My idiot ex husband leaves a voice mail that says my old friend Renae died. He thought I’d like to know. It has been over 20 years since I’d last seen her.
I desperately call him back while scouring obituaries online and digging the last months-worth of newspapers out of the recycling bin. I call a dozen times. He doesn’t answer. I remember that she was the one who brought me and my new born second son home from the hospital. I was alone and afraid in the middle of a divorce.
Renae and I met because our husbands were friends. We both married when we were 18 years old and pregnant. Our babies were due on the same day. We were in touch every day. Counseling each other through our pregnancies—“I can’t believe what’s happening to my boobs!”—and motherhood—“How long do they have to wear diapers anyway?”—and coping with husbands who were more interested in hanging out in bars than being fathers—“Want to have a sleep over and play Scrabble?” It was like walking a tightrope but finding comfort in the fact that you could look out and see someone else out there along with you, far from the edge.
I take a chance and call the last phone number I had for her. A number that I kept even when I updated my address book and discarded others. Disconnected. I search for her on FaceBook and LinkedIn. I remember the time that we took our little boys to State Fair. She bent over to feed the baby animals and a little goat chewed the buttons off of her blouse.
Finally, the idiot calls back and says that he was mistaken. She isn’t dead yet but has cancer and will be dead any day now. “Do you have a phone number? Does she still live in the same house?” He doesn’t know. I remember the night Renae and I called the police because we couldn’t find her son anywhere. He’d been hiding in the clothes hamper the whole time.
I do the only thing I can do. I write a letter to the old address. I tell her that I miss sitting at her kitchen table with a blue mug of black coffee, with her two-year-old daughter perched on top of the table like a little eaves dropper. I send it out into the universe and hope that it will find her before it’s too late. I think about Renae’s potato salad recipe, the one with the chicken bouillon cube. I’m sure I still have it crammed in that dusty old yellow recipe card box.
A week later I get a text. “It’s good to hear from you. I have stage four lung cancer. Probably have less than a year to live. I would love a visit.” I remember how proud she was that I went to college after my divorce and that she insisted on giving me a manicure on graduation day.
I don’t know what I expected. Maybe her lying in bed, gasping for air, weeping in anticipation of our grand reunion. But the scene I arrive at teleports me back over two decades. It’s exactly the same. Her husband and her son pacing around the yard engaged in some vague chore. Renae meets me at the back door with a cup of coffee. Everything is the same except now she’s bald. I remember that when Sam was a toddler with a penchant for wadding up paper and jamming it up his nose, she advised me to shake pepper into my hand and give him a whiff so that he’d sneeze it out.
We fall right back into step. She shows me pictures of her seven grandchildren and complains about her husband. We have several more visits. I take her to lunch at a restaurant on her bucket list. At a beer garden with our handsome sons who are both now fathers themselves, I have an IPA and she has a coffee. She never liked beer. I volunteer for a few trips to the hospital for chemo pushing her wheel chair through the vast hallways, always making a stop at the gift shop.
On the surface, I aim to be helpful but clearly being with her is feeding my own soul in a way that feels selfish. She doesn’t really need me. She has plenty of support from legions of friends and family members. Yet, I get to be the long lost friend that resurfaces just in time to provide comfort. And I’m paying my penance, assuaging my guilt for leaving her behind, for not taking her with me on the journey of life.
We talk about death. She tells me that she believes in an after life. She says that she has to. She would like me to help her write letters to her children. But she’s not ready. I promise to do my best to stay in touch with them.
I wonder why we ever lost touch in the first place. Would we ever have reconnected if she wasn’t dying? Will I be able to stay in touch with her daughter Katie any better? I decide that it doesn’t matter. What counts for both of us is being together in this moment. I guess my ex isn’t such an idiot after all. He called because he knew Renae was important to me and I’m grateful.
Right before Christmas, when Renae can no longer get out of bed, I’m summoned. She wants to see me. It will be our last visit. She has a gift for me. It’s a bracelet with a “friends forever” charm. I rub her legs to help ease her pain. My last gift to her.