This is the part where shit gets hard. Forget the crushing weight gain and the crying and the insecurity and the abuse. Forget the long hours and the exhaustion and the game playing just to make it through one damn day. Forget the drinking and the relationship problems and the constant feeling of I just can’t fucking take this anymore. This is the part where everything falls apart and nothing ever falls together again. This is the part where my friend dies.
That August, Heather and Greg were married with less than 48 hours notice; the invite came through email and then frantic calls back and forth to divvy up jobs and rides. More than 100 beaming people showed up, potluck items in hand. Heather wore a purple, hooded cape and she looked like a total badass babe. Greg wore a kilt. Greg looked like he was wearing a kilt, which is to say, he looked pretty good because my “type” is just an endless stretch of tall, lanky, stoic white guys.
Here are a few things I remember from the wedding and the following days:
- I cried. A lot. I am a crier.
- Greg cried. A little. Greg is not a crier.
- Heather’s drug regimen meant she was sometimes perfectly lucid, and at other times less coherent. She powered through for the important parts.
- My friend Michelle made these amazing little edible orgasm hors d’oeuvres for the reception, and once again, I think, for Heather’s funeral a week and a half later. I don’t know what was in them, but I remember I ate, like, a million. Michelle, please make those for my hippie commitment ceremony if that time ever comes to pass.
- Underneath Heather’s cape, she wore a tank top, and you could see her chemo port. That was hard because it was such a blatant sign of her illness, but also just like, hey, this is what’s fucking happening right now and let’s all acknowledge it, which I appreciated.
- Heather’s response to “Do you take this man to be your husband?” was, “Absofuckinglutely.” I think I cried from laughter at that, but maybe also regular tears because at that point, it was like watching a poorly-maintained fountain do it’s very sporadic thing.
- It was unbearably sad.
- I loved every minute.
When we arrived home that evening, B. had a breakdown. I was shocked. His pale Midwestern face was just not made for that kind of crying. He begged me not to get sick, nestled in the crook of my neck like a child, as if I held the power to resist cancer through sheer willpower. We sat on the ugly couch he’d inherited from his grandmother and sobbed. He was my best friend and the thought of his body weakening under an invisible onslaught I could not fight was terrifying. But I also couldn’t shake the feeling that Greg and Heather had something we didn’t. That lovely, heart wrenching, gorgeous wedding was the beginning of the end for my relationship with B.
Suddenly it was less easy to brush off the fact that our issues kept resurfacing every month; I’d gained weight, he was constantly nagging me (about everything), his family was racist as hell, my family was classist as hell, he wasn’t ready to fully commit despite our shared house, dog and phone lines, I didn’t want to have children, he dreamt of a very tall white picket fence in Bethesda (my Mordor)... we were great friends, but we were not good partners. Heather and Greg’s wedding was the final impetus we both needed to realize we weren’t going to make it. I didn’t want to settle for numb comfort when we could both have so much more.
Here’s the other part I remember. Marilyn* told me I couldn’t go to the wedding.
I spent the last week or so looking through emails to see if I could find anything that would have indicated Marilyn was the kind of person who could look me in the face and tell me I couldn’t attend my dying friend’s wedding. I couldn’t find anything. Her emails are kind, her tone that of a bemused aunt. She says thank you and please. She is gracious. There is very little to indicate the kind of vitriol she was capable of spewing at any moment. It makes her written kindness even more hypocritical and false. This was a woman who would tell you that were trash in front of your coworkers and then send you an email thirty seconds later politely asking for an update on something else. Trying to keep track of her moods was enough to give you whiplash.
But I could play that false game, too. I’d worked in public relations.
That August was the month of Honoring the Promise (HTP), Komen’s annual gala event at the Kennedy Center. I’d been working in close coordination with Komen staff for weeks by the time Heather’s illness progressed beyond treatment. They were wonderful people, and they had all been affected in some way or another by breast cancer. I’d shared her story with them, and they were kind in the way that radiates genuine sadness and concern. Unintentionally, I had formed alliances with these women through shared grief and comfort.These women became the lever I needed to attend Heather’s wedding.
After Marilyn told me she didn’t think I could attend the wedding because we were too busy, I accidentally included the fact that Heather was to be married in one of my emails to the head Komen coordinator and she told me to take plenty of pictures. Since I was really only working on HTP at that point, I took her word as permission and promised to share the eventual photo album, cc’ing Marilyn with spiteful glee. Marilyn had no choice but to graciously acquiesce. After all, her sister had succumbed to breast cancer, as she so often mentioned in our correspondence with Komen, how could she possibly say otherwise?
I did find one thing in my email search, which I think perfectly captures the insidious nature of Marilyn’s two-faced dealings. After calling me into her office to tell me I’d be allowed to take time off for the wedding as if it had been her idea all along, even though it was “highly unusual” for such exceptions to be made, she waited, patiently, for me to express my gratitude. But I didn’t. I just nodded and left. Here are two snippets from an email to Komen staff following her first denial that makes me ill to reread:
Jean* and Sarah*, I have now talked with Sultana and shared with her that I had told you both about her friend. And, how very quickly you both came back to offer any help that you could in finding another way here perhaps...
...so I am not certain that there is anything to be done, except to do as Sultana is doing, taking her some sunflowers from her garden and going to see her. Sultana shares that she has a very good support group that will stay with her through this.
Sultana was very touched when I shared with her your concern. As am I.
I had been corresponding with these women about Heather’s diagnosis for weeks. I’d had private communications with them about next steps and how to be helpful during her final days. I’d asked for guidance and for commiseration. And then this email... it boggles my mind, but it also makes everything hateful about Marilyn fall into sharp relief.
Marilyn may not have kept me from the wedding, but she would damned well profit from it if she was forced into letting me attend. She could send this email to our client and remind everyone of her loss, graciously thank everyone for their support and then call it a day, a benevolent saint to the very end. Marilyn hasn’t been a powerhouse in D.C. for decades because she’s the best event planner, but because she plays the game better than anyone else. She wields her scepter through intimidation and manipulation and she is QUEEN. May her reign end soon.
Heather passed away on August 7th, 2012. I told Marilyn I could no longer work for her in September. I left D.C. in October. I broke up with B. for good in January of 2013.
Despite the fact that they are no longer active participants in my life, Heather, Marilyn and B. still occasionally trespass on my thoughts. Therapy has helped me realize that Marilyn’s abuse did a number on my professional confidence. I still catch myself wondering when people will realize I’m a fraud, when they’ll discover that I’m far less intelligent than I can talk people into believing at first glance. I have moments of absolute panic when employers offer me criticism, sure it will lead to my termination.
B.’s intrusions offer a different insight. He was the first person outside my family I loved more than I loved myself, something that didn’t take much, seeing as how I loved myself very little. He taught me to be a better listener, both to myself and to my partner. I learned so much about long term relationships, pain, and compromise from him. And I’ve finally realized I can be a little spiteful and maybe even jealous of his new love and still be grateful for our time together. Or whatever. Jerk.
Heather comes up with less frequency. The grief is dull now, more of a fond remembrance than anything. I mostly think about her on her birthday and the day she passed away, often prompted by Facebook or emails from mutual friends. I wonder if she’d hate this series, or tell me to quit being so goddamn self-indulgent. I’d be fine with either reaction, if she was here.
But Heather’s influence continues to shape the path my life has taken. I’ve left jobs, partners, and cities in search of a life I deem worth living. I can’t promise I won’t love another B., but I’ll never work for another Marilyn. And if the smallest piece of that bravado or self-worth stems from knowing I could lose the opportunity to continue searching for that good life in an instant, I owe her, big time.
*Names have been changed.
[If you’re planning on donating your time or money to a worthwhile organization, please consider The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. ]