TEN years ago, I packed up my belongings, and with my 13-month-old child, moved from my home in England, to America. My then-husband, an American, had yet to tell his job we had decided to cross the pond, and so I moved alone, waiting for him to find the right time.
Those first few weeks in an empty house our furniture had somehow gone AWOL I learned, very quickly how hard it was to get by without the support of family, and my family had always lived within a three mile radius.
But I was lucky. I found friends. Quickly. And I drew them close, came to think of them as my family of choice. I thought, back then, I knew what friendship required, and how to be a friend.
Heidi was my first friend, found when our sons were tiny, when we were in each others pockets, lives, homes every day. Then I found others, when I briefly moved up to Litchfield county, where my marriage broke down, and then, when I knew I had to come home, home to Westport, Dani and I moved into a tiny beach cottage with my four children, whereupon I fell in love with life at the beach. Shortly thereafter, I fell in love with my landlord, and three years later, in a tiny ceremony he became my husband.
Life was was perfect. The wedding had been beautiful, tiny, intimate, filled with warmth and love, and just our family, with Heidi and Jennifer joining us later for drinks at our favorite restaurant in town.
Our children were thrilled with this new, blended Brady Bunch family and life was good. And yet I still had nights when I couldnt sleep, excitement perhaps, or anticipation.
That night I got up, and idly flicked through the emails on my Blackberry, just in case.
That night, at 2am, I read that Heidi had been diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. She had found out the day after our lunch, after an MRI showed that the back pain she had been complaining of for three or four months was not a pulled muscle, or a trapped nerve, but tumors. All over her spine.
Up until that night, I thought I knew what friendship was. Together my husband and I have six children, and I have published twelve novels, and I run the lives of all these people, and I thought, up until that night, that it was fine not to call my friends. Im busy, theyre busy, everyones busy. And we have all learned to lower our expectations.
'They understand,' Id tell myself.
'We understand,' theyd tell me.
We would meet for lunch every couple of weeks, plan to grab coffee more often, phone at the last minute to cancel: babysitter issues.
And now Heidi was sick. Seriously sick. She was not ready to see people, she wrote. She asked for privacy, and I determined then, when I felt, deep in my gut, that time was not on our side, I would be there for her, that I would do whatever it takes.
And accompanying her on this journey, through her trips to hospital, her chemotherapy, her wincing with pain during the dreaded Neupogen shots, I learned more about friendship than I ever thought possible.
I learned that truth is in the action. That love is a verb. That being a friend requires Acts of Love. It is not, as so many of us are wont to do, saying platitudes such as: call me if you need anything, or, Im here for you.
Love is quietly working away, doing. For me, it started with nightly emails. I refused to let my friend become defined by her illness, and so I sent her The Evening Report. No matter what time I fell into bed, how much alcohol I had consumed and trust me, during those months I consumed a lot I typed up a fun, funny, pithy, gossipy newsletter.
I attached photos, and websites I had found, and things that had made me laugh, and I tried my level best to make her feel like my friend, not like a girl who has Stage IV cancer.
I love your emails, she wrote. they make me feel normal, and that makes me feel good." Summer rolled around, and she went to her cottage in Canada, but things started to go wrong. Somehow, by that time, three of us had become her advocates. She came back to Connecticut, shockingly thin, frail and pale. She had caught an infection, and had terrible, debilitating headaches, that no-one could pinpoint.
When she lay in bed, exhausted, scared, we asked the questions. When the doctors changed the medication, we asked why, and when they needed to know the name of the last steroids, or the results of the tests, we had the answers.
Her emails changed during this time. I love you, she would write. Always. And when we were together she would look us deep in the eyes and repeat it. I have never easily said I love you, to a friend. But I learned, and said it to her every day, many, many times.
Transferred briefly to Memorial Sloane Kettering, we three were there the day they found out what it was. Leptomeningeal Carcinomatosis. A rare disease, a diffused tumor in the cerebrospinal fluid. We three were there when the team of doctors stood around the bed, sorrow on their faces, as they told a 43-year-old woman with a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old that she might have a year. If the treatment worked.
And if it didnt? We asked, her advocates who asked the hard questions.
Six to eight weeks.
You being here with me, she wrote to me later that night, via email.
holding my hand and crying with me is your love verb.
The last few weeks of her life she came home. We climbed on her bed and stroked her head, fuzzy like a baby bird, and fed her hummus, and then, when she stopped eating, ice chips. I couldnt not touch her when I was in the room. Holding her hand, stroking her head, gently, gently, showing her what love is.
She died on September 30th, and today I have learned what it is to be a friend. The truth is in the action. It isnt enough to think of my friends, and hope they are fine. I phone them now. Regularly. I drag them out to lunch. I shoot off emails telling them I love them.
The tragedy was losing someone I loved. I was lucky in that it wasnt too late to show her what she meant to me, but a second tragedy would be not to practice the things she taught me.
Love is, as she said, a verb, and I think of her, and practice those lessons, every day of my life.