Love, Interrupted

By Beth Mann

But now it's gone
It doesn't matter what for
When you build your house
Then call me home

-- "Sara," Fleetwood Mac

I'm not sure why you stopped talking to me. It happened slowly, like rust. There was no big fall-out, no noteworthy event. Suddenly, we were no longer speaking. The lines fell. The divide formed.

The passivity of women can run deep. But you and I are different. We're the outspoken women who yell when angry and cry out when sad. We express. What happened, Kris?

Maybe it started after the diagnosis. You saw it coming. Even when we were teenagers, you knew you'd have breast cancer. Your mother had it and you just felt it in your bones. It was no surprise.

The size was a surprise, though. A baseball, they said. A fucking baseball. I moved from San Francisco to New York, in part to be closer to you. But somehow my own survival became an issue and I wasn't as bedside as I wanted to be.

When they removed your breasts, you showed me your flattened, sutured chest. There was nothing you could show me that would shock me. You are my best friend. Your scars are mine, I said.

"No, they're not, Beth. They're my scars. You still have breasts."

I tried to understand the difference that was forming, but somehow never grasped it the way you wanted me to. Perhaps I am too self-centered. Is that why you're mad?

"When am I ever going to have sex again, Beth? Who's going to want to have sex with me now?"

You always loved sex, dear Krissie, almost to a fault. You put the horniest sailor to shame.

"I want to have sex," you said many times in the past, apropos of nothing. "I want to have sex now."

"Kris, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe you'll meet someone at the party tonight."

"I better... because I want to have sex."

"I heard you the first time, Kris."

But now, breastless, you felt sexless. And I didn't know how to give that back to you. Your sex drive was your lifeline.

"I'll get out of New York and come visit you for Christmas," I told you, during our last phone conversation. (No one tells you it will be the last time you'll speak on the phone. No announcements are made. You would no longer accept my calls after that.)

A year passed. Calls placed. Letters. Pictures. Anything. Friends tried to intervene.

"She's getting worse, Beth. You need to come see her."

"She doesn't want to see me. She hasn't responded to me in a year. I must have done something very wrong."

"It doesn't matter now."

The secondhand stories grow worse: You can't walk that well. Your bones begin to snap. Your face changes, shifts, hollows. You are only 42 and dying of breast cancer. A massive clock in a pitch-black sky ticks loudly in my ears.

You always served as the big sister -- a role you didn't always relish. I was the emotional mess and you were the semi-reluctant anchor. Maybe this time you needed to be the emotional mess. And it's just too late for us to change roles. Is that why you won't speak to me?

Maybe my problems were too dismaying. You yelled at me several years ago, as I related an event where I put myself in jeopardy with drugs, men, sex, booze and recklessness. "What the hell is your problem? What would possess you to put yourself in that situation?" you admonished.

Unable to answer, I felt shame. Shame that you, my closest friend, saw the train wreck that was my life and could no longer tolerate it.

I'm racing down a highway in South Jersey, trying to get to you. You have hours to live, they tell me. Hours. I race and race, but cannot erase the years that have gone by since we last spoke.

At your house, your mother is waiting on the steps, fragile, shaken, deeply worn.

"Please, Beth. Don't upset her. I know you two... please, it doesn't matter anymore."

As I hug her, I flash back to other times in my life when a gatekeeper intervened -- someone to warn me before walking through a doorway and facing death. When my mother was dying, it was my brother-in-law who stopped me and said sternly: "Before you go in, Beth... your mom looks differently since the last time. Just be... " I pushed him aside and walked in the door.

When I enter the shrine of your air-conditioned bedroom, with the curtains drawn and music playing, your eyes light up.

Oh thank you, God. You're not mad at me. You're not mad at me, friend! Those eyes are happy to see me.

I crumple next to you, like a broken doll. You try to splash cold water on my face because you see how red I am, from racing, crying, humiliation. Leave it to you to worry about my comfort at that moment. Leave it to you to be the better person.

Then you say something that stuns me:

"I don't know how to say I'm sorry," you utter, in this weak, garbled voice.

"You? You don't know how to say you're sorry? I'm sorry. I'm the bad friend. I'm the selfish one. I didn't show up enough and... "

"No. That wasn't it. That's not why... "

"God... then why?"

You try so hard to find the words but it's exhausting, stretching and reaching for words, words, words, and you are so tired. You look at me pleadingly, as if to say, "Read my mind, Beth. I can't work any harder."

"Does it matter, Kris... does it?"

"No. No, it doesn't. At all." That comes out very clearly. In your old voice.

And we let it go. At that very moment. Our silence is broken. All is forgiven. The white birds fly out the window and our friendship is restored and whole again. I belong by your side.

I sit bedside and sing songs quietly to you the rest of the afternoon, as you restlessly sleep, fighting some imaginary blanket being pulled over you. At one point, you bolt upright in bed. Wide-eyed, you look at me and ask, "Am I dying?"

The words, heavy as lead, fall from my mouth. "Yes, Krissie, you are dying."

You lie back down with a heavy sigh, defeated. Soon you're sleeping again. Your breath becomes slower, labored.

I sing all the songs we love to sing, over wine, over food, over cigarettes, over stories, over love, over loss, over life. Our little anthems from our humble suburban Jersey lives.

I could tell you enjoyed it. A slight smile sometimes. I sing our songs like little lullabies and put you to sleep. One of our favorites is "Sara" by Fleetwood Mac.

Beth Mann is an artist and popular online writer. She runs Hot Buttered Media, a distinctive and funky media company based at the Jersey shore. She is a pretty good surfer and likes brownies and wine in her spare time. Read her blog on Red Room.