So you're dying? Just don't change!

Since cancer came, my best friend has changed. Now she doesn't have long to live, but I can barely face her

Published July 20, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My friend "Cristina" is smart, attractive and sociable. We have been best friends for more than a decade and have always been there for each other. As far as I'm concerned, the only serious flaw in her character is that she demands a lot of attention, support, favors, etc. She monopolizes conversations about her and her children and is the kind who might borrow a piece of furniture from a friend and "forget" to return it. All this has until recently bothered me only mildly, as I tend to be a person who knows how to listen, likes to and can help, and has enjoyed a relatively drama-free life.

But now both her life and mine have changed radically. She has been ill with terminal cancer for several years and is divorced. She has (rightly) tapped into her many friends as a resource for logistics, company and even financial support. I was happy to take her on long trips to the hospital, take care of her children, even contribute funds for a much-needed vacation.

But then my life too became complicated. I started having marital problems, and my husband and I discussed a possible divorce. After I confided in Cristina, she proceeded to flirt with my husband! So much so that once she proposed the two of them take a trip I had expressed little interest in taking with my husband. On another occasion I picked up her children and mine from school, brought them all to her house, and cooked dinner for her family while everyone else sat in the living room, Cristina and her children ignoring my 6-year-old son. When I called from the kitchen to tell my son I was about ready to go, he quietly walked out of the house without waiting for me; Cristina did not even notice. When I saw him walking on the street through the kitchen window, I had to run out to get him back to safety.

I don't know if Cristina is even aware of the things she does. I have tried easing away from her friendship -- visiting her infrequently, keeping my children and hers separate, etc. But I hear from common friends she is sad at my having "abandoned" her. I even sense our common friends have cooled toward me, and wonder if what she tells them has affected their opinion of me. If Cristina were not so ill, I would like to have a serious talk with her and try to make her see a few things. But I don't have the heart to bring this onto a person who is counting the months she has left on earth. On the other hand, I don't want, years from now, to think back and regret having wasted what was until recently a wonderful friendship. If you have any answers for this complicated question I will appreciate them.

Ex-best friend

Dear Ex-Best Friend,

My answer for this complicated question is simple: Be with your friend during her last months. Accept the fact that she is dying.

You say she is dying and has been dying of cancer for years and then you say you are disturbed at the way she is not in totally tip-top shape, and when I hear this, I feel all the loss in the world and all the pain and suffering and all the ways we wall off what is happening in front of us, which only increases the heartache. It is simpler and more dignified and human to just face it: She is dying.

It is not only her body that is dying but her sentiment and her intelligence and her manners. She may still summon up heroically some of her grace and dignity and bearing, but on the whole the civilized person you know is descending along with her body.

The sooner you admit this terrible knowledge in all its bone-grinding purity and awfulness, the better you will be able to conduct yourself through the next few months as your friend descends.

Your friend is dying. Her failures to observe protocol are not failures of character any more than her cancer is a failure of character. They are part of her dying. They are part of her falling-apart.

Blame death. Don't blame her. Blame life, blame cancer, blame biology and technology and life and God and nature. Blame invisible forces in the cosmos and fate and history. Blame skin and bone and blood. Blame the mystery of fig leaves and pomegranates same as the mystery of gangrene and heart disease. Blame nose-hair growth and boils and Claudia Schiffer. Blame the same forces that give us heroin addiction and terrorists and the atom bomb. Blame humanity.

But lift yourself out of yourself and see what is happening! Your friend is dying! It is sad. It is tragic. It is life bearing down on you with all its terrible and ancient force, saying, Here I am, Life/Death, Terrible, Invincible Twin, Stinking Thief and Liar who hands you life then hands you death! Blame whatever gives you this great friend and then takes her away, and not all at once or secretly in the night but over time in broad daylight with remorseless, pitiless industry, piece by piece like a jackal devouring a carcass in the desert, leaving and returning, taking another piece, leaving and returning.

She is being taken away piece by piece. The one saving grace of such a slow, savage death is that it gives survivors time to prepare. So take the one thing you are being offered! Take this time to prepare, to let it sink in. Tell your friend what she has meant to you. Take this time to say goodbye!

By Cary Tennis

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