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Lucky Stars

I called Sam yesterday afternoon. That's what I do when I hate the world. Sam and I live on opposite coasts. We believe in opposite things (she believes in Jesus; I believe in good therapy). And we use opposite brain hemispheres (she teaches math; I manage a magazine and a company intranet). But the one thing we do share is the ability to laugh at the absurdities in our lives. And there have been a few...

I met Sam at Coco's in Sandy Springs, Georgia. We both had the late shift one night, and I was cleaning the soup well while she was "marrying" bottles of Heinz ketchup. "Are you happy with yourself?" she asked me. Surprised by her question, I lied (of course) and told her that I was ridiculously happy with my agonizingly self-conscious 18-year-old self. She wasn't buying it, but instead of challenging me, she admitted to having deep feelings of unhappiness herself. A difficult statement to believe. Sam had the charisma of a Kennedy, stratospheric intelligence, New England good looks, and private-school presence. She would have been completely intimidating if not for her soul-searching questions, which were both revealing and disarming.

Sam and I became immediate friends and spent that summer and the next year cruising Marietta in my copper Ford Pinto, obsessing about guys, doing the Sunday New York Times crossword with a pack of Benson and Hedges and a couple of Tabs, and waiting tables for gas money and tight jeans. Since then, we've had spells when we haven't been in close contact; Sam went to the University of Georgia in Athens, while I went to Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. We've also had a few fights, after which we don't speak for a couple months. "Are you breaking up with me?" she asked after a recent disagreement. I was going to, but she made me laugh, so I didn't ask her to return my stuff.

These days, Sam and I will go for a week or so without contact. And that's only because I'm on a deadline or she has papers to grade and lessons to plan. She was free Sunday, though. Thank God. I'd been feeling depressed, and Sam understands depression. In these 30-something years we've been friends, Sam has suffered from sometimes debilitating depression, while I have suffered from sometimes paralyzing anxiety.

Sam called me frequently when she was going through a divorce that left her with three small children in military housing in Florida. And I called her the afternoon I got my breast cancer diagnosis. I was trying to be cool-headed, but I went online and read about infiltratring lobular carcinoma. I called Sam back in a panic, and she was exactly what you want in a friend when you're having a colossal breakdown: calm, compassionate and focused. She also offered this: "We'll get through this together." And I believed her. We've been through everything together.

I also believed her because she's been around cancer before. Sam's sister survived Stage II breast cancer, and her mother died from ovarian cancer. To reduce her own cancer risks, Sam took herself in for a total hysterectomy. (And she did that without anyone being her overnight advocate--or just plain company--in the hospital.)

It pisses me off when people talk about cancer being a gift. And not because I don't think it's true. I actually do think cancer has been a gift. I've changed and grown in ways that I wouldn't have changed and grown without it. But, I don't want anyone--especially someone who hasn't personally received that gift for himself or herself--to suggest that instead of sometimes feeling angry or disappointed or terrified--that I should only feel immense gratitude and to count my lucky stars.

I know exactly where each lucky star exists in my galaxy: There's a star for each of my children. For my ex. My boyfriend. My brother. My sister. My parents. My friends. My primary physician and oncologists. My therapist. Sam.

When I called Sam on Sunday and told her that I hated the world, she said, "Of course, you do. It makes total sense you'd feel that way." Later we exchanged this email:


Life is short. I am going to feel good and depressed for a while, but not much longer. I need to move on. Let's keep talking about what we're going to do with the next half of our lives. That chick who made Spanx is now a millionaire. We can do something like that. We're smart. And we're funny. And you're cute, so you can be the face of the company.


What the heck are Spanx? You know, I am proud of your body. It may not look like it did, but it produced that little bump so you could find the cancer in your breast, it went through surgery, it went through chemo, it went through radiation. And you're out now riding your bike with Ocho. It's incredibly strong! You have done a great job hanging in there and you are definitely on the last leg of this Cancer Party you've been going to for the last year. Can you believe it has only been a year since the diagnosis? Think of all the things we are free from and how much we've grown up."

It was vintage Sam: direct, supportive, kind. But I've gotta disagree with her about how much we've matured. We may have houses, partners, kids, jobs, 401(k)s, eight seats in our rigs, Beano in our purses and AARP invitations in our mailboxes. But our humor hasn't moved the needle at all. It's still solidly pre-adolescent. And I thank my lucky stars for that.


Kathy from WA said…
Oh, I can relate!

I too have a Sam but her name is Frances. We have been best friends for 54 years now and like you and Sam there have been times when we get so busy with life that we don't see each other much.

I lost my mom to cancer in October of 95 and Frances lost hers to cancer in January of 96. Her call to me when her mom died started with - we have shared so many things in our lives but our moms dying within months of each other is too much.

Thank you for your post about Sam.


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