Real friendships are forever

Sometimes we receive letters, or more likely emails nowadays, from which we instinctively turn away before we’re done reading.

Such was the email Stew and I received yesterday from Vickie, a dear friend for more than forty years, telling us she’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That’s a bad type of cancer, I thought initially, as if there were any good cancers. “For Chrissake!” was Stew’s reaction.

Her pancreatic cancer, though, was detected in the very early stages and there’s a good chance, or so we hope, it can be arrested or even eradicated through chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments.

This latest problem follows a series of other major illnesses and encounters with cancer Vickie has had that would have knocked out a person with less resilience and resolve.

Living among retired expats in San Miguel, most of them old, we should be used to such bad news. Church newsletters often read like casualty reports from the war against time, listing people who are sick, injured or near death, sometimes afflicted with maladies we’ve never heard of.

A tall, burly and handsome man in his early seventies, a former helicopter pilot in Vietnam, is diagnosed with pulmonary melanoma. Isn’t melanoma a skin cancer that is readily identified and treated? Apparently not. Wham!

Even so most of these people are acquaintances rather than close, long-time friends. That added psychic distance softens the impact of tragedy.  Advanced age and long-term illnesses can make a person’s demise something to be expected too.

Vickie is different. She is a very close friend and we’ve known her seemingly forever.

We met at the Argonne National Laboratory of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission outside Chicago, which despite its ominous name was a edenic research facility spread over seventeen hundred acres dotted with rare white deer and a flock of mute swans. It was a birdwatcher’s hot spot.

Vickie and I worked in different departments and in truth neither one had much to do directly with laboratories, atoms or energy. Ours were mainly government paper-shuffling gigs, Vickie’s in public affairs and mine in personnel.

Nevertheless both required high-level security clearances from the federal government. Back in the nineteen-seventies, being gay was considered a mental disorder that automatically made you subject to blackmail and therefore a security risk. To bosses and coworkers, Stew remained a ghostly character, a nameless roommate, and my sexual orientation a constant risk.

The early years: Stew with his 1960-something AMC Rebel, a rescued couch, 
and Vickie’s dog Frosso, in front of Vickie’s two-flat in Chicago. 

Except for Vickie, who as much as told me, right from the start, “hey, we’re friends and I don’t care about security clearances, your being gay or if you have a boyfriend.”

I’ve since realized that such mutual trust, acceptance and openness are essential to a good friendship.

So the three of us became a small pack, sharing gossip and personal dilemmas, even the endless mechanical problems of Vickie’s irascible Fiat which wouldn’t start when the temperature dropped below freezing, a fatal flaw in Chicago.

Getting her car started was a twice- or thrice-weekly soap of battery-jumping, clutch-popping and cursing in the snow. One time we had to push the Fiat down North Avenue, one of Chicago’s busiest thoroughfares, to get it going.

Vickie had a master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri and she also was a prime mover in my decision to follow my true interests, quit the much-detested government job and go for my own master’s in Journalism at Northwestern University.

That’s what good friends do too—believe in you and whisper encouragement when you feel unable to decide which way to move, or whether to move at all.

She eventually left the government also, and our lives went on to become a spaghetti bowl of new jobs, lost jobs, bumpy relationships, including Stew and I separating for two years, and seemingly ridiculous projects such as rehabbing decrepit Chicago buildings that inevitably took three times more money and physical and mental energy than anyone imagined.

Much alcohol was involved in our lives during those years too, though fortunately all three of us quit drinking along the way, in our own ways and time. We might not be around if we hadn’t.

Vickie had some interesting boyfriends. I remember meeting an architect who lived in a Mies van der Rohe condo building on Lakeshore Drive. I am very self-conscious at parties, and at a gathering at this guy’s place a medium-size dog sitting primly under the piano caught my attention.

I kept looking at it but it remained motionless. Finally I mentioned to Vickie the dog’s apparent great training and she laughed: her boyfriend loved that dog so much that he had had it stuffed when it died. The joke was on me—and Stew, who was there too.

Indeed, Vickie stories could fill its own blog. She ultimately married Glenn, a guy who worked for me at a small publication. The two have been married for over twenty years and Glenn’s love and attention for Vickie may be a bigger factor in her recovery than all the chemotherapy in the world.

Vickie is a super-talented artist who has been drawing snapshots
of New York City. This is the invitation to the opening of an exhibit
of her pen-and-ink work. She said she sold hundreds of the drawings, but given
how much work they required, she probably netted
about twenty-five cents an hour.

For ten years or so our friendship waned after she and Glenn moved to New York, and we lost touch. But last December they visited San Miguel for a week and it was as if Vickie, Stew and I had never been apart.

And now she has cancer.

At the church we attend, folks would dutifully add Vickie’s name to the weekly prayer list. I do not spurn or mock their sentiments. That’s just how many people cope with serious problems.

Except that for me such rituals seem like such a cop-out, a refusal to admit the reality of personal powerlessness.

Are we trying to convince ourselves we’re doing something, even though there’s really nothing to be done except rely on the chemotherapy and survival statistics and hope Vickie’s inner strength gets her through this health crisis?

I wrote to her and expressed our sadness at her situation. I also mentioned that Stew and I had been toying with the idea of visiting New York in December to celebrate my 70th birthday.

Now we’re definitely going, despite the challenge of finding affordable accommodations. I told her we just might have to build our own life-sized Nativity Scene on the small patio in front of her tiny apartment. Stew and I would stay there for a week, dressed as Joseph and the Virgin Mary.

But who is going to be who? Neither Stew nor I exactly look like any Virgin Mary we’ve ever seen, but I’m sure Vickie will have some ideas about that.

5 thoughts on “Real friendships are forever

  1. Long time friendships mean so much to all of us, I think. I treasure mine. My oldest friendship is with someone I've known for 65 years. Even our birthdays are only 8 days apart. We were 10 when we met! Still stay in touch, although not as often. BTW, I have known people who HAVE survived pancreatic cancer in recent years. When my Dad had it in the 70's, he was gone in 90 days, which was the way it was then…..Thanks to medical science it is now not the worst cancer…..”Casualty reports from the war against time” – wow, your writing is magnificent. Love this post and the photo of Stew!


  2. Were talking to Stew this morning and we agreed that although we know many people in San Miguel, more than we knew in Chicago, few if any have become friends, the kind of folks that you can tell anything to without fear they'll run away or judge you in some way. And it's interesting in a way because we're all retired, old and would seem to have a lot in common to talk about. Maybe it takes time. You're right that pancreatic cancer if caught early can be survivable, and I hope Vickie gets through this.BTW I really liked your purple rain pictures. It shows a great eye for beautiful things we often miss.


  3. Only a decent man could write a piece such as this.By the say, I love: “Church newsletters often read like casualty reports from the war against time.” I may steal it.


  4. I think SMA is more transient then people realize. I went over the list of those who used to come to Girl's Night Out, something I and two other women started about 15 years ago. The notices of the meeting place, weekly, was emailed. By the end of my involvement in 2005, there were 350 names on the list. Today, there are only about 30 of us still here! My “long term” friends who knew me when I was in Houston, etc. are the ones I would turn to if I needed a bailout or something. Of course here, I've got ya'll and Ron and Fred……I just don't see ya'll often enough!!! I wish I did.


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