Writing in the Sand

Long Way – Anje Duvekot

We bid our friends goodbye
We promised we would write them
And headed north up 95 Into the great unknown
We turned up our stereo
And felt so reckless and alive
We didn’t know who we would be
We didn’t know where we would end up
When we headed down that road
A little food and our guitars
In the backseat and that old cello
The one that would get stolen
In a town in Idaho

And it’s a long way to Michigan and back
And it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way, the clouds upon our backs
And it’s a long, long, long, long way
And I have never seen
Reflections of the cleanest
Of blue as the Minnesota lakes
Those were the longest nights
Of wood smoke and Northern Lights
As we talked until the morning came
The light of glowing embers
As sweet as I remember
Among the rustling of the trees
The legend of the harvest moon
And sweet ballad of the loon
I felt as ancient as I was meant to be

And it’s a long way to Washington and back
And it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way, the clouds upon our backs
And it’s a long, long, long, long way

I called you from a payphone In windy, cold Missoula
And then from Midland in the rain
A place as proud and sad as
The South Dakota badlands
It touched me more than I could explain
The dirt poor reservation
Where the Avala nation
Tries to hang on to its ways
Feather and Peyote pipe and
A six pack of Miller Light
Sits on the dashboard of a beat up Chevrolet

And it’s a long way to Tennessee and back
And it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way on the worn out heels of Kerouac
And it’s a long, long, long, long way

Out in California
We touched the other ocean
And I still have that jar of sand In the Arizona desert
The sky goes on forever
You’ve never seen a thing as grand
And North Montana was cold
She keeps her secrets frozen
Under glaciers way up north
And people have got lost up there
In the home of the grizzly bear
And you can ask the mountain
But the mountain doesn’t care

And it’s a long way to Delaware and back
And it’s a long way
Cause it’s a long way, the clouds up on our backs
And it’s a long, long, long, long way
Cause it’s a long way on the worn out heels of Kerouac
And it’s a long, long, long, long way

I don’t remember when we first met. She has always been there. When we were twelve I lived in these old apartment bulldings in the city — a place I’d find out later where Robert Penn Warren lived — but then, in those days to me it was small two bedroom with a galley kitchen and a tiny bathroom where she and I would light things on fire. It was the place where my quilt froze to the wall and my mother towered over me in rages when she wasn’t sleeping in a thin cotton nightgown with a pillow tucked between her knees and curled into herself. My friend and I would kick the dust in the baseball diamond of the field between my apartment and the city lake. We wrote our names in the red dirt with a stick. We climbed the old trees long gone now. We ordered pizzas to the boy she had dated and I had a crush on — the one who asked her to the seventh grade dance and I watched them dance beneath the mirrored ball to Madonna’s Crazy For You. I still remember the summer night when she and I went to watch “That Was Then This is Now” Uptown and how she came home and climbed up on my bed, tucked those long dancer’s legs beneath her and wrote: That was then this is now the days they move so fast and when I look into the future I only see the past/ the days of adolescence the days when we were young — but know our song is over and now our song is sung — the words of a twelve year old girl to another — we tucked into one another on a long ride to my family’s cottage up north — the fourteen hour drive in my mother’s Honda Civic — she was the one who knew it all. She met my schizophrenic aunt and batted no eyelash — she bathed in the lake that had been my heart’s place since birth — the place my uncle sold in 2001 — all of the places in my heart have her in them — besides my husband there is no one on this earth that I am closer to — when I gave birth to Z I shook after they gave me the epidural — while everyone said it was because I was exhausted I knew it was because I was rigid with anger at my mother’s presence — that I had explicitly asked for privacy which had been ignored — and my doula knew — she massaged my muscles and tried to restore some calm that had evaporated — and coupled with that moment I will never forget surfacing from the fog of pain medication to see my best friend — her smile of all love, the sun behind her as she bent down to kiss my head. “You have mothered me more than my own mother” we cried to one another months ago.

We’re older now and married and live in different parts of the city — families and children and the drift of life have separated us over the years — but as she said to her mother, “when I see p.j. it’s like home” — she’s the only one outside of my family who has ever used the nickname my family knows me by. It could only come out of her mouth.
When I was trying to conceive Z and it became clear I was going to have to do IVF she and I were trying to have monthly lunch dates. We would meet downtown and spend three hours talking and sometimes laughing, sometimes crying. I remember this one lunch in particular I’d become recently obsessed that something bad was going to happen to me. I didn’t know what it was but I was terrified of a medicalized pregnancy and though it was irrational I was certain something was going to go wrong. I had just read some piece in Oprah about women who’d come together after a friend’s illness — food and errands and support. I held her hands “will you be there if something goes wrong?” I said “I want you there.”
I will always know exactly how long she has lived with cancer because it was almost exactly four months to the day since Z was born. Her sons had both been colicky and she had promised me that at four months it would vanish — and I remember the slant of the April sun — how thrilled I was to hear her voice and how I had stood at the top of my stairs about to launch into how she’d been right about the colic when I heard her voice. I heard her voice tell me she had cancer.
That was three years ago.
We have been waiting for Spring. When she started having weakness in her legs and pain when she walked she cried to her mother that this was it — she was going to be immobile. As her legs collapsed in the elevator in the clinic and her mother had to help her in — her mother told me she shushed her and said no honey, no … it’s almost spring. Just around the corner. This was the second week in April. Snow came down relentlessly. I went to visit her in the hospital. There were paperwhite bulbs in a pot on the windowsill. We hugged and cried. Her hair had grown back to its fuzzy ducky state since I’d last seen her — her body still swollen with the steroids. This was after the radiation and her first dose of methotrexate. She was going home for a week and then returning for treatment again the week I was to be in Florida.
I went to a roadless place. A place with roads of sand and tortoises munching on mangrove leaves. Every morning I walked the beach. It was like when I was a child and would ask God, who I was fairly ambivalent about, for signs. Something. God let something wash up on the beach, some perfect shell, anything. I noticed shells piled up on driftwood like cairns. I walked until the driftwood made walking the shore impassable. I turned back around on the beach that morning and there was a single crow cawing at me. I asked him if he had something to tell me and he flew off into the Florida bush.
The next day I walked on the beach looking for something and finding nothing. I decided to write her name in the sand. With a long stick I would write and a wave would come and wash it away — and again — frustrated I moved back to a place where the driftwood would protect it — I wrote her first and middle name — long and graceful curves the way I remember her sitting cross-legged on the floor — that warped wooden floor of the old ballet studio tucked into the backroom of a business long shuttered now — where I would wait for her to finish and watch her take off her toe shoes — her toes bruised and gnarled beneath them. A punishing beauty. I stood back to look at it and noticed the driftwood itself was decorated with shells. Two steps letter I found a coin — it was oxidized and I was certain I’d found a gold doubloon — I scratched at it — rubbed sand on it as you would a worry stone — and it was simply a quarter. I rubbed and rubbed to see the date. 1995.
We were 23. We’d been best friends for 11 years. When we were 18 she introduced me to the music of the Indigo Girls. I remember for some reason her arriving at my apartment — pulling up on that one way street in front of the courtyard of the complex where I always waited for a ride — she pulled up in her mother’s old red car with her high school boyfriend — whose gait, soft mouth and Armani hair flagged somehow to all of us that he was gay but we ignored it — he would later move to Miami to be a photographer — I can see her as if it is yesterday — her pale skin in the summertime and her fashionable glasses and she is waving the cassette tape in her hands. You have to hear this she says. You have to hear this. Closer I am to Fine.
I’m trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you’ve ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously, it’s only life after all
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it, I’m crawling on your shore.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind, got my paper
And I was free.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.
To seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
Twice as cloudy as I’d been the night before
I went in seeking clarity.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountain
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine.

We go to the bible, we go through the workout
We read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
The less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine
The closer I am to fine

She texts me while I am on vacation where the boys reel in ladyfish, and catfish, barracuda and spanish mackerel. There have been new developments she writes. I want you to update my CaringBridge. I will call you tonight. I wait by the phone and there’s nothing. I text her three times that day and hear nothing. I call like a spurned suitor. She texts me again and tells me that she doesn’t want me to worry until we speak on the phone. I tell her I was walking on the beach and I saw her name written in shells. I had been walking and there it was — the three letters of her nickname, just as I would write it — but I hadn’t. I told her about how I had been looking for a sign. That I had written her name in the sand.
What did you?write in the sand? She writes.
Alicia Nicole, I say.
Nice… she writes. I imagine her — exhausted. In pain.
Remember, I say, when we would write our names in the sand of that baseball diamond?
“That image comes back to me alot” she writes and then the communication disappears.
It’s the day we’re leaving. My brother and his family are staying at a house called Island Jewel. It’s scrawled on driftwood at the base of the driveway. It has a widow’s walk and a spiral staircase up three levels that the children navigate carefully. She calls as I am about to enter and I walk down the stairs in the sun to the shade of the bougainvillea where I sit in the golf cart. I stare at the outdoor shower as she tells me that her pain has become unmanageable. She explains that her entire saddle area has gone numb. The entire area has flared with such pain — she cries. Her husband carries her to the bath twice a day. She assures me she’s comfortable. And then she breaks down again. She stifles a sob. She tells me how she slept through her alarm that they had set to remind her to take a pill — and the pain had gotten ahead of them — and she’s crying in anguish and my heart is breaking. All I can say is “Oh honey that sucks. I love you.”
The spinal tap she says it came back positive and we both cry. We had suspected it. We have all suspected it but hearing the news makes it real. You’re going into the hospital I say — and you’re gathering with all these people who love you and are caring for you and you’re going to regroup. You’ll make a new plan. You just sure didn’t have much of a respite this time did you? We cry and laugh and she says I know, I know…
I walk upstairs to where my brother is making lunch for his kids. You have to think of this in an Eastern way he said — and he may have said something about everything happening for a reason — and I looked through the screened porch out to the treetops of the unfamiliar tropical trees — the spikes and fans and unseen ocean beyond. I can hardly keep from crying when I say that I don’t see any purpose in this.
Three days before I left we had lunch together after a freak April snow storm. I drove the sidestreets thick with sleet and slush. I waited in front of her house for 20 minutes while she got ready. She didn’t ask me in and I didn’t push. When the door to her house opened it had been a week since I had seen her in the hospital with the paperwhites on the windowsill. She walked like an 80 year old woman — stooped and slow, each foot carefully placed and shuffling. I ran to take her arm. At first she didn’t want it and impatiently shook me off — resolutely making her way through the unshoveled walk to my car. Against my protest to do it another time she said “no , I want to do this now.” She was fighting the pain. When we settled in the restaurant across the street from my old elementary school she took a pain pill and was able to relax a little. Every wrinkle in the carpet was a hazard at this point she said ruefully. She would pause a moment when the waiter asked her something — searching for the words — her smart black cloche on her head. We talked about longing for summer. About how she was shocked I’d never had a pedicure — and we promised we’d get one together — just as we’d promised in the summer that we’d get tattoos together (we didn’t) She talked about her husband’s taking over all the tasks and coordinating of things — and I tried to make some joke about multitasking when I realized that what she needed to hear from me was that this was all going to be fine — that he was going to figure it out without her — that he could do it and it would all be okay.
As we left we went next door to the bookstore owned by a famous writer — as one woman tried to help her find a book I spoke to another woman, seemingly the buyer, about whether or not they had any novels on the Dakota War — something I’d been trying to write about for years — and then she and I got into a lengthy conversation about cultural appropriation and colonialism and I walked out of the store understanding that I would never write that novel.
I drove my friend home through the snow — around those lakes we’ve walked so many times. I told her about the changing landscape of publishing, about the death of the mid-list novelist — about how it seemed strange to lose a dream because the world changes beneath you — and just how I’d realized I couldn’t ever write that novel — that it wasn’t my story to tell. She listened with her head against the headrest.
When we were making the turn to her house — just blocks away I said “if you had asked me years ago how I would feel if I never wrote a novel I would’ve told you that I would have deemed myself a failure — but I don’t feel that way anymore” I said. She looked down at her hands and asked “Why do you think that is..deep question I know now that we’re almost home.”
I grasped her hand. I tried to look into her eyes while I was driving — I said “because of your illness. You are one of the human beings closest to my heart and I realize” I said “I realize that all that matters is how we love one another.” Tears fill both of our eyes “it’s a great gift you’ve given me really.” We say it over and over — I love you. I love you. I love you.
I spend nights as I did when she was first diagnosed — pouring over medical journals — as if I am going to find some magic cure, something someone has missed — as if by reading the cases similar to hers, having the numbers and the terms — as if I can keep her death at bay.
I turn to my husband — how in 2013 can we do so much but we can’t fix this? I ask. How is that possible.
I read a quote from an article by Katherine O’Brien — secretary and PR chair of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network. She includes this quote:

“We need focused research to change incurable metastatic breast cancer into a treatable, chronic condition like HIV-AIDS–where patients can now live for 20-30 years with treatment after their diagnosis,” says Shirley Mertz, President of MBCN. “If gay men, who were then scorned by society in the 1980s, could demand and receive focused research and treatments for their disease, why can’t we women–who are wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers AND over half of the population–receive similar research that will find strategies to keep us alive for 20-30 years?

“Are we not worthy of this effort? Are we ignored because we quietly live with our disease?”

So, yes, Dr. Tripathy, you bet your stethoscope this is a wake-up call.

Because as Shirley says, “How many more thousands of us must die before the public and our sisters, who have survived early stage breast cancer, stand with us and for us?”

And if you haven’t already — please read Peggy Orenstein’s article in The New York Times Magazine — Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.

My best friend’s 42 birthday is on October 2nd.


3 responses

  1. The love that you have for this woman shines through. This breaks my heart. Such old friendships are so rare, so dear.well, they are irreplaceable. It’s funny how the certain friends are closer than any blood relative. No, I don’t see a reason for this either. As if having a reason would make this any easier anyway. This is a beautiful, aching post, P. I hope one day her kids can read this. Keep it for them will you?

  2. Pingback: Self-Contained « Blood Signs

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