Lessons From an Ill Friend

The girls in the photograph are all about 20, dressed in fall suits and pearls. They stand in an autumn garden, grouped around a bride seated in a wicker chair. The bride is me. The girls are my best friends.

The mellow October light filters through the trees overhead. It's a picture for the ages, a moment when the faces mirror only the beautiful day, the happy occasion, the abundant champagne. Surely it would always be like this, the convent girls linking arms and laughing at a camera, equal to whatever might come.

I have sought out this picture to look at my friend Barbara at 20, chic in rose pink wool, her gaze amused but steady. Her Mother Superior look, I used to call it, only half-joking. Even then, she was wise beyond her years, passionate about truth, wary of easy answers.

I want to look at Barbara young and vibrant and believe that if I look at the picture long enough, I can travel back to that time when mortality was a distant concept, or a word in a poem.

Because now it's not. Now it's something else entirely, conveyed in e-mails about diagnosis and prognosis and chemo. Bad news travels fast, and this bulletin has galloped, arriving on my computer screen with a dull thud one spring morning and slotting every other concern into instant perspective.

I rehearse the phone call I will make. What will I say to her? I heard you were sick. Ill. Is ill better? Does it sound less graphic, more dignified? And how do I get from that to what I really want to say, which is that I think of you every day. That when I wake at 3 a.m., I say a Hail Mary for you and pray that you are having a quiet night, that your husband is sleeping, that your daughters are sleeping, that you will wake rested, ready. For whatever might come. That I had counted on you being there, in your Upper West Side apartment, pretty much forever. That we would meet when I came to New York and that you would always be the same, serious and funny and smart. That I would call you Mother Superior and that we would laugh the way we used to, back when we didn't know that there was anything besides robust good health and a non-stop procession of ordinary days.

It's early June, and the scented air reminds me of the spring of our senior year at boarding school. Our room had casement windows that opened onto the garden. We used to sit there in the moonlight, talking about boys and planning our brilliant futures. We were 18. The world beyond the convent gates was full of endless possibility. College. Trips to Europe. Glamorous jobs in New York. Glorious independence. For Barbara, it held something more. A chance to right wrongs. A need to make a difference.

Two years after she came to my wedding, I went to hers. Her father made a toast I still remember, calling her, their eldest child, the first jewel in the family crown. Now I want to tell her that in my crown of friends, she is also a jewel. She told another classmate not to pray for a miracle cure, but for understanding.

I don't know what Barbara will tell me. I only know what I will tell her, what I have already learned from this stage of her journey.

In your honor, dear friend, I will stop wasting time on useless worry and things I can't change. I will foreswear whining. I will actually do the things recommended on Hallmark cards: notice butterflies, look for rainbows. I will be grateful. I will stop waiting for my real life to begin.

In your honor, I will think of that fall day in the picture and your steady smile and the ties that bind us, year after year. In your honor, I will be ready. For whatever comes.