So, she says, I have a list of things I need you to do, alright?
OK, I say, sure.
Good, because it’s important, she says.
OK, where’s the list?
On my iPad, I’ll give you the code.
Cool, I say and write the code down.
Then she belches and breaks wind at the same time and we laugh. We laugh so hard the others look at us as if we’ve lost our minds.
This is my best friend, she says to the nurse.
The nurse nods and smiles as she adjusts the flow rate of the medicine, says hello. Friends since we were ten, she says and laughs to herself as if she’s just understood the punchline.
When I was twelve I broke my arm trying to hurdle in athletics class. That was the term before I gave up all sport, took up smoking and wearing mascara. It was her that called my mother and got me to hospital — the school thought I was faking. When I came back with my arm in a cast from shoulder to knuckle she cut up my food for me and threw evil looks at the teachers.
Everyone likes her, they always have, so it’s no surprise the doctors and nurses here do. Even my mother said, you should be more like her, she’s so easy to love. And I’ve tried, but it isn’t easy. Luckily she likes me anyway. They’ve put her in a nicer room with a view of the garden and check on her often, bringing her slivers of ice to suck. She remembers all their names and compliments them.
Hey Fuzzy-Hair! Come here! The teacher with the limp and one lazy eye shouted, pointing at her. We hated that woman and the way she licked her lips after speaking as if she were cleaning the words from her mouth. I don’t remember why she was in trouble, only that she cried in the toilets, I hate my fucking hair, she said and I held her close. It seemed like a catastrophe at the time.
Her hair is gone now. All those curls, left on pillows and in clumps clogging the plug hole till she got fed up and shaved it all off. You probably think I was selfless and shaved mine off too in solidarity, but I didn’t. She doesn’t believe me, but being bald just shows how beautiful she is — the curve of her head, her lovely big eyes. I fucking look like a cancer patient, she says. You are a cancer patient, I say and she gives me a dirty look.
The chemo and steroids have made her bloat. Why couldn’t I have got the skinny chemo, she says, at least I’d be a size zero. We both laugh to the horror of her mother and the young doctor who takes her temperature with shaking hands.
I get her ready for the children’s visit. Keep them occupied if I fall asleep, she says, don’t let them get scared. I promise I won’t and try and hide how terrified I am. When the kids leave she cries and asks me if I will help her daughter with her periods and boys and getting her first bra. I will, I say, do you remember you helped me put my first tampon in? I expect her to laugh but instead she closes her eyes. She asks me if I’ve checked her list. Yes, I say. And can you do it all? she says. I hesitate, shrugging. For God’s sake, she says and tears lens across her eyes. I’ll do it, I say, of course I will, it’s hard that’s all. She blinks and the tears roll over her dry skin, as she wipes them away she says, I know, I fucking know.
Once, she rescued me. She always rescued me, but this time was real. I was in the mental hospital, my mind broken up into little pieces and she came everyday even though she’d just had a baby. She got me out of there, she signed papers and made promises to the doctors and she got me out.
I’m selfish, I want to say, who will I be without you? But her mother and husband, her children have a greater claim to her now. But who will I be without her?
I bring her flowers and a hat I crocheted and slowly do the things on the list. I buy gifts and cards for her to sign and then I put them away for future birthdays and anniversaries, weddings and graduations. I sign documents and listen to lawyers and doctors. I arrange and plan because I am good at those things. We impose a necessary form on the future that it may not obey. Love has become something planned in advance, a contingency.
Her lips crack at the corners and we rub salve into them. Her hands and feet are red raw and blistered. She cries in pain and then sleeps. Her breath comes in short huffs, but she’s still here. At one point she whispers to me — remember, you promised, no fighting no giving up. I stroke her arm, I promise, I say because it’s the only thing left I can do for her.
You’re quiet, she says, tell me something. And I don’t know what to say anymore because she is in a different realm and I don’t know the language. I’m still here, bothered by bills, and work, and the house, and my husband. Superficial. My words don’t fit. Then she belches and breaks wind at the same time and we both laugh. Then I ask her, who will I be without you? And she says, you silly bugger, you’ll be my best you.
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