“A lot of my friends are getting divorced,” another parent said to me as we stood around and waited for practice to end. There’s a lot of down-time hanging around with other parents when you’re raising kids. Ball games, swim meets, the school pick-up line are all littered with parents standing off to the sides waiting, comparing notes.
My impression is that the parent talking to me is about ten years younger than I. I’ve noticed during our previous conversations that our cultural references seem about a decade apart. “Yes, I went through that phase,” I said. “Now I’m going through the phase where my friends have begun dying.”
It’s an exaggeration, yet something has shifted. When I was ten years younger, the assumed age of the other mom, I hadn’t yet experienced the loss of a friend. In the past four years, it’s happened twice. Maybe it’s nothing more than statistical bad luck, but it feels like a trend. It feels like I’m getting older, which in this case, is enviable to the alternative.
Losing Erika wasn’t like getting punched in the stomach. It was obvious it was coming. It’s felt more like a lingering discomfort that never seems to go away.
Our friendship made no sense. It wasn’t built on any foundation that should have been lasting. It wasn’t propelled forward by proximity, like so many friendships are. We didn’t have interests in common that would keep reminding us of each other. We didn’t even have friends in common, that element that binds people across geography and time, when the basic bond has broken.
There was nothing about our friendship that made sense, but it moved forward anyway.
I needed a roommate. I was living without cable, trying to make it to Thanksgiving without running the heat, and driving a car with tires that needed air once a week and an engine that needed a quart of oil at the same interval. Someone mentioned to me that having a roommate would immediately impact my cash flow favorably. I went to the local university and found her notice on a bulletin board.
When I called the number, a man answered. He told me my potential roommate was out of the country and couldn’t meet with me herself, but he was authorized to interview me and show me around the house. She was in Turkey, the man (who I later found out was her ex-boyfriend) told me. I would have my own bedroom and the hall bathroom would be mine, he continued. I could use the television and the stereo, he said. The woman who would be my roommate would be back in two weeks. I decided to rent the place, mostly because I sensed she wouldn’t be around a lot, and it would be a lot like having my own place.
After I moved in, I began snooping around her bedroom to try to figure out what my new roommate might be like and even what she looked like. I saw lots of souvenirs from Asia and Europe. I saw a bicycle in the garage. I found lots of strange cooking utensils.
After two weeks, I heard a key in the door one afternoon. She came in and introduced herself: Erika. I’d been looking through her things for a few weeks now, so I was pretty sure we had little in common, but meeting her confirmed it.
She had stories about Turkey and Greece, and the other countries she had been in since she had last been in the house. She told me her field of study was AgEcon, and since I had never seen the word written, or heard the word, I had to sound it out in my mind a few times to try to understand what she’d said.
In the coming days, more and more things came out, and I was familiar with none of them. She began eating food I didn’t recognize, she watched television shows I had never seen, and she kept a schedule that I couldn’t understand. She rarely slept, but would come home on her bicycle at some point during the night, and she would wake up at 5 a.m. each morning and drive somewhere in her car. I thought our housing relationship might work better if we kept some distance, so I didn’t ask what she was doing, but instead tried to figure it out by listening to bits and pieces of conversation and once in a while asking a question.
She was working on her PhD in Agricultural Economics. Her field of study centered on wheat yields, and she traveled to many foreign countries to better understand growing techniques and conduct studies. She was a Chinese American from Nashville, and she’d nearly been killed in an accident two years earlier when she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle.
She came home for dinner every night, and would make herself Chinese food from scratch, usually sautéing some bok choy and broccoli with sauce and eating it over rice. She would leave again and come back at 11:30 p.m. each night, after having logged several more hours in her small office at the university, then she would wake up at dawn, when she would drive to crew practice, returning home each morning about the time I was waking up.
If there was something we had in common, it was a mutual amusement with each other’s lifestyle. She would smirk (I later realized, smile) when she saw me preparing meals: toaster streudels with icing packets for breakfast, sugar cereal for dinner. I would shake my head when she brought the bok choy out again.
I watched my tape each evening of the earlier day’s broadcast of All My Children. She laughed at the plotlines and then waited for me to leave the room to turn on the BBC News. She explained to me what a “century” was, as it related to bicycling, and she told me how to build a snow cave, as it related to search and rescue, a term in and of itself, that needed explaining.
After a while, once in a while, we would talk about things that went beyond our routines, the comings and goings of the house, and housekeeping concerns. One day she referenced the car hitting her, and we talked about that. We entered an NCAA basketball pool together, and we ran a 5k race together one time.
Finally, after about two years, she finished her PhD and took a job in Mexico. I helped her pack up most of her belongings and put them in storage. I went to her graduation party, and I went out to dinner with her family when they were in town for her graduation. Her mother was kind to me, and I was proud of the seemingly fragile friendship her daughter and I had formed. Erika had so many friends—she’d been to so many places—I could hardly believe she had space for me. And still, we were an odd fit as friends, but odd fit or not, we stayed in touch.
We began talking on the phone every other month. We knew enough about each other’s lives at this point to be able to talk for hours, even when we still didn’t share many interests. Having an interest in each other was enough for us to have in common.
It was during one of those phone calls that she told me her mom’s breast cancer had returned. To be honest, I don’t recall for sure—it may have been her mother’s ovarian cancer that returned. There was so much cancer, it runs together in my mind at this point. Somewhere in there, her father died. He had been old and in failing health, so it wasn’t unexpected, but being unexpected doesn’t mean there isn’t deep pain felt with the loss.
Our emails were frequent, too, but never more frequent than when Erika became interested in a man she knew. She was stronger than the average person in so many ways, smarter, more worldly, more educated, more athletic, more talented, and when she was in love, she was as unconfident and insecure as the average twelve-year-old. Email after email would arrive to my inbox at work. She would describe every detail of her encounters with this man and consistently write, “I don’t know, I don’t think he likes me.” Then another email would arrive a few minutes later, “Do you think it’s possible he is interested?”
He was, and after a while, they went to the top of a mountain and were married. Sometime around then, or before then, I believe, she found breast cancer. I got those emails, too. “I don’t think it’s cancer, it doesn’t make sense,” followed up by, “do you think it could be cancer?”
Somewhere around then, her mother died.
Then, after that, came her ovarian cancer. She was her mother’s daughter, in so many, many ways.
Today, there is the other mother standing next to me at the practice, who is, most likely, a decade younger than I. There is also my coworker friend, my former walking partner, who is a decade older than I. Just like the parents, standing around, making the waiting-around times go by with small talk, there are coworkers who present themselves walking from the parking garage, waiting for the elevator and standing in line for lunch. We were talking about this age, the one where we lose our first friends to death. He told me, “Yeah, I remember that. There is a little wave of deaths at your age, and then it stops for a while, only to start up again a decade later.”
Erika was still calling me, right up until the end, and we were talking about her illness. She was so educated, and she had the ability to travel, so she sought out the best treatments and doctors. Once, she told me that the airline will wheel a person from flight to flight if you’re too weak to walk to your connecting flight. After all the flying she’d done, she was amused that the airlines were responsible for getting her to the next flight when she was week from chemo. Soon after, an email came from her husband asking for a volunteer to help her get to a doctor’s appointment. Then, a website was set up to chronicle her days and keep her friends informed.
All so obvious. Such clear signs. Aren’t the signs always so clear at the end? Why are we always missing them, then?
She called me, and I, triplet mom, was consumed with being a triplet mom. It is consuming—then again, wouldn’t dying be? We talked about how I was getting ready to fly with three babies. We talked about the preparations and how I thought it would work, what I was packing, whether the airlines would do anything to help. I remember, this is what we talked about—my upcoming flight.
When I returned home from the trip, I logged onto the website, the website designed to make it easy on her, so that she wouldn’t have to update people all the time with information about how she was doing. There was a posting from her family describing how she had passed away, how it was peaceful, how it was with her husband.
A few years later, I lost another friend, one who wasn’t nearly as close to me, but who had helped me out in some profound ways.
It’s only two, but it feels like a trend, and I wonder whether I have made it far enough along where I won’t face it again until another decade has passed. This theory that my coworker friend has might be accurate. I don’t know.
Wedding days are a blur. I suppose brides are mostly thinking about the dress and the hair and makeup and whether people are having fun and things are working. The photos of the day seem to tell the story of the day better than memory.
It was in the wedding photos that I saw a picture of her. She was sitting in the corner of the room where I was getting dressed. I had forgotten. I now remember someone bringing her to me a few minutes before the photo was taken, saying, “Look who I found upstairs.” In the photo, she is laughing. She is probably thinking about me watching the soap opera, and eating those toaster streudels with the icing packets and asking her what “crew” is and why isn’t it called rowing? I remember my mom saying to me, a few days after the wedding, or a few weeks later, that Erika was telling her how much our phone calls had meant to her, how I always gave such good advice.
I always knew what I saw in her as a friend—worldly, athletic, accomplished, intelligent, generous—but I had never known what she had seen in me. How was it possible to build such a strong foundation for a friendship, with nothing in common? I guess liking someone is enough. Standing in these lines, waiting, waiting for kids to be done, I like these people, and I try to build foundations on it, and we talk about phases in life.