Annie, a best friend of fifty years, calls me from Chicago. She says, “Drew’s tests came back positive.”
I freeze: our other best friend has cancer. My mind flashes to wild-haired teen-age Drew in the 1960s: how he whispered to Annie and I only: “I’m gay.” Annie and I spent a few late nights with Drew crafting his coming-out talk, ripping, scrunching up and shooting the early drafts of crumpled lined paper into wastebaskets: “two points!” Annie and I laughed but Drew shook. He kept saying, “My parents won’t get it. They won’t understand.”
Annie waits for me to respond. Throat closed, I stand stiff. I remember Drew sobbing as a twenty-one-year-old, calling from his college to mine after his first love said, “I want to date others.”
I had no idea how to help him then. And now I sense his smile and feel —as if it were happening today— our middle-aged, bald Drew squeezing my hand as Annie and I stood on either side of him at his wedding to lanky Mike in NYC last year. It mattered to Drew that Annie and I love Mike too.
Annie sniffles and I manage to croak out, “Wow.” Across the miles, we cry together. I tell her, “I’m scared.”
Annie says, “I want to fly to New York to see Drew and I can’t right now. I feel so awful, like a bad friend.”
More tears. Voice cracking, I say, “I’m so sorry.”
Annie says, “I’m just so sad.”
We hang up and I stand alone in my bathroom. When my body screams a deep call to rest, right then in the midst of fear and sadness, I get a bright idea: “I-gotta-clean.” Emotionally I shut down. Physically I open every cupboard, pull Aveda shampoo and conditioner from the shelves, trash the Tums that expired in 1996, Clorox-wash the oozing Neosporin tubes. I make a “his” and “hers” sections. I organize my husband’s supply of electric toothbrush attachments and his moustache clippers on a shelf higher than mine, where I arrange my Patchouli bubble bath and calendula lotion. Tidy. Much more space.
Drew might die. Life whirls, mostly outside my control. I can’t make order of the chaos in the diagnosis and prognosis for Drew. I can’t make it better for Annie. I can’t shuffle and polish life’s messiness so I neaten what I can. I grab the Lysol disinfecting wipes and move to de-tox the kitchen. I empty the refrigerator shelves, I take all the bottles off the door, rinse them, and put them back: Paul Newman’s Lite Italian salad dressing with Annie’s Lite Raspberry Vinaigrette; jams and jellies next to the organic almond butter. The insides sparkle. But Annie will never know and Drew won’t care. In fact he teases me about cleaning. Housework is one of our jokes: he calls it “squirreling.” I dust a fresh box of Arm and Hammer baking soda and then place it on the middle shelf. It has to be the middle shelf.
The house now spotless, I have nothing to do but feel the rawness of life and death. Because I stop, I finally hear the words of Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron who invites us to accept the “Wisdom of No Escape.” No escape. My mind can’t concoct any more distracting projects. Nowhere to go. No solutions. I return to my aching heart. And, as in my kitchen and bathroom, I find more space inside me too. I feel. Yes, I feel: a slight heartbeat skip here; a gut clutched in fear there. Clearing the external clutter was perhaps like brushing away cobwebs. Now I can unclench and breathe again. And when the doing ends, when I see that the busy-ness won’t help Annie, Drew or me long-term, I find the willingness to face my inner debris. I drop into being.
I sit. I feel until there is not much vacuuming left to do inside either. Out of the quiet, a question arises, “How would it be not to run from this uncertainty?”
I remember more words of Pema: “Knowing pain is a very important ingredient of being there for another person. When you are feeling a lot of grief, you can look right into somebody’s eyes…. The (pain) humbles us and softens us.”
At least in this moment, not needing life to be spick and span just now, and still without any idea of how to help him, I pick up the phone and call Drew. This is a sacred time.