Sunday, November 06, 2011


Two years ago today I was in Chicago, caring for my friend Kris as she was dying of metastatic breast cancer. We were both 39.

I didn't know she was dying. I mean, I wondered, but quietly. Just having the thought cross my mind felt like a betrayal, but she was so very ill. She ate little, slept little, suffered unimaginable pain at all hours. She struggled to breathe as fluid developed on her lungs, was drained, and then returned. She used an oxygen machine, the clear plastic tubing snaking its way across the hardwood floors of her loft.

I was alone with her, and for much of the time I was there, that meant that, although she was my dearest friend, I was emotionally very alone, too. She wouldn't talk about dying. She wouldn't admit it was a possibility, wouldn't entertain the notion, at all. Sure, there were conversations where we talked about our friendship, about how much we meant to each other, but even when there was an air of finality to my words, hers were hope filled. Funny, since I was always the starry-eyed, romantic idealist and she was the iron-willed pragmatist, ever sensible, ever logical, always able to separate her emotional side from her rational. Still, she held on to hope.

I left Chicago the morning of November 12, 2009. I didn't know it at the time, but Kris had already had a catastrophic cardiac event and was in the ICU, unresponsive and being kept alive by machines. She died that afternoon, and as I rode further and further away from the city she loved, I felt further and further from her, from our shared memories, from her shiny blond hair and that wicked sidelong glance.

But I had a husband. Three kids and a dog. A home to keep up. Laundry to do, meals to cook. Volunteer gigs. I *wanted* to crawl into my bed and sleep for a year. Oh, how I wanted that. Instead, I got up most days and trudged through them. I showed up as much as I was capable of. I wasn't always mentally present, but I did the best I could on any given day. Some of those days the best I could do was get my boys on the bus and crawl back into bed, turning on the electric blanket and losing myself in dreamless sleep.

I went to counseling -- first, one-on-one with a therapist who helped me to deal with the immense guilt I had, and the bitterness I harbored toward my friend, whom I loved but when consumed with pain and disease was, quite frankly, a bitch. How does one reconcile that anger and the guilt that comes from the helplessness one feels in the face of the dreaded "C" word? How does one reconcile one's own bitchiness? Because, although I tried desperately not to show it to her, I was angry. Pissed, even. And I had no one to talk to about it.

I would sit on her patio in the afternoons if she was asleep. Since the loft was open I couldn't have a phone conversation that wouldn't disturb her (and couldn't talk about her, obviously, in her hearing). That November was so mild -- the highs the whole time I was in the city were in the 60s. It was lovely. I would sit in an adirondack chair and call my mom for a hurried few minutes, assuring her that I was ok and trying to process all that was happening in those rare moments of quiet. I process things here, in words, or in conversations. I need words to work stuff out. Having no outlet for my emotions, no one to talk to about all the awful stuff that was happening, was probably the worst part of the experience.

So I joined a grief support group when I came home. I went every week, in the dark and the cold, to bare my soul to a room full of strangers who had lost their husbands and their fathers. And here I was, undone by the (I thought) relatively simple loss of a friend. That's where I learned that grief is grief. You can't judge someone else's grief. You can't grieve for them, or tell them how to do it. You just have to move through it.

In the beginning, after she died, I wrapped myself in it. The grief was like a sweater -- a physical separation between me and the world. I was too tender to expose myself without that insulating, protective layer. It wasn't a sweater I particularly liked -- it was uncomfortable, it was the wrong color, and it just didn't feel right. But it was what I had, and so I wore it. Every day.

Gradually the sweater became more comfortable. It seemed to fit better -- it didn't swallow me up, making me look like a child in her mother's clothing. The color? Well, I don't think it changed, but I developed a fondness for it anyway. Sometimes I would even take it off for a minute or two here and there. I would set it down on a sofa, or drape it over a chair -- always within arm's reach, but still, it was off. Those moments felt good, but I always grabbed the sweater and put it back on.

Two years later, I still have that sweater. It's kind of stretched out now, and it's tear-stained and there are pulls in the knitting. It travels with me everywhere I go; I have not gone a single day in 2 years where I have not thought of her, have not gotten choked up at a memory, a flash of insight, or the realization that she will not be at yet another ... Thanksgiving, child's concert, you name it. I can't get rid of the sweater -- I couldn't, even if I wanted to.

Two years ago, I wrapped myself in my grief. I put one foot in front of the other, every day, trusting that each day I would be a tiny bit better than the day before. It was almost a year before I felt truly like myself. In fact, that day was so momentous I actually blogged about it here.

And here I am. Have I figured out how to live in a world where she is not? Well, yes. And no. I miss her. I miss calling her and talking about the dinner I just had with my family, meat and vegetables and a starch, while she, the vegetarian, told me she had had a banana and a yogurt for dinner. Those were the only things in her kitchen, apart from cheese (she grew up in Wisconsin) and wine, most of the time. I miss telling her about my clashes with Garrett. She always had calm reassurances for me that he was going to be ok, and words that helped me let go and forgive myself for parenting mistakes. I miss going to Chicago and sightseeing with her, having lunch at The Zephyr, and playing "roll ball" on the floor of the condo with babies and puppies and cardboard boxes. I miss all of that, and so much more.

And yet. I sort of have figured out how to live. I love my family. I try to tell them as often as I can. I try to show them every day. I laugh. I cry. I drink wine and read books, listen to Minnesota Public Radio, go to plays, volunteer. I cook and bake, I clean my house, I take too many pictures, I try to keep things organized, I sew, I scrapbook, I create things. I live.

It's just that now? Well, I always have this sweater nearby ....


  1. You have such a beautiful way with words Jennifer, I can understand why it helps you figure things out. You express your self so wonderfully. Kris I'm sure Kris so happy to see what you are doing with your family, with your life.

    Thank you for sharing this with me. I think of you often.

  2. This is a beautifully heartfelt story. It reminds me of something you would see published in one of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books. I'm sorry for your loss..

  3. Thanks for sharing this, jennifer. I know Kris meant a lot to you, hopefully writign about it helps a little :)

  4. How blessed your friend was to have you! I have been through something similiar with my dad, my mom and my older brother. The death of someone close to you never goes away, but rather than pain it comes as a bittersweet smile. Hugs!