Christie O. Tate
My friend Meredith is dying. I find myself blurting that out to people in conversation, whether they know her or not. Actually, whether they know me or not.
On Sunday mornings I run on the lake with women in my neighborhood. The only thing we have in common is that we’re moms of grade school kids, and we like to run. We don’t talk about personal stuff like our sex lives or eating disorders or how we feel about our fathers. We talk mileage, tennis shoes, how the new high-rise on Roosevelt Road will affect traffic patterns. One Sunday a woman who joined us for the first time asked me about my plans for Thanksgiving. Did I tell her about our crack-of-dawn flight to Texas or the bar-b-que turkey we ordered from County Line? No. I said, “My friend Meredith is dying.”
Jeff and I were at a potluck party for all the first grade parents. We were both balancing small plates of shrimp, cheese squares, and artichoke dip with pita points while making small talk with the other parents. Ms. Winchester, the teacher, approached us to glow about Simon. “He always has us in stitches. Where did he learn all those knock-knock jokes?” Jeff had just sunk his teeth into a shrimp, so they both swiveled toward me. Normally, I can be counted on to make lively conversation at parties. A bon mot or whatnot. But all I offered was: “I have friend, Meredith, she’s dying.”
Last Tuesday when I picked Sadie up at dance, she dragged me away from her teacher because she said I had a funny look in my eye. “I knew you were going to tell Mr. Niles about Meredith. You have to stop, Mom.”
She’s right. People don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say.
Sometimes it feels like I made the whole thing up: the prognosis, the metastases, that I even know a woman named Meredith, and she’s my friend. Sometimes it feels like I fell asleep watching a Netflix show about a woman who has a sick friend named Meredith so none of this is real or belongs to me.
Meredith and I met in a 12-step meeting. By the time I slithered in with my skid-marked heart and roster of sins, she’d already cleaned up. She wore colorful scarves tied just so, had a job with benefits, and peppered her speech with terms of endearment: Honey, Dear, Sweetie, Kiddo. People flocked to her when they were ready for real-deal spiritual wisdom, something meatier than the pat slogans about the next 24-hours. I avoided her for two straight years.
The first time we spoke, Meredith leaned over to me in the middle of a meeting. I’d just shared about going to the movies alone and how much I hated my stupid sober life. Meredith whispered, “You don’t have to go to the movies by yourself. You could reach out to us.” It had never occurred to me that anyone would want to see Amelie with me. I didn’t know that I was part of her “us.” By then, I knew Meredith’s serenity was no fluke. I’d heard the story of her setting her house on fire before she went to treatment. I knew her wreckage included a marriage, a career, and a decade of life. Meredith wasn’t born serene. She’d fought for it, and she was willing to share it with me.
To remind myself that Meredith, for now, is very much alive and a living, breathing friend of mine, I text her every day. Stuff about my therapy sessions. Tidbits about Jeff or my work schedule. She knows I’m trying to go a year without shopping, so I’ll confess to her when I sneak stuff into my shopping cart at Nordstrom.com.
I see Meredith more often than our other friends do. She and I have breakfast on Monday mornings. Our friends keep asking me questions like, Is she really dying?
What the fuck kind of question is Is she really dying?
What is wrong with people?
I tell them all the same thing: That Mere called me on a Saturday in October after she’d seen the doctor about her cough. Turns out, there were spots on her lungs, and those spots told a stage IV story.
I don’t tell them my side of the conversation that afternoon.
“Spots?” I’d said, stupidly, picturing a white dog with black dots—like there was a fucking Dalmatian on her x-ray.
I don’t tell them how, after we hung up, I locked myself in the Barnes & Noble bathroom, rocking and shaking, my hands too unsteady to text anything but gibberish, my heart too contracted to draw a full breath.
Yes, I was worried about Meredith and what lay ahead for her and her body. But also this: all the ways I would fail her in the coming months by making tasteless jokes, by fearing the sight of her, by planning for a future she would never see. By having spotless lungs.
One Monday, Karlene joined me and Meredith at the cafe. Meredith pulled an inch-thick stack of papers out of her gray tote bag. Karlene’s a doctor—ENT—so she knew what she was looking at. She plucked the top page off the stack, shifted her reading glasses to the end of her nose, and read aloud: “Three millimeter lesion on the left side of the liver . . . lesions in the pelvic bone . . . lesions on the right lower quadrant of the lung.”
We were done eating so there was no crust to pinch between my fingers, no dollop of egg yolk to poke with my fork. I kept picking up my coffee cup to take a sip only to find it was dry as if there’d never been any coffee in it. Literally, not a drop. My leg jangled so hard that it was pushing the eggs I’d just eaten back up my throat.
Karlene read on—about lesions. I thought of AIDS. Specifically, Tom Hanks’ face in Philadelphia. It’s bullshit that this report did not say the word “cancer” anywhere on it.
If you have lesions on your lungs, liver, and bones, you are dying right?
Years ago, Meredith and I sat at my glass-topped kitchen table and put words to the longings and terrors in our hearts around relationships. We narrated the lives we could have if we could just get out of our own way. It was like Oprah’s vision boards without the glue sticks.
We were both dating men named Jeff. We were both so close to living a new story.
Her Jeff wanted a commitment, but Meredith was scared. She still saw herself as the sick woman who set her house on fire. She could only see the woman before the surrender, before the scarves, before the wisdom had sunk into her bones.
“I’m not one hundred percent ready. I don’t know if I ever will be,” she said, her lovely blue eyes shiny with doubt.
“Fuck one hundred percent,” I said, sweeping my arm across my body. “Your desire to commit only has to be some amount greater than your desire to run. Don’t aim for one hundred percent. Aim for fifty one percent. Or fifty point one percent.”
“Really? Could fifty one percent be enough?”
“Why the hell not?”
For weeks, she left messages with her percentages. Fifty four percent. Fifty eight. She soared to seventy percent the night her Jeff gave her a back rub during the Bears game.
After her wedding shower at my house, I carried presents, flowers, and leftover cake to her car. Her face flushed with happiness in the late May sunshine.
“How does it feel?” I asked—to be a bride, to step into the life she deserved, to own the self with the scarves, the dignity, the adoring partner.
“I’m hovering at seventy percent,” she said.
“More than enough.”
“You and your hinky math.”
I watched her drive off, red roses bobbing in the back seat like eager children.
On Monday mornings when I find Meredith at the café, weeping and staring out the window, I brace myself when I take a seat by wrapping my legs around the chair legs. When I twine my knees and ankles and feet around the chair legs until they are snug, I feel grounded, capable of carrying the weight of the spots.
Sometimes my feet fall asleep, and I get that tingly feeling like there are shooting stars under my metatarsals.
It’s not always weeping and trembling at the feet of an uncertain future. Once Meredith was perched on the edge of her seat in hot pink cigarette pants excited to show me her new lipstick. It was like we had a million days ahead of us, plenty of time to debate matte versus gloss. My limbs felt loose. I slouched in the booth, relieved of the burden of vigilance. Our laughter was all the protection we needed. Before we slid out and launched into our days, I mentioned that I wanted to see Willie Nelson’s show Rockford.
“But Jeff’s not really feeling it,” I said.
“I am! Can I go?” she said. A prickle of fear shimmied up my spine. You know what I was thinking—the show’s not until April and what if… But my hands overrode my betrayal by pulling out my phone and ordering the tickets on my phone right there. Tenth row center.
But then there was the morning, a few weeks later, when Meredith slipped two boxes across the table for me—one with a pearl necklace, the other with an onyx pendant. I had to wrap my legs and squeeze extra hard, tensing the muscles in my feet, calves, belly, neck, arms, hands. All of them.
I didn’t realize it was time to give away jewelry. I didn’t realize I would be getting two pieces.
One tear escaped when she said, “I feel so grateful. Most people don’t know how they are going to die and they don’t get a chance to say good bye. But I do.” It sounds cheesy, or false, like an obvious echo from the well of denial. But it wasn’t. It was dart shot out of her purest heart straight to mine.
“I didn’t think you were going to say that,” I said, putting my tea cup to my lips to hide the sob creeping up my throat. The hitch in my voice made my mouth water in sympathy for my wet eyes.
To change the subject, I asked, “What’s the hardest part of all of this?”
“The pressure. All these people calling me and texting me. People coming out of the woodwork to invite me to Florida, to send me a healing crystal from Mexico, to recommend their microbiotic diet. My voicemail is full, and I can’t even listen. People are starting to send me stuff in the mail.”
“Oof.” My cool palm slapped my forehead.
“Exactly. The worst. My liver is hard as a rock. The chemo gives me explosive diarrhea. My hair is coming out in clumps. But the worst part, the absolute worst, is the other people.”
“This could be a Seinfeld bit.”
“God, I wish it was.”
My friend Haley asked me to meet for a pedicure. Haley is a big time ER doctor at the University of Chicago Hospital. Before I’d picked out my polish, I was telling her about my friend Meredith, who is dying, and her treatment at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston. Haley put her hand on my shoulder. “Get your friend to a research hospital. There are so many innovations. The regional hospitals don’t have the resources.” A gully in my belly opened up, filled with urgency. I’d wondered why Meredith wasn’t seeking treatment at Northwestern or U of C, but I didn’t think it was my place to meddle in her treatment choices. But with Haley’s hand on my shoulder, and a bottle of OPI’s Ballet Slippers in my hand, my heart was a pilot light whooshed with flame.
I still had that foam separator thing between my toes when I called Meredith.
“But I’m happy with Dr. Knicker and the staff at St. Francis. They know me. They are taking good care of me.”
“But now is the time to engage the best of the best. No one’s heard of St. Francis.”
“They treated my breast cancer in 2000.”
“How’d that work out?”
“This conversation is over.”
We didn’t talk for almost two weeks. Our regular Monday breakfast was cancelled because of snow, and then week after that, she sent a one-line text: I can’t make it. My therapist suggested I make amends to her. A hot fist of defiance shot through my chest.
“Amends? How rude of me to want her to live.”
He got real still, and then leaned forward. Fear straightened my spine.
“People die at Northwestern and University of Chicago. They die all the time.”
He was serious in a quiet, hushed way, like an assassin or a priest. Declaratory sentences were not his style; he was more of a questions guy, like how did that make you feel?
I wrote a long letter to Meredith about how I wanted the best for her. I listed all the things I thought she should do. I guess my concern was that she didn’t feel worthy of the best that modern medicine has to offer. I knew her as someone who would deprive herself of things like pricey haircuts or a bottle of Perrier with lunch. Her parsimony sometimes mimicked self-abuse, and I wanted to make it clear that this was no time for worrying about cab fares and co-pays. It was time for M.D. Anderson or Sloane Kettering or clinical trials in Belgium.
When I re-read the letter, I could see it was all about me and what I wanted.
Not one word of it was about her, really.
It turned my stomach to see me working so hard, page after page, to convince her of something. And the not-subtle accusation that she wasn’t doing it right.
I tore the letter up.
The next Sunday, I ran with the neighborhood moms. One of them had recently put her father in hospice. We paired off during the final mile and fell behind the group. When I told her my friend Meredith was dying and wouldn’t go to a top-tier hospital, she cited a study that showed patients who trust their caregivers have better outcomes in terms of quality of life and a sense of wellbeing, even when they are terminal.
“If your friend is comfortable at St. Francis, then she’s in the right place.”
That night, I flipped to a clean page in my son’s sketch books and wrote: I love you, and I have your back. Love, Christie.
The next time we had breakfast, I stared at the menu I knew by heart. I didn’t trust myself to say the right thing or not say the wrong thing. Truth is, I still wanted her to get a bad ass doctor, like the U of C oncologist who cured the stage four tongue cancer of Grant Achatz, famous chef at Alinea. But more than that, I wanted to be who she needed me to be. I wanted to deserve the seat across from her, the role of friend, the privilege of witness.
I slid the note across the table right after we ordered. Meredith smiled, kissed the paper, and squeezed my hand.
When I remember that squeeze, I know: I’m forgiven.
Christie Tate is a writer and essayist in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, McSweeney’s, Brain, Child, and more. She’s currently working on a memoir about her experiences in group therapy.