There’s an old adage that when going through tough times you find out who your friends are. I always inferred it to mean that challenges reveal who in our lives deserves to be called a Friend, as if we are Santa Claus drawing up a Naughty and Nice Friend list.
Let’s see: I bumped into Cheryl at the grocery store and she started complaining about the new Little League board like I wasn’t just diagnosed with cancer. Clearly, Cheryl is Not My Friend. Last week I ran into Emma at soccer pick-up for the first time since the cancer news went viral. She mush-mouthed something about how she kept meaning to check in, then scooted away like she was late for daycare where they charge you by the minute. Step it up, Emma, you may get bumped to the Not My Friend list. Yesterday Barbara brought me a latte and a chocolate chip biscotti from that new bakery in town. Barbara is definitely My Friend, currently ranked at #1—Way to go, Barbara!
Cancer did help me find out who my friends are, but not as a reflection of the quality or depth of our friendships. I wasn’t judging their worthiness or success at being a friend. Adversity showed me who my friends are as people. What their strengths and weaknesses are, what they are drawn to, how they show love, the kind of support and engagement they are capable of. Not everyone could make a healthy, appetizing home-cooked meal for four picky eaters with differing needs. (I sure as hell can’t.) Not everyone knows what to do with the overt expression of darkness and sadness. Not everyone can watch a friend suffer in chemo sickness and quietly sit bedside. And it’s OK.
Friends of all stripes—new, old, close, distant, dear, best, casual—bring what they value and what they are comfortable bringing. They have their own ways to communicate love and caring, and their own zones of comfort with bodily functions both basic and lofty. Cancer treatment presents a series of challenges, from deeply emotional reactions to nasty physical symptoms, and all manner of minutiae and meanderings in between. People will show up at different times in different ways that work for them, and it all has intrinsic value by the simple virtue of being offered.
Cindy cut my hair after my second chemo infusion when I needed a bob to prepare for the eventual hair loss. With little experience but a decided air of authority, she was all business and calm and did a pretty damn good job. Cindy is a force of action anyway, she is the one standing in the kitchen at the end of any party cleaning platters and boxing up leftovers. Once a flight attendant, currently an upscale waitress with talk of training to be a doula, Cindy’s wheelhouse is happily and efficiently Getting Shit Done. She put in full days at my house while I was in bed, too sick to do much but use the bathroom. She would swoop in and leave me food on a tray; I could hear her throughout the house cleaning this and that for hours. We barely spoke, but I was lovingly taken care of.
Jenna was much the same way, although she comes at it from a more motherly place. She is The Barefoot Contessa at heart, creating lovely spaces and feeding her loved ones rich hearty food. She taught me the southern slang word “sussie,” by giving unexpected gifts and treats whenever she can. She spent days with me at chemo, feeding me popsicles and giggles, distracting me and keeping me company. She spent an entire day working with Cindy early on; I could hear enough murmurings between the two of them to discern them divvying up jobs and tending to me and my home through the thick August heat. Jenna kicked me out of bed at one point, to swap the bedding with a new set she had just run to Target to purchase. I was afraid the t-shirt fabric sheets would be too hot for my afternoon fever, but I agreed to them anyway. When someone wanted to do something, I let them. Let the caretaker take care.
It was my mission as treatment started to let people help, whoever they were and in whatever way they wanted to. Due in no small part to the “it takes a village” mentality that is generally fostered in parenthood and specifically emphasized in my community, I held the intention of letting people help as they can. It helped me too to aim for acceptance, because it diminished the chances of being disappointed by any one person or feeling some needs weren’t being met. It turned out to be just as my mother always told me: it pays to have a diverse smattering of friends, because different friends are good for different things.
Brandi is in human resources and has impeccable taste: she showed up on my doorstep with an amazing basket of books, magazines, lotions and a blanket I still use every day. Liz is an expressive goofball who snuck a handmade sign with my name on it into Disneyland to have my favorite Winnie the Pooh pose for pictures with it. Megan has a busy life with three kids, a husband, and a full-time job, she sent her love to me through the computer by setting up and managing my housecleaning and meal deliveries. My whole family was tended to through her efforts.
One of my favorite constants during treatment were long email exchanges with my cousin Amy. We gave updates on our lives and rarely discussed my treatment; I read all about her kids’ activities and what was new at work. I wrote to her of my kids’ theater productions, and asked for book recommendations. She apologized at one point, wondering if the mundane nature of our writing was lame, superfluous. On the contrary, I treasured her conversation: it was the closest thing to normal in my life.
I’m still looking at my friends, at all the people in my life, with the sharpened lens of adversity. The challenges I face now are different of course—after treatment my needs and struggles are not immediately apparent, but tucked up neatly inside my head and hidden under regular clothes. I don’t have a cooler on my porch to collect donated dinners, and although my kitchen floor needs mopping just as desperately as it did during chemo, no cavalry of caregivers are arriving to save the day. Carpool turns are the more traditional tit-for-tat; I don’t get flowers or cards just to boost my spirits.
Every time a friend shows me who she is, what she is and isn’t capable of, I try to remember it. It doesn’t make that person less of a friend but it does make her a certain kind of friend. I may not go to a particular friend when I need to explore an emotionally charged issue, but can still cherish her capacity for fun gossip or commiseration about parenting concerns. Someone’s weak suit or blind spot doesn’t mean I have to demote her classification of friendship. Our friendship can have its own terms. We are still friends even if she can’t analyze my dreams or surprise me with a pot of homemade chicken soup. And bringing soup doesn’t make one friend better than another.
I find myself wanting to eliminate the hierarchy of friendship, perhaps with some inspiration from Facebook, where the automatic stratum is Friend no matter how long you’ve known someone or in what capacity. The truth is: sometimes close friends make you feel alone, sometimes acquaintances come through for you unexpectedly. Sometimes strong friendship grows out of a shared experience and withers when circumstances change. My goal now is to remember who my friends are when I’m not in turmoil and urgent need, to believe them when they exhibit what they value, to receive their love how they are comfortable giving, and accept what they are—and aren’t—capable of. I hope they can do the same for me and still call me Friend.
Kate Riener Boyd is a writer, graphic/web designer, mom, wife, theater enthusiast, and two-time cancer survivor living in Northern California. She launched her blog How to Cancer to help other patients, caregivers and loved ones navigate cancer treatment and its aftermath with humor and honesty.
This is part of a series of guest blogs from Kate! Visit How to Cancer to read more of Kate’s take on everything cancer has to offer.