When i needed my friends...

Woman&Home - 2003

When your life goes into free fall, not all your friends take flight. Elaine Kingett writes about the people who stick around to see you through.

Disasters happen and whatever they are, whether it's the washing machine grinding to a standstill the night before a family holiday or your husband being diagnosed with terminal cancer, you need your friends. This is not a cautionary tale. A "Better be nice to Sonya who bores me stupid but who always offers to have the kids" edict. No one expects you to get on with everybody and, let's face it, some people are a right pain in the butt. This is more a tale of sheer wonderment at the extraordinary ability of some to support, nurture, understand and, above all, forgive and the heart-stopping ability of others to shove their faces in the sand and wave goodbye with their feet. My husband Jerry was diagnosed with plasma cell leukaemia in 1997. That's the dodgy leukaemia, the one that excites research professors for its incurable end - of - the - road status and terrifies the rest of us. Our middle-class Volvo, Victorian semi-detached lifestyle was thrown into disarray. Suddenly, my husband was the helpless member of the family, I was the carer and our three children, 17, 12, and eight, were mere shell-shocked ninepins toppling over at every opportunity. That same year, the 12-year-old was diagnosed as autistic and the 17-year-old had a nervous breakdown. Blimey, it all rolled in at once, didn't it?

Somebody to lean on?
My parents were in Cornwall, Jerry 's relatives were in Inverness and we lived in Brighton. During the subsequent three years of bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, statementing, school expulsions and Prozac, it was our friends who absolutely kept us alive.
And just as there is Wa i t rose for good fish and Asda for cut price beer, so friends click into diff e re n t categories. There were those who thought that the bad karma of cancer would rub off on them; that by associating with our debilitated state they too would become tarnished. They didn't want their hermetically sealed bubble to be popped by the realisation that death would get them as well. We were dinner party friends and it's hard discussing your next holiday in Antigua if the person opposite is bald through chemo and wondering when his toenails are going to fall off.

Male friends, so guiltily glad it wasn't them, were jolted into income protection insurance as they saw their traditional role as father and provider threatened by the destruction of Jerry 's life. I would catch them staring at him across a room, tears in their eyes, embarrassed by their own rude health and so moved by his fragility. But his conversations with Paul, Lloyd, Ludo or Ric were about model aeroplanes and jazz CDs, not death, and that made him feel normal and allowed him to escape from his new job description of cancer patient.

On the other hand, sometimes another person's crisis gives true friendship a focus, an opportunity to show, in practical terms, the love and respect that binds people together. Two days after Jerry was admitted t o hospital, when death seemed imminent, I had to "phone a friend". Joy worked for a solicitor and Jerry needed a will. In a noisy hospital corridor, I frantically scrawled down the format while she dictated over the phone. Suddenly, we'd been catapulted into an alien world of haematology and pharmaceuticals that others had only experienced on Casualty or ER. As a family we had to deal with it, we had no choice. For us, the emotive words "bravery" and "fight" were irrelevant and insulting. We had to swallow our pride and ask for help, over and over again.
Our friends had a choice: they could stay or they could run, and some ran. They sent cards and sometimes flowers (my kitchen looked bizarre l y celebrational every time Jerry had a crisis), but they didn't call. They looked embarrassed when you met them in the street and slid away mumbling. They responded appropriately but tacitly avoided involvement.

But there were those who rose to the occasion. Like Roy, a university dean who fetched our hairy little Border terrier, Mufti, up on a commuter train to London. Or Hazel and Neil who, seeing my diminishing ability to look after my children and my husband, took the eight-year-old on holiday to Cornwall.
My three friends of 40 years' standing - Sue, Kay and Alethea - organised a rota and, in turn , abandoned their families and travelled half way across the country to cook, clean and hand out tissues. Alethea was with me when Jerry died. We held hands across his bed as the man we'd known and loved for 32 years faded away. Always good to have a Quaker in a crisis, as another friend remarked.

Empathy coupled with positive action, not passive altruism - maybe that's what sorts the wheat from the chaff - and without going all Halle Berry on you there a was a couple whose joint support was, and continues to be, truly incredible. We'd known Harry and Lesley for 20 years, but it wasn't until Lesley turned up at the hospital in London with flowers and a vase that I realised what a rock she would become.

What was also remarkable was that their roles were interchangeable. Whereas with other couples it was mainly the woman who would visit, call or cook, these two worked as the perfect team. Their hospital visits were frequent but not too long, they asked about him, not moaned about themselves, and regularly replaced his in-patient uniform of Gap boxers and grey T- shirt with a clean set. They were a "me substitute" on whom I could rely, far away and exhausted in Brighton. They were surrogate parents I could lean on, knowing they would stand up to any pressure. I trusted them implicitly at a time when I trusted no-one, believing that if I didn't keep my eye on the ball 100 per cent of the time, a blood test wouldn't be taken, a rise in temperature not noted.

During Jerry 's last nights Lesley and I would lie on mattresses, either side of Jerry 's high, white metal bed, taking it in turns to try and sleep while listening attentively to his breathing. After he died, we went back to their house to cry, to eat, to remember and let go. The next day we went to Brixton to register his death and I sat numb and dumb as Lesley correctly answered all the questions for me. Together we toured the crematoriums and funeral directors of south London with Mufti, searching with the help of The Good Death Guide for a suitably groovy location for a dead bloke with attitude. Afterwards, they invited my kids and I to join them on their family holiday to Greece and when we came back Lesley and I went together to collect Jerry 's ashes.

What friendship means to me
Three months later, with Lesley unable to go away because of their kids' commitments, Harry invited me to join him on his architectural practice's weekend jolly to Turin in Italy. Unused to frivolity or fun, I was stunned but felt incredibly honoured to be treated as a woman who, after years of ignoring her own appearance and identity, could still be considered suitable public accompaniment for such a good looking, witty, intelligent bloke! Feminism, ha! We spent three brilliant days wining, dining, buying lingerie for Lesley and giggling like a couple of girls on a school trip. My relationship with him has continued to grow; I know that I can talk to him about anything, superficial or deep, and he loves a gossip.

After Jerry died, a lot changed, including me, and not all the relationships I'd depended on survived my metamorphosis. Initially, the sheer selfish relief of having survived with most of my marbles intact brought on a type of hysterical euphoria. I wanted to taste, to smell, to feel everything. Friends were dismayed.

When Jerry was ill I'd been easy to like and admire, the martyr wife and mother who gave up everything, including make-up, for the sake of kinder, kirche, kuchen.

Now, I was drinking like a fish and not eating but I had boundless energy and glowed. It was just not on. In turn, I rejected them. They wanted to grieve and I couldn't bear it. After living with death for so long, I wanted to live. They were all indoors and I wanted to go out. Indoors, I felt I had nothing. I had lost my best friend and had no one to play with. I couldn't watch TV or listen to Radio 4. Everything seemed to be about relationships. I couldn't do "happy couples", I hated cooking and we lived on pizza. I didn't want old life and responsibility, I wanted Radio 1 and oblivion.

I felt alienated from my friends and unable to play the role I felt obligated to fulfil. I knew no single men or women of my own age. I lived with my children and worked with one woman. I felt divorced from polite male society and days would pass without a conversation with a man.

Now, almost three years later, I'm beginning to understand the meaning of true friendship and the responsibilities attached to it. My Christmas card list is short, my mobile address book even short e r. No longer do I need to refer to everyone for advice, dump on them emotionally or fill every moment of my life with "fun" social engagements. I'm more selective about who I spend time with and sometimes it's just me.

Real friends are like Harry and Lesley who, after helping me nurse Jerry and hosting his funeral at their house, in time also gave me keys to their home so I could let myself in after a late night assignation in town. They know all my disguises and aren't threatened by them even if, sometimes, they find them hard to understand. They both approve and disapprove but their honesty and obvious caring makes me value their opinion even more. We have clung together and now have widely different lifestyles, but we retain the same fundamental priorities, optimism and irreverent sense of humour.

Throughout life it's inevitable that your friendships will change but as we get older life gets busier and we become lazier. It's easier not to phone, not to drag yourself off the sofa and go down the pub. But you only have to look at the success of the website www.friendsreunited.co.uk to see that we can't exist on our own, nurturing only our own little demons.

Friendship demands sacrifice, it's awkward and gets in the way. It wakes you up in the middle of the night because it wants to talk about where the hell its husband is and it tells you that, my God, your arm s really can't do sleeveless anymore. It's honest and it hurts, but if it's not, it's not worth it and anyway, give and you get back. Especially in today's scary world, where we need even more to tell friends we love them and give them a hug. Whatever they've been up to!

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