What I Think About When I’m Not Thinking About My Bipolar Son

Last September I was in Los Angeles for my cousin’s wedding. I stayed with my best friend L.   She and I were hiking through Runyon Canyon and she kept pressing on her left breast.

“It hurts. What could it be? Mastitis?”

“Not if you’re not nursing. Maybe some kind of blocked duct?”

“Maybe. Breast cancer doesn’t hurt, right?”

“Right.”

Wrong.

She had a malignancy. Cancer. She has since gone through chemotherapy and radiation. She still has a port and will get infusions of Herceptin through the fall. She is technically cancer free. But she’s not well. Her joints hurt. Her elbow, in particular, is in excruciating pain.  She is tired. Weary. Low. Except when she’s hopeful, when she’s writing or with her family.  Or when she’s hiking. Hiking is her thing. Hiking is our thing.

We were freshman college roommates. But before we moved into our third floor suite, we went together on the orientation backpacking trip to a nearby wilderness. We both loved to sing while we walked and we knew the same songs.  Every word of “A Chorus Line”. And “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”  She loved Led Zepplin and James Taylor. She introduced me to Rickie Lee Jones. I sang her every song on Moondance. She has a gorgeous voice, terrific pitch. I am tone deaf. Most people move away when I sing. She came closer.

We were best friends through every imaginable change and transformation young women like us go through. First lovers, second lovers. Losing count of our lovers. Term papers. Wordsworth. Emily Dickinson. Blake. My parents divorce. My father’s illness and death. Jobs as waitresses, jobs in offices, jobs as teachers, my career in radio. Abortions. Travels to Europe, the mideast, the far east. Graduate school in writing. Publishing. Getting married. Getting pregnant. Having children.

And almost every year, for 30 years, we would take a wilderness trip together, just the two of us. Once, after she had surgery on her foot, we went to a lake and I took her canoeing for her first time. Once, after being drenched to the bone in Opal Creek we spent a few nights in a bed and breakfast on the coast where it was sunny and we refused to apologize for the luxury.

We ate seafood near Mono Lake. Then puked our way through Yosemite. We took the last room at the Awahnee and watched the Miss Teen USA pageant, rooting for Miss Oregon.  We’ve hiked around Crater Lake, most of Utah and half of Washington State.  We hauled ourselves up and over Kersarge Pass in the Sierra Nevada, and then hiked out in hail the size of your fist. We took gallons of water with us to see the Bristlecone Pines, the oldest living creatures on the planet. I wrote her a poem about those trees. Later, it was published in “The Paris Review.”

We’ve walked the length of this country twice, in the bits and pieces of Western Massachusetts, Western Michigan, California, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, the broken landscape of our unbroken friendship.

When we were in college and for more than a decade afterward I was quite flush. And what was mine was hers. I can’t remember everything I paid for — clothes, shoes, a backpack, jewelry, the plane tickets, the massages, pedicures, haircuts, meals. They were  a pleasure, never an expense. And now that we are adults and I am not so flush but she is, she sends Milo to camp, she flies me to her for chemo, she picks me up and takes me away on spa retreats. She sent me a laptop for my birthday. She paid off my debts.  “It’s a wash” she told me, it all evens out in the balance of our lives, our love.

So, she had cancer. The effects of the disease and its treatment linger. This summer we are not going hiking together. I have been thinking about her body. I have been thinking about the constancy of her body in my life. I have been thinking about how much I count on her body in this world, its strength, its curves, its warmth and its familiarity. I have been thinking about the times I have confused her body with my own. The times I have looked in the mirror and seen her face, or opened a book and seen her handwriting in the margins or put on a sweater and smelled her scent.

I have been thinking about love. The love that binds us to the people who make us who we are, in their robust, magnificent wholeness and in their illness, in their pain, in their struggles and in their healing.

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