For many years, my friend C and I talked about how when we were old, we would live, along with some other friends, on a communal piece of land. We’d have separate houses, but we’d eat dinner together every night, and be there to support each other when one or the other was ill. That dream will never be realised, now. That dream died the day that the oncologist told us that C would likely only live for only another few months.
We were going to grow old together. There was never any doubt in our minds. Her father died at 96. Her mother, whilst she has senile dementia, is 94. Good genes, we thought. Good long living genes.
I was 16 when I met her. I had come from boarding school to start at College, and so I boarded the school bus that first day of term, 1981, knowing no-one, anxious no doubt about the adventure ahead of me. I got on at T Rd, and sat alone all the way to Sunnynook. And then C got on the bus. She was teeny tiny, with long red hair. I don’t remember who started the conversation, or who sat next to who. But someone must have, because we started talking, and we’ve never stopped.
C was the person who was my “in” – we never belonged to any one group in that 7th form year. We just floated between groups. The common denominator was always C. And continued to be. She is the social glue of our group of school friends. I don’t see many of my old school friends without Carol being the instigator. She’ll ring up and say “So and so contacted me, do you want to…..”. And if there’s a social event in the group, then I go and pick up Carol, or she’s always there. Even my friend H and I never see each other without C being present. We rely on her to keep us all in touch, somehow. But we’ll have to do that without her now.
We almost lost her once before. When we were 29 – 20 years ago – she had a cardiac arrest, and died. Through a series of co-incidences, she lived again. But we almost, so very nearly, lost her. My world about ended, and I let her know sometime later that if she had died, I would have been heartbroken. That she meant everything to me. She always has, you see. She’s never been just a friend. She’s always been my best friend. Even when you age, and you really don’t have best friends, you have close friends, she was still my best friend. We were still, despite everything, those 16 and 17 year old girls. There wasn’t anything happening in my life that she wasn’t a big part of. I wasn’t there for her wedding to her first husband – I was overseas – and I was pretty gutted about it. But for everything else, we were together. When I got married to Ian, and we were going through very rough times, which was alot, she would always say to me “You can come and live with us, you know. We always have a spare room”. I heard what she was saying, and I knew that whatever happened – if I was homeless, and had no money, or if I just needed a break – she would be there, her home would always be there. When I thought Ian was going to die, she told me that if he died, I would always have a home with her. I don’t have that buffer anymore. We took road trips together – when Ian’s mother died, she and I went to the funeral, then got on our way. There was never any thought of staying behind to look after Ian. We’ve shared rooms, and beds. Where will I go?
I love my Ian. But I have loved my C longer. I have always known that she was there, that she would save me if I needed saving, that she would look after me should I need looking after. But that’s not going to happen. Instead, she is dying. Her body is turning in on itself, the malignancy that has taken hold of her is gradually killing her. I don’t know how long we have, but all I know is this. That this very small person will leave a very big hole in my life. That her dying represents the loss of so much, to me. So many dreams, so many possibilities, now gone. Turned to ashes.
But what is worse is that I am just one of many for whom C is a stalwart in their lives. For H, she is constant companion, and permanent play/movie/art opening date. Her light. H said to me today that Carol is her everything. She is everything to many of us, so many of us. Her husband G has loved her for nigh on 30 years – even when she was married, and he was in other relationships, he held a torch for her. All of us knew it, and when, 17 years ago, they finally got together, I was the last one they told, because they thought I would disapprove. As it happens, I don’t remember if I did or I didn’t. But thank god for him, now. He is her rock, and has been for all those years. She is everything, and more, to him.
The woman she works with currently; the people who’ve worked for her previously; the friends she’s made over the years; her customers in the framing business who have become friends to her. She stays in touch with everyone. Puts their numbers in her brown address book. All of us love her, to varying degrees, because she shows us what friendship should look like.
She is such a good friend, so loyal and so true. Through these years when I’ve made countless new friends, and then they’ve disappeared out of my life, she’s always been there. A little puzzled at first, maybe hurt sometimes, that others have taken some precedence over her. But they never did. There was always her. Always, loyally, eternally her. I have met some very great friends recently, and it was my wish to bring everyone together. For old friends to meet new. How glad I am now that that happened. How truly grateful am I that many of you got to meet her, that you met the most important, and enduring, person in my life.
For she endures, still. As I feed her icecream, or pills. As I hold the water for her to sip. As I sit by her bed and we laugh, or other friends join us and she lets the conversation flow over her. She is, at the moment, the central focus of my life. She always was. I hope she knows that. I’ll tell her one last time. Just in case.