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First meeting of Girl Scouts at the youth center today and my friend Eileen came through the door and immediately I felt the guilt of not having been in touch. I'd wanted to, I'd really wanted to. So why didn't I? I get so mad at myself sometimes. Why am I such an asshole? She said "How are you?" and I said "Crazy," with that fake wincing smile, and immediately I hated myself for never saying "Fine!" like other people. Just say fine! I told myself. Jesus, why do you always have to be such a drama queen? Eileen's mouth seemed a little pinched and I wondered if she was mad at me. She had every right to be. She'd written me a lovely note in e-mail back in July and I never answered. I'd seen her once in between but never picked up the phone or replied to her message. But I would make it up to her now. Turn on the charm. Really listen. Be a good friend. Better late than never.
The new co-leader, Trudy, handed me this thick packet of activity "Choices" and said it would be helpful if I could pick which ones we would like to do and let her know by Monday morning. I think she told me at the parents' meeting that she has seven children but I didn't remember that when she handed me the packet. I just looked at the packet, and the demonstration signboard propped up in thirds on the student desk, just like the ones kids make for science fairs. Eileen signed up for the Early Days of California event and she asked me, twice, if I could do that one and I hesitated, because the timing wasn't great for us. "I wish we could sit down and look at these," I said, and Eileen found a desk inside an empty room and we went in there and I sat down. When I looked up again she was back in the hallway talking to the new co-leader. I started scanning the activities and it was hard to make anything sink in. It had been a very hot day and I can't always handle the heat. I was sitting there thinking, I just can't handle this heat, and I wondered if we're obligated to do the activities as a troop or if we could do anything as individuals. I got up to ask Trudy the co-leader and waited for her to finish speaking to Eileen. They were having a straightforward conversation across a space of about four feet, not private, and I confess that while I was making a reasonably attentive face, I wasn't paying attention at all. I was just thinking about my question and wishing they would hurry it up a little, or take a little pause so I could lob it in there and be done with it.
"I opted not to get the screen, because it could always be an anomaly," Trudy said, or something along those lines. I couldn't quite figure out what they were talking about. Sounded like they were discussing prenatal screening. My friend Trixie told me years ago that it's really important to get all the screening tests done, because she had chosen not to, thinking even if there's something wrong with the baby, I'll still want her, not realizing that because there WAS something wrong with her baby, it would have been useful to know ahead of time and might have helped them keep her out of the NICU. I was thinking I could mention that if that was what they were talking about. Could Eileen be pregnant? I wondered. I have another friend who's pregnant right now; that would be a coincidence. Eileen was talking about doctors and referrals. She said she had had an opportunity to get tested earlier and she hadn't done it and now she was kicking herself. Trudy was talking about her mother and plastic surgeons.
"I'm having a double," Eileen said. What the hell were they talking about?
Eileen gave me a sidelong glance and said matter-of-factly, "I have breast cancer."
I don't suppose I ever really knew what it felt like to reel, but I know now. I opened my mouth but nothing intelligible came out except her name, Eileen, and anyway she was still talking to the co-leader and not paying attention to me. I went back in the room and sat down at the desk and started to cry. I kept wiping my eyes roughly, hoping to get my feelings under control quickly. I got up and went behind them to get a drink from the drinking fountain, which dispensed only a half-inch stream. But I could not get my feelings under control. The two of them were being very controlled, having a perfectly controlled conversation at a distance of four feet, and I was skidding around like a woolly mammoth during a big thaw.
What you have to understand is that Eileen, not yet 40 as far as I know, has already had cancer. Lymphoma--Hodgkin's. I think that's what it was. I'm not exactly sure, because she was better by the time I met her, though she'd only been cancer-free for a few months, at most. Her family history plays like Greek tragedy and she is the nicest person you'd ever want to meet and her little girl--Oh my God, that child does not know what to do with herself when her mother isn't around. She's gotten more confident as she's grown older, but still... I've often comforted myself with the idea that my kids would carry on without me, would not be unduly traumatized by my death, though of course I can't really say whether it's true. But Eileen's daughter you might as well set adrift on the ocean as take her mother away. Not that I'm saying Eileen will die, I certainly don't know, but the mere idea of it was enough to set me to crying again. Started crying like a baby and then Eileen is apologizing for springing it on me, which I don't want her to do, and I blubber something about having been a bad friend to her, and unavailable, which is so typical of me to turns things back around to myself (ugh! hate myself!), and then some kid's nice Grandma comes up and wants to know if she can pray for me, and I say okay, because what can it hurt, and then I say no, don't pray for me, pray for my friend, and she says "Okay, what is your friend's name?" and I clam up, can't think of anything to say, because Eileen is standing right across from me and I don't want to rat her out. And then she has to be the grownup and say, "It's me," while I stare at the book in her hands, which is not a Bible but definitely something from the inspirational section, and then the lady asks if she could pray for her and Eileen says she would like that very much, and then my cell phone rings and it's Barbara calling to say she doesn't need me to watch her kids tonight after all, because her husband is going to be home on time for her to go to Back to School Night, and Eileen and the almost-Bible-toting Grandma disappear around the corner, and Barbara's thanking me profusely and I'm trying to sound chipper and not like I'm sucking snot back into my head, and it strikes me as enormously wrong that somebody is thanking me for something I didn't even do when I am, at bottom, a shitheel, and my beautiful friend Eileen, who has never uttered an unkind word in my presence and is facing a double mastectomy, is stuck fending off the overzealous Bible lady because I can't control my emotions. There are kids everywhere and I'm trying to get back to her, walking through a sea of afterschool daycare kids who keep racing up the stairs like salmon in backpacks, and then Eileen steps back around the corner, having placated the Biblican with her vital statistics, and she's wiping her eyes, regaining her composure, ready to help me feel better again.