Through Thick and Thin

By Pamela Toutant
Sunday, October 8, 2006

My old friend Miriam died recently. Although we had been close for two decades, we hadn't spoken during the last five years of her life, since shortly after her cancer diagnosis. According to those who were with her, her death was not a peaceful one. Along with the agonizing pain of cancer, she had to face leaving her 5-year-old daughter. She was 49 years old. But this is not an elegy; it is the story of a friendship that ruptured at the worst possible time.

Miriam and I met at a college party in Ann Arbor where she held court in a tube top, talking politics inside a circle of smart, smitten men. I had never seen it all in one package: the diamond-bright mind and the flaunted female form. My upstairs neighbor Carol had brought me to the party and, convinced that her two friends would like each other, introduced Miriam to me. Carol was right. While we settled happily together on the host's stained, lumpy couch, Miriam entertained me with the first of her many hilariously astute relationship critiques -- this one about her short and abruptly ended liaison with one of the men at the party, who had become insanely jealous when she received a teaching assistantship and he did not.

When we circled back to each other at the end of the evening, she invited me to her apartment for dinner the next night, which turned out to be her typical fare: an avocado and bean sprouts sandwich. Until the end of our graduate school days, we spent hours together every week over muddy coffee at the Blind Pig Cafe, or sitting around her dusty, cramped apartment with her ancient lapdog, Paco, surrounded by her odd and enchanting knickknacks, talking politics, laughing and analyzing our relationships with men.

After graduation, we moved to the District together, where we took an apartment at "The Elaine." From there, Miriam began her ascent up the steep male face of Washington's political establishment. Finding myself in the right place at the wrong time, I became a consultant; the Reagan era in Washington did not offer much opportunity for a liberal who was trained to run federal programs for the disadvantaged.

Miriam had a buoyant blond charisma and often brought tales to dinner about the discreet invitations of prominent married men. Whereas she bobbed quickly to the surface after disappointment, I often worried out loud and at length about, among other things, whether my consulting contract would be renewed. I came to rely on Miriam's response: "Don't worry. If it isn't, we'll figure something out." She laughed at my jokes and knew I was a writer long before I felt free enough to become one. She became one of the few people in my life who understood exactly who I was.

I eventually got married, and, for the next decade, mostly raised children and gladiolas. Giving birth to a daughter and a son in three short years fundamentally changed the architecture of my life and my psyche, and, as often happens, the spontaneity of my friendships was radically curtailed. Though Miriam tried to be patient, her exasperation about my unavailability and fatigue often came through in her tone and, finally, her comments, such as the time she snapped, "You are taking motherhood too seriously!" This was true, though I would have been the last to admit it. Meanwhile, Miriam dated, made her case on the country's op-ed pages and worked to meet the deadline on her hefty book contract.

Intent on keeping her close, I had chosen her to become my daughter's godmother, with the hope that two people I loved would develop a rich relationship. I invited her to all holiday and family celebrations. But while she often came bearing gifts for my daughter and sometimes played giggly games with her, she never initiated spending any time with her. I eventually became frustrated with the emotional distance Miriam kept -- both from my daughter and, more and more often it seemed, from me. But I also knew, from the few times in the past when I had even jokingly tried to discuss tensions in our friendship, that she was as uninterested in those discussions as any boyfriend of mine had ever been. "I really don't want to have these peculiar conversations," she told me at one point. "Friends should just accept each other, period." But then one summer weekend afternoon while Miriam was visiting, it turned out that she did have something to say. Tired from having been up much of the night before with my son, who had an ear infection, I asked Miriam if she would take my daughter to the park. "You made a choice to have children," she said. "I've made other choices. I'm sorry, but I just can't be involved with them in the way that you want me to be."

Seemingly unaware of the tension building between us, or that I was exhausted from my domestic juggling act, Miriam often dropped by to sit on my kitchen bar stool and talk about her day, while I cooked macaroni and cheese and played traffic cop with my children. "When I got to the TV studio this morning, I was told that they were putting my rival on before me, even though he doesn't have half my experience or half a brain!" I would usually respond with some version of what I believed to be the truth: "If you were a man, you would be an undersecretary by now!" But because the realities of my life -- both my children's soft kisses and their needs -- were outside of her periphery, I felt invisible to Miriam, and my sadness and irritation about what I interpreted as her willful blindness only grew more intense with each encounter. At the same time, I felt uncomfortably exposed: my solid yet flawed marriage; my flawed mothering and the resulting flawed children; one messy, chaotic day bleeding into the next with nothing she would recognize as an accomplishment. Meanwhile, her life had become everything mine was not: income-producing, intellectual and tangible in its achievements -- fueled by, I bitterly noted to myself, eight hours of sleep. I began to wish that she would call before she visited.

I found myself thinking that if only our lives were more alike, the tension would go away, and Miriam and I could return to our era of easy rapport. "I can't wait until you have a baby," I told her one day. The truth of her retort stung. "How would you like it if I told you I can't wait until you get a job?" At one point during a conversation, when my eyes were glazing over, she commented, "You take no girl-friendly interest in my love life anymore." It was true that, more often than not, I couldn't remember her boyfriends' names: the congressional chief of staff, the antiques dealer, the tycoon. When she asked me several years after I had been raising my children, "What do you do all day?" I accused her of not "getting" my life, and of not really being willing to try. She accused me of the same: I had no real appreciation of what it was like to be the only woman in a room full of swaggering Washington pols, and what getting and keeping entry to that room meant to her or required of her. "And it is clear," she told me, "you take no real interest in it."

Ironically, as we saw less of each other, we each began to ardently pursue what the other had. I began to write and to get published; Miriam began fertility treatments and completed her application to adopt a child. A year before, she had fallen in love with a man whom she had hoped to marry and have children with. When it ended, it was one of the very few times I saw her cry. After that, she resigned herself to being "unlucky in love" and made a decision to have a child alone.

Following her doctor's advice, Miriam had surgery to have her uterine fibroids removed. When I visited her in the hospital, she told me her surgery, though more difficult than she thought it would be, was a great success. Then came the blow. A few days later she returned home, shaken and tearful, and called to tell me, "I have cancer -- leiomyosarcoma." I was stunned. Weren't 99 percent of all fibroids benign? "Are they sure?" I asked. They were.

"My doctor told me that, in all of his years of practice, no one in his office has ever seen a case of this kind of cancer." With a rueful laugh, she added: "It's the talk of his office. I guess I'm famous."

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