Memories of a clothing swap, memories of a life

A month into my breast cancer diagnosis, I was sitting with other young women, in all states of undress, all levels of high with medicinal weed, and half glasses of champagne and tea and electrolyte-infused drinks strewn about. The Mission neighborhood was sunny that autumn day, San Francisco’s summer season, music crescendo-ing alongside the laughter in the house. I had joined a support group, the Bay Area Young Survivors, for young women with breast cancer—a niche that seemed to fit a surprising number of women—and one of the members was hosting a clothing swap at her house. I marveled at how all these little subcommunities had to exist in every nook and cranny of the world and what was I missing up until that point. Trading wigs and shirts and skirts and prosthetic-filled bras and lymphedema sleeves and scarves and hats on a Sunday afternoon. Trying to make the most of these new bodies. Looking around at us – sliced, burned, hot flashing, numb, skinnier, rounder, with parts removed and other parts added, bald or with hair.
I was quiet in new groups, usually. And this was no different as I steadied myself, back up against a wall, unsure where I fit in here, feeling conscious of how I felt and how I looked, wanting to be open to this newfound identity of cancer patient and where it would take me as I worked to stay alive. My port incision still fresh, a mechanical burn spread across my chest in some sort of cruel reaction to the surgery and first rounds of Taxol, painful acne dotting my face like I was an early teen again, the chemo pushing to squelch my hormones as they fought hard to stay at the peak of their influence, my long auburn hair cut into a practical pixie to make the transition to baldness easier. These women didn’t know me, the “me” before the now. And that didn’t matter, because I was here. I showed up. We had enough in common that all pretenses were cast off and a comfort eased in instead.
I recognized one of the women in the middle of the crowd. We had met the week before at a support group meeting. Julie. She was a year or so ahead of me in treatments, already done with chemo and her double mastectomy. After we waved to one another from across the room, she zigzagged her way through the clusters of people to plop down next to me, offering me whatever snacks were on her plate. She was vibrant, big blue eyes and a raspy voice. We started talking about the absurdity of this whole situation in front of us, how bodies are miracles, our shared Midwest roots, how we used to live just a few blocks apart by the Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, loved nature and conservation, were generally angry at the world because of the deep injustices and yet generally in awe that we could still have deep belly laughs.
I recall her saying – and it struck me like a bolt of lightning – that her treatment was a distant memory, a speck in her mind’s eye. That life had moved on and filled in the foundational cracks that cancer caused. How she never thought it was unfair, that she struggled with the questions of both why me and why not me. And she just kept on going, buoyed by this community of cancer survivors and the advocacy needed for the world to be better.
In the first few months of my life with cancer, the crushing loneliness was a dark passenger by my side as I moved through the world, keeping me up at night, dropping my stomach in the shower and causing me to double over, mouth open and crying with no sound.
That Julie indicated that there could be a moment in time where that passenger got off the train, the track splitting and my life now headed to wondrous places on the other side of the stacked mountain ridges…well, that was the first time I could envision it. Because there she was living it.
Memory is an unreliable narrator. It can make things even more beautiful than they actually were, even when they were incredibly beautiful, and turn the mundane into the magical. Especially with the passage of time and hard-earned wisdom.
As the months and years added up in our friendship, Julie and I shared in all the wonders of our unfolding lives:  Showing up at Julie’s baby shower in the Presidio Bowling Alley with Jules in a sequin dress, 8 months pregnant with Danika, holding a bowling ball and bowling a strike. Slip-sliding through the mud, mud even stuck in our teeth while we laughed, during a mud run for women with cancer in the old Candlestick stadium. Sharing information and sighs when we both discovered a common genetic mutation. Comparing notes on our tough oncologist and claiming victory when we would get a surprise hug from the doctor. Snuggling Danika in bed – maybe she was 3 or 4 years old – to help her get to sleep one night and making up lyrics to “Hush little baby.” “Hush little baby, don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird, and if that mockingbird don’t sing, mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring, and if that diamond ring don’t shine, momma’s gonna buy you a piece of twine, and if that piece of twine does fray, momma’s gonna buy you a horse that neighs.” Or something like that. We went on and on, passing Danika’s bedtime, cracking ourselves up at our creativity in the moment to entertain this dear little creature. Dancing in platform heels in the Make-Out room. Driving together to Erin’s memorial and Janet’s yahrzeit. Meeting up for drinks at Le Colonial after Julie’s shift and my day of work just because we could. Opening up from her a gift of chocolate-covered magic mushrooms for my birthday present. Writing postcards to voters, in Georgia, Arizona, Colorado, and her asking me for more addresses to write during the downtime in her infusion chair. The bright blue February day, eating Banh-mi sandwiches on blankets spaced 6 feet apart, near the early-blooming orange poppies in Golden Gate Park. Comforting each other when our dads both died in the same calendar year in the throes of the pandemic. The newborn snuggles that she gave my daughter Celeste, asking me, in jest, “are you ever going to let me hold that perfect baby?!” and Julie’s nurse instincts coming out and showing me a better way to get a burp up and advising me, a new mom, that we didn’t really need to bathe our newborn often if at all (“But just remember to wipe under her neck now and again so that the milk doesn’t curdle in her wrinkles!”). The middle of winter in Cleveland, talking on the phone with Julie while I paced the aisles of a Salvation Army, looking for the best vintage clothes for her nephew, doing her shopping for her as she sat in her parent’s home a few miles away, her liver too swollen for her to comfortably move as she contemplated whether it was time for hospice. Her cheering on my decision to get a tattoo, to rewrite radiation scars. Conveying her wisdom about the first time camping with a baby—“Just do it!” Delighting in the hustle of Breast Cancer Action’s fundraisers and sharing our words through readings from the heart about the past, present, and the unknown future, holding both the anger and the joy, the fear and the wonder.
It’s been almost 10 years since that fall day Julie and I shared snacks at the clothing swap. Julie is gone now, living in a way and dying in a way that spited the cancer that returned. She had no expectation that she’d see her daughter’s 3rd birthday, then 4th  birthday, 5th birthday, then 6th birthday. She was never as fragile as she truly was. She had no casual trust that things would work out, that we would make it through, that it would be easy.

The week Julie died, we gathered again. This time fully dressed under the grey November skies, but soaking in that same cocktail of weed, beer, laughter, and tears, catching up on all that had happened, this being the first time most of us had seen one another in person since the pandemic launched. It felt joyful and sad, knowing all the life and death that had transpired in the intervening years. We were kicked out of the first venue because my daughter Celeste—then just over 5 months old—was “underage.” Julie would have been right there in front and incensed with the venue’s manager, and, then, she would have howled laughing at the absurdity of it all like the rest of us, falling into that easy rhythm where just a glance between us is a full and complete chapter book, an understanding, a little burst of love.

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