Thursday, February 23, 2012

Auld Acquaintance

Matt has a few friends that he's known since they were all in preschool, which I think is awesome.

The furthest back I can go (not counting a couple of Facebook acquaintances that don't even say hi once in a while) would be Jenn (forever enshrined in my brain as "Jennie B."), who I met when we were in the 7th grade. Our friendship has been very on-and-off -- she moved away when she was in the 9th grade, and aside from sporadic letters and a couple of summer visits (this was before email), I didn't really hear from her again until a bit before her wedding, when she called out of the blue to ask me to be a bridesmaid.

(It was a fall wedding, about a week before my birthday. Jenn and her stepmom hand-sewed all the bridesmaid's dresses out of antique gold silk. I still have mine; it may well be one of the most beautiful dresses I've ever worn. It's also the only bridesmaid dress that I ever got a second use out of, since the gold made it a lovely Christmas dress.)

The next year, she came to my wedding and, though I didn't have any bridesmaids, she stood up at the reception and gave what would have been the maid of honor's speech. (It also happened to be her birthday. I didn't do that on purpose. What's funny is that I'd never, never been able to correctly remember her birthday; for some reason my brain insisted that it was the 19th, no matter how many times she corrected me. Well, now I can remember.)

We fell out of touch again for a while after that, but she popped back up when Penny was born, and now we're in semi-regular contact, and I see her once a month or so.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about. (Shades of Alice's Restaurant, there.)

After Jenn, the friend I've known longest is Mila. Mila and I met in the 8th grade, and we were the very closest of friends all the way through high school. She's older than me by a mere ten days, but was always years more mature. She introduced me to science fiction and fantasy and graphic novels. I tutored her through math. We would get on the phone nearly every night (this was before texting) and talk until we had to go to bed, though when I say "talk" I don't necessarily mean talk so much as tuck the phones under our ears and read books together, occasionally speaking up to read particularly good bits aloud. I spent as many nights at her house as I could possibly get away with, and I called her mother "Mommy" and I bummed rides from her older brother (who was hot, but I would never have admitted it under torture, because Mila was my friend).

We went to different colleges, and kept up over breaks, but eventually drifted apart. Every few years, I'd run into her while she was in town visiting her mom, or I'd run into her mom in a store, and we'd spend an hour or two catching up and talking about everything under the sun, and then promise to stay in touch and then it wouldn't happen.

She popped up on Facebook, but doesn't use it much, but that's all right, because neither do I. Every few days I'll log in and send her a poke, and every few days she logs in and pokes me back. We don't chat, but it gives me a warm feeling when I log in and there's a fresh "Mila poked you!" message up in the corner. It's a reminder of the days when we were in Latin or Geometry or History class together and she'd pass me a folded-up note under the desk and I'd unfold it and right at the top would be "pokepokepoke" and I would try to stifle my giggle and I'd write "Aaaargh! pokepokepokepoke!" next to her pokes and fold it up and pass it back to her. (We thought we were flying under the radar and avoiding disruption. From an adult perspective, all I can do is marvel at the patience of our teachers, because we never once got in serious trouble over this chronic note-passing.)

Tuesday night, I checked my email while Matt was taking out the trash, and was surprised to see a message from Mila.

The funny thing that came out of that message was the complete coincidence that her cell phone number is mine, plus one. Take the last digit of my cell number, add one, and that's her cell number. She doesn't even live in the same state as me, anymore. Her area code matches because she got the phone through her mom's plan, years ago. Completely out of the blue and random and bizarrely coincidental. And completely typical for us.

The unfunny thing that came out of the message was that she's just learned she has cancer.

When Matt came in from taking out the trash, I told him, and he looked into my stunned eyes and said, "Call her."

So I did. We talked for forty-five minutes or so, and I learned that she doesn't really know anything about the cancer -- they'd only just discovered it on Friday and she was waiting on further test results. And then we talked about our families (her brother had a heart attack last fall, which is much more in line with her family's medical history, and she joked that obviously she got cancer just so she could upstage him) and our jobs and our vacation plans. And then she promised to keep me updated, and we hung up.

I was rocked, but holding it together, mostly. And then yesterday she sent me a text message that the tests show the cancer has spread, so there will be chemo in addition to the surgery that was already in the planning stages. And I thought about her losing her hair, and how jealous I was all through high school that she could grow her hair so much longer than mine, and I lost it, a little bit.

"Just tell me before you fly out there," Matt said, Tuesday night.

Mila and I are not the closest of friends anymore, like we were in high school. I can only think of one situation that would put me on a plane, now. I can't say the words. Even the Mutant Worrybrain won't touch it, because the Mutant Worrybrain specializes in things that are all but impossible. I can only pray that it won't happen.

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