The first time I saw her she was wearing a large Russian style faux fur hat, a long winter coat, gloves, possibly a scarf, a handbag and a glistening smile. We introduced ourselves, right there in the brick archway at school, waiting to collect our boys. We shivered in the bitter wind and huddled closer, discussing our intrigue, worry and excitement at the new newness of those first days of school. In the crisp cold, there was instant warmth standing next to her. We became friends, I moaned about my cracked weather beaten hands, caused from pushing a buggy, she recommended hand cream, and laughed at my lack of gloves. I moaned about schlepping in the car, about the parking, the short day, the cold, the wet, the snow. She never moaned.
Our boys became friends too, before we even engineered a play-date. An organic natural friendship, born from mutual boyish mischief and fun, a play-date followed. She sat on my sofa and we chatted, an everyday conversation filled with everyday thoughts, until she started giggling, which is what she did when she was nervous, and said she wanted to tell me something. It took her a while to build the courage and then it came out, a soft explanation of her terminal illness, she smiled gently throughout. She told me not to tell anyone and I didn’t. She was worried people would gossip. No one ever did. She wanted to fight and she wanted to live, there wasn’t time for excessive sympathy, just support and the knowledge that this was what she was going through. At that point, my friend was the self proclaimed tough cookie who would not give up and she didn’t, not ever.
Despite everything we had a very normal friendship, it was a two-sided love-fest, like all the best relationships are and should be. We just got on, our boys got on and her illness became normal to me too. She reminded, an always panicked me, of school announcements, that I had often deleted, or forwarded me the information I missed, and I listened and watched her travel through the last chapter of her life. We were both night owls and would chatter away via text in to the early hours. I still wait for the phone to flash at eleven o’clock. I still wish it would light up with her name, one last time.
Cancer is a cruel illness; it can grab the life from within and slowly suck it away. Some of us are lucky to have survived from it, some of us are fighting it and some of us can only fight for so long. We all know of someone, it is a cheerless commonality that binds us all. But the one thing that my great friend did was never let it get her down. She was determined to continue living her life, no matter what this horrific illness threw at her, she threw it straight back. She always smiled. Of course there were tears, she was scared and carried a deep sadness, at the prospect of never seeing her son grow up. There are no words to describe a mother’s hurt at not being there; there is only an aching so unfathomable that my heart breaks at the thought of it. She dealt with all of this, plus the chemo, the pain, the pills and continued, unfaltering, to smile.
The last time I saw her, she insisted on making my children dinner, she wouldn’t accept my help. She sent me home with a packet of my favourite biscuits and a huge hug. We waved and blew kisses to each other as I loaded the kids into the car. We talked up until the end.
Weeks have passed and I still cannot believe that my friend is no longer here. I want to tell her that our boys are still the greatest of friends, that her son is the sweetest most caring child; and that in him, I see flashes of her. I want to laugh with her and eat crisps and mini marshmallows and sit in her garden again as the sun catches our cheeks. I want to text her when the whole world is asleep and it’s just us again. I want her to know that all of her friends are still there to support her family and that just because the circus of her passing has dissipated and the rush of immediate help has disappeared that we are all still close by.
We cannot stop time from passing, despite so desperately willing it to, and as the sun continues to rise and set, I can promise another constant; you will always be with me. Her name was Jo, she was my friend and she will never be forgotten.