I am a public safety dispatcher. I spend my days answering phone calls from people in their most vulnerable states, asking for help from Police, Fire, and EMS. I routinely walk people through pre-arrival instructions and CPR. Death is nothing new to me, as I deal with it on a regular basis in my professional life. I have heard people take their final breaths. Heard the agonizing cries of the people who have found their loved ones passed away or on the brink of death. I think part of how I am able to get through what would wear down an average person is compartmentalizing. I don’t know most of the people who call, and their crises are distant, of no personal significance to me. I cannot let the calls get to me, or I would be completely unable to answer the phone for the next person who is experiencing one of the worst moments of his or her life. I do it because I genuinely want to help people. I want to make a difference and in even a small way, make others’ lives easier. This, I learned, is almost a fault of mine.
So when my best friend called me last March and told me that she had been diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer at her initial diagnosis and was terminal, the floor fell from under me and I couldn’t make out which way was up. I remember I didn’t cry on the phone. Just as in my professional life, I waited until we disconnected before I let myself feel my emotions. It was that day that I began grieving, and I haven’t truly stopped since.
Struggling to Cope
Initially, I was overwhelmed with sadness and fear. It wasn’t fair that my best friend, the girl who had been there for me over the previous 15 years, was dying. Next, came the anger. I lived there for a very long time. I was angry that she had cancer. But more than that, I was angry that there was absolutely nothing I could do. Every day, lines from my scripted Emergency Medical Dispatch cards filled my head. But none of them were of any use. I’m trained to deal in death in an immediate fashion, not long and drawn out and painfully slow. I’m trained to deal in death, but only from a distance.
My anger lingered for a very long time. It got to the point where it affected my job, and I began lashing out at others in the room working alongside of me. I was reprimanded once, which included video footage of one of my outbursts. I had no idea how out of hand I had gotten. I was living in my anger, and that was all I could see. Compartmentalizing my emotions, safely storing them away to be dealt with at a later time always seemed like a good idea. But they must be sorted through and addressed again, not left to collect dust. Because the first big flutter of wind will uncover them all at once, and that’s infinitely worse than if I’d have just faced them head on initially. That was the lesson I had learned from my actions.
I chose to enroll myself in counseling, which helped for a while. But my counselor wanted to focus more on my past and why I am the way that I am today. We visited stories from my childhood, ex boyfriends, traumatic experiences, my own chronic illness… but we only ever talked about my friend in brief moments. Moments of being asked how she was, or how I was feeling. I appreciated the sense of lightness I obtained from speaking with a counselor, but I still felt completely numb. Hollow. A piece of me was missing.
Learning to Be There For Her
The thing is, they don’t tell you anywhere how to handle the death of a friend. Not in any sense. Not the imminent death, the slow death, or the actual death itself. There are no books that detail what to expect. How to act. What to say when they’re slowly slipping away from you, or even how to begin to find the words. How long you should grieve, or even when it’s acceptable to begin. No one warns you how helpless you will feel, or how many days you will be completely incapacitated by your fear of letting go; the tears refusing to stop running rivers, landing in lakes on your pillow.
Even after she told me she was stable, I cried. The tears hot, staining my cheeks. They were tears of joy, but also of sorrow. I was grateful to be given more time with her, but I knew that it wouldn’t be enough. I had always dreamed of her being the maid of honor if I ever got married. Her being Aunt to any children I may have. I imagined us growing old and never apart, as our families would be close. I felt selfish for wanting those things for her. Wanting those things for me. I was angry that she was terminally ill, all over again. While her cancer stabilizing was a blessing to me, I also knew that time was a ticking bomb and the fuse would eventually run out. What hope I did have felt fraudulent.
My mom told me one day, while I was on the phone crying to her about the whole paralyzing grip of the situation, “You cannot pray for a miracle and expect it to not happen.” I vehemently disagreed. I could pray for miracles until I was blue in the face, but there was still a very present reality that it’s still not going to happen. Again, I was faced with the infuriating sense that there was nothing I could do.
Finally, earlier this year, my friend was feeling well enough to take a road trip with me over a weekend. We went to Pittsburgh, one of our traditions, to see some friends. It was absolutely amazing to see her so happy. She was smiling, laughing, and all around enjoying herself. I was so overjoyed at the transformation I witnessed that I began to cry. It was a miracle that she and I were where we were, because at one point doctors gave her a prognosis of a year and a half. The tears refused to stop, because I was absolutely blown away by how much that girl had fought. I thought she was a miracle. Maybe that was the miracle I had been praying for.
That night, she was absolutely exhausted, so we went to the hotel and fell asleep. Not long after we had gone to bed, the fire alarm went off and the hotel was evacuated. We were on the eighth floor of the hotel, and since the elevators were disabled by the alarms, we had to walk down all of those stairs to get outside. By the time we had made it down two floors, I could tell she was in a good deal of pain. But even in spite of all of that, she still pushed herself and persevered. That’s when something inside of me finally clicked. My best friend may have cancer, but cancer does not have her. Not right now, anyway. All of the time I spent completely overwhelmed with anger and frustration that I couldn’t do anything suddenly seemed so ridiculous, because I saw that there was nothing I could have done from the start.
I spent the next few days with her at her house, just lounging around and spending time with her. I wanted to soak up all of the time with her while I could. My last night there, as I watched the time roll into 1am on July 18th, I listened to my best friend snoring. I was trying to sleep next to her, before heading back to my own life over two hours away in the morning, but I didn’t mind the noise. Each snore was a tiny rumbling proclamation from her body, “I am alive. I am still here.” And with each breath, I thanked God for granting me the peace I had been so desperately searching for. With each breath, I thanked God for the blessing that is my best friend.
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