Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was raised as an only child (my half-brother and sisters are much older and lived with their dad) and my neighborhood was completely devoid of kids. I had one best friend in elementary school (shout out to Beth!), and I have fond memories of eating tacos every Saturday night, watching Hee Haw, stretching the phone cord through the kitchen into the living room, and laying in the floor while talking to Beth about all the super interesting things 3rd grade girls talk about.
When I left my private Christian school in the 5th grade to attend the local public school, Beth and I drifted apart. Through middle and high school there were a lot of girls I would hang out with, but it was always just for a year or so, because we were in the same classes. In college I joined a sorority, had roommates, and made some great friends – one whom quite literally saved my life – but, for the most part, when life took us in different directions, we lost touch.
Then in 2005, I met Joy. I was married, finishing up my degree, and working as a leasing consultant at an apartment complex. Joy was five years older, but had gotten married shortly after I had and was working on her Master’s degree. When she came to work with me, we hit it off quickly. We would order the same clothes from The Gap and had to make sure we didn’t show up to work in the same outfit. Our favorite pastime was going out for frozen bellinis and then going shopping. She was smart, funny, and kind with just enough attitude to set me straight when I needed it.
In March of 2006 – after two miscarriages – Joy found out she was pregnant. Six weeks later, I discovered I was expecting, too! We got miserably sick, incredibly fat (I mean, really fat), and became mothers together. Her son was born December 12, 2006; mine on January 22, 2007. When Joy went back to school, I babysat for her – of course our boys would be best friends, too!
Every milestone, every sleepless night, every “Oh my gosh, I am totally screwing this up!” – we went through it together.
In November of 2007, Joy called to tell me she was expecting again. Six weeks later? Yep. So was I! Our number twos were both born in August of 2008. It was then we started to find our stride a bit. Joy went back to work and I babysat both of her sweet kiddos, and it was like having two sets of twins. Though we hit some bumps in the road in our personal lives, we were making it! We started running with another mama every Thursday night, she talked me into signing up for a half-marathon, we left all our kids with our husbands so we could go for long runs…we struggled and faltered, but life was good.
Joy decided to go back to school in the Fall of 2010. We joked that she was just a forever student, always wanting to learn something new. This time it was law school. She would be living about an hour-and-a-half away during the week to attend classes…which seemed odd to me. Her kids were her world, so leaving them for school just seemed out of character. She was determined, though, and I supported her despite my misgivings.
Over the next several months, things seemed off. She got angry and stopped speaking to me. I found another little group of running buddies and kept up our Thursday night runs, but I missed her. It wasn’t the same.
In May I received a text. She apologized, said she missed me, and could we maybe get together? That summer was one of the best I can remember. We loaded up our kids and spent afternoons on the Virginia Creeper Trail, biking and running. We met up on the Kingsport Greenbelt and chatted like old times. She confessed how she’d struggled during her first year of law school. Always so smart, it was new for Joy to not excel at academics, but we chalked it up to stress, or maybe her thyroid. She talked about headaches. We laughed that “It’s not a tumor!” in our best Arnold Schwarzenegger voices.
We went for a run in late September and she confessed to me that she felt stupid. Muddy. She said that she knew what words she wanted to write, but couldn’t make her hand write them. She’d told her dad about it and he insisted she find a doctor, and since she didn’t have health insurance, he would pay for the visit. I recommended my doctor, called to make sure he would accept her as a patient, and she was ready to make an appointment. That was September 30, 2011.
On October 1 she texted me from work. She was so frustrated, unable to do the simplest tasks, and was certain she was going to get fired. That night she went home and sat down to read her kids – then 4- and 3-years old – a bedtime story. As she saw the words on the page, she knew what they said, but she couldn’t make her mouth say them. After a phone call to her sister-in-law, a nurse practitioner, she went to the ER.
They found a mass on her brain.
I still have the text message saved on my phone: “Hey…I have a mass in my head…that is all we know so far.”
We texted back and forth that day, but by the time I got to the hospital that afternoon, she had slipped into a coma. She had an emergency craniotomy that night to relieve swelling and remove as much of the mass as possible. By Friday, October 7, we knew. A Grade IV Glioblastoma. 6-9 months to live.
There is so much to her story. There are so many sweet memories, and unbelievable kindness from friends and strangers alike. There were tears – SO MANY tears – and all these little flashes I hold in my mind of the “before” and the “after.”
I share Joy with you, though, for two really important reasons:
- You may be young. You may be healthy. Joy was training for a marathon and going to law school! It doesn’t matter. You are not guaranteed tomorrow. Listen, mamas…I’m in the thick of it. At home with four boys and some days it’s UGLY and I just want to send them to bed or run away or just (for the love!) wish away some of these early years! Then I remember how Joy would have loved to have one more day with her kids, and how much they would have loved to have one more day with her. Rather than making me feel guilty for not “cherishing every moment,” it helps me to look at my family in a new light. With love. With appreciation. Understanding. Tomorrow is not promised to us.
- I would like to say that I was the MOST AMAZING best friend to Joy during the time she was sick. She lived for 10 months after her diagnosis and some days – most days – I was there for her. When things got hard, or busy, or just unpleasant, I wasn’t. It took another friend of hers saying some very unkind things for me to realize that when your best friend has brain cancer, it’s not about you. A lot of times it just sucked to go see her. She was in a nursing home and it was sad. She couldn’t speak. She wasn’t the friend I once knew. That is when I learned that you sometimes need to be a friend to someone who can’t be a friend to you.