Sometimes, a friendship begins at the end.
I first met Lynn in the fall of 2009 on the WebMD Multiple Sclerosis online support site. It was a rocky beginning; I had posted a lighthearted off-topic story--to which she tersely replied: "Is this relevant to MS, or just more blah-blah?" She had swooped in out of nowhere, it seemed to me then, only to paint a dark stroke of bitter sarcasm across our sunny attempts to deny our bodies' failings. We all labored hard to avoid despair, posting jokes and engaging in silliness. We were like a really big family of children all under the age of ten, and our parents were nowhere to be found.
At first, I avoided responding to Lynn's subsequent posts. I read them carefully, trying to gauge her mercurial persona. One post briefly mentioned that she also had lung cancer and was posting on the Lung Cancer Support page as well. I visited it and read through some of her comments, noting that the group was not very active and she had begun to voice her frustration about the lack of feedback. I felt bad that she couldn't find the support she needed there that we all enjoyed on the MS board. That week, she posted a question about the name of a particular kind of cookie she was craving; I was relieved that I knew she was describing Pirouettes, a rolled wafer, so I posted an answer. She expressed her gratitude. I felt instantly absolved. I had finally pleased her.
One day in January, I found a post from Lynn requesting to contact me privately. I thought it a casually friendly gesture, as several of us had shared our emails and continued to write each other in private. She messaged me that same evening. "Had kind of a long day today,” she wrote. “The cancer has spread. I'll be a goner within a year." “Can they do nothing for you?” I asked, fighting back tears. “It is what it is, darlin’,” was all she said. My head swirled with questions, outrage, grief, confusion. And curiosity. She had singled me out to take this journey with her, making it clear that she preferred not to post the news on the MS forum. “But why not?” I argued, “They would be very supportive and sympathetic.” “I don’t want a pity party,” Lynn said, and that was that. “Then, why me?” I asked, “Did you think I could handle it?” “I think you can handle just about anything, darlin’,” she replied, “just like me.” Thus began our friendship.
We chatted online every day for the next four months. Always the pragmatist, Lynn had quickly gotten her affairs in order. A trust fund for her sons, an offer to her sister, Paula, to buy her house, the arrangements with home health and hospice care, a housecleaning service, and the one thing that actually got her excited: home visits by a massage therapist. We mostly chatted about everyday things: current events, celebrity scandals, family, gardening, and her many radiology procedures for pain management. When I tried to dig deeper into her thoughts and feelings about death, she dodged such questions. “I don’t know what happens after we die,” she stated. “I just don’t know what to feel or think.” Whenever I got weepy about her impending death, she would always write “Quit crying and put on your big girl pants!”
“I want to send you my costume jewelry,” she wrote one day. “Tell me what stones and metals you prefer.” Three weeks before she died, I received a package from her full of necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and three watches. Among them was a marquis-cut garnet pendant on a gold chain. It exactly matched a garnet ring I’d told her about, something I’d had for years but had stopped wearing. “Get that ring resized and start wearing it again,” was all she had said then, not telling me that she had planned to complete the set with that pendant.
“I got the package!” I messaged her that day. “Thanks so much, we have very similar taste.” And the garnet—it exactly matches my ring!” “I thought so,” she wrote back. I sensed something was up. Though we had never heard each other’s voices, I could read her moods in the way she wrote. “Something’s different,” she stated. “I’m sleeping a lot more now. And I can feel tumors across my midriff. I’ve never felt them before.” “Do you feel like you are turning a corner, Lynn?” I asked. “Yes, I do,” was all she said.
Our last communication was, I’m embarrassed to say, all about me. “I have a lesion on the bottom of my mouth,” I whined, “and my dentist is concerned that it is cancerous. I have to have it removed next week. I thought of you all day today.” “How so?” she asked. “I thought about having MS and cancer.” “Oh, sweetie, don’t go there until you have to. Have it done soon, it’s better to know now.” We hadn’t chatted in a couple of days. She briefly told me that she hadn’t written because she’d felt very down, but couldn’t put her finger on why. “I feel much better today, though.” “That’s good,” I wrote back, knowing better than to dig deeper into her feelings.
Three days passed. My chat messages to her went unanswered. “Good morning,” I’d write each day, “hope you are okay. I miss talking to you.” On the fourth day, Lynn’s sister, Paula, answered my chat message. “Lynn declined very suddenly this week. It’s only a matter of days now.” I waited another week, but heard nothing more. I opened the package of jewelry, fingering all the beads and chains. On Sunday, I searched the online death notices of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. There it was, Lynn’s obituary. She had died on Friday.
It took a couple days before I could bring myself to delete her profile from my chat list. For some reason, it felt like a betrayal of our friendship, a denial of her whole existence.
I arranged my garnet ring on top of my computer desk next to her garnet pendant. Some day soon, I’ll take my ring to the jeweler, have it resized, and wear it along with the matching pendant.
But, not yet.