll watch over you and I'll be here when you wake up. No worries," I said, as I gently rubbed her forehead.
"Okay, thank you," she mumbled, smiled and drifted off to sleep. It was the last thing she ever said to me. Days later she was gone.
Four years have gone by quickly and I still miss her. I wish there was someplace I could go where everyone understood what it was like to lose a best friend, who knew so much about me and still came back for more.