It’s been a year. One that, for a long time, did not allow for the ease of backward-looking reflection. Everything took place in the moment, highlighted and compressed, the molecules of time stacking in layers of intensity. When 2015 started I was a month into the reality of cancer. It was, thankfully, non-invasive and contained (a milk duct gone sideways), but still a tiny time bomb with an invisible clock. I had found it myself in a semi-regular breast exam, a distinctive lump the size of a Jelly Belly (likely popcorn flavor, as in my imaginings it had the same hue and inherent desirability). My doctors were proud: I was their poster child, a woman who had not only found the aberrant tumor myself, but actually brought myself in for a second opinion. Four surgeries and many months of altered body image later, I am now cancer-free, with cute little perma-perky tits that would make most twenty-somethings proud. It has been a year.
Recently I spent two weeks in Oregon with someone even younger who went through a much more brutal and dramatic cancer surgery, one that took half his tongue and replaced it with a section of forearm (the non-tattooed one, thankfully). Among other necessary indignities he had a feeding tube through one nostril and a temporary tracheotomy to bypass the swollen and problematic upper entrances to his respiratory system. For eight days his family and I sat at his hospital bedside, holding his hand in turns and calmly talking him through the episodic terror of his trach being blocked by gobs of phlegm and blood. He endured. We endured.
Throughout both his experience and mine, I heard one expression more than any other: “You don’t know your true friends until times like these.” On the surface, this saying has a logic that makes sense — difficulty weeds out those who don’t care enough to hack it. But I’m not sure. Something about the facility with which we utter such phrases rubs me wrong. Are we that simple? Are the affections of most of our friends really so groundless, so transient?
What I saw was that individuals often had different ways of showing up. A handful of mine volunteered to come with me to doctor appointments, sit through surgeries, or otherwise be 100% present as needed. These people were absolutely invaluable, lifting a good portion of the weight of the process from my shoulders. I suspect that they would have been deemed the “true friends” referred to in the aphorism. They were vocal in their support, utterly dedicated, and moved around sections of their busy lives to accommodate my needs.
But I also had people who, in the face of my ongoing crisis, didn’t spend long hours talking me through medical decisions or giving me rides at early hours of the morning, yet who wrote songs for me like “Let’s Talk About Tits” (complete with PowerPoint presentation of tits and boobies, the birds) and “Mammary Blues,” both of which were performed to a completely enthralled audience at my Bye Bye Boobies party. At the same event others told stories of the legacy of breasts among the women in their family, or recited verse from poets long dead. Over fifteen of my friends signed up on a spreadsheet to bring me food in rotation shifts every evening for three weeks. Were these also my ‘true friends’? Of course.
As are the people who simply grabbed my hand when hearing the news, not knowing what to say. And those who continued to dance with me as though nothing had transpired, letting all of it float through in the communication of shared movement. Not everyone has the words, or the time, or the confidence that what they utter will be the right thing rather than something that only makes everything worse. We stumble through difficulty the best we can with what we’ve got.
However we show up in times of crisis is not the full measure of our heart. It is not even an accurate reflection of emotional maturity, as there are myriad reasons a person may not be able to engage on a deep level in any particular moment. Grad student stresses, ailing parents, or the looming end of a significant relationship can all draw resources away from availability. It does not mean the person does not care.
When in the throes of our own personal hell, it can be easy to tag friends as “good” or “bad” in a very dualistic manner, judging them based on their level of engagement with our situation. Yet this is unfair, biased by our clouded lens. Yes, we are possibly going through something more intense than they have ever experienced. Sure. But what if we accepted all help, no matter how big or small? Even the tiniest text from afar that said, “Oh man! I hope you get better soon.” How supported would we feel then?
Crises do show us who our friends are — some of them. The rest are still there, whether vocal or not. Their hearts may not be on their sleeves, but is a tragic mistake to think that they do not love. What would it be to accept it all?