Just before my first class of my senior year of college, my best friend calls me to tell me she has cancer. I was waiting for her call all morning; I knew where she was. The burnt red brick under my feet grew hazy, and tear drops fell to the ground. She tried to make it seem like she accidentally ripped my sweater, or she forgot to pick up toilet paper from the store.
“Hey, so the doctor said it’s cancer…”
I clear my throat, “Okay… And?” I could feel my hair start to sweat as chills went up and down my spine.
“Ashley, don’t cry.” Of course, that’s always when you start to cry harder.
Libby was always the stronger one growing up. She never cried, she always had my back, and she held me accountable for words and actions. Best friends, established in the 7th grade when we sat at the same table in Mrs. Johnson’s block class. We made up code names for the boys that we had crushes on and wore old heavy metal band tees almost every day.
“I’ll be home later today. It’s going to be OK.”
I was already sucked into the riptide of my eating disorder; thrown into the unforgiving waters of self-doubt and destructiveness. I worked out at least twice a day, obsessed over the food I ate and the food I needed to throw up. Waves of self-hate crashed down on me. At this point, I already relapsed twice – once when I went back to school in Iowa after summer break, and again, while in a toxic relationship, where my boyfriend counted my calories for me. I would come up for a breath of air after what felt like months and months of being suffocated, only for self-hate to pull me under once again and attempt to drown me.
Libby and I lived with our other best friend, Courtney, at the time. I went home to Courtney after class and cried with her while we waited for our best friend. Our apartment was too small for the three of us; it was a two bedroom place and Courtney lived in a curtained off section of our living room. We needed it like that. We didn’t know it when Courtney moved in with us, but all three of us needed to be as close to each other as possible during this.
As a trio of best friends, we were hardly affectionate toward each other. I’ve only hugged Libby twice over the course of our 12 year friendship – once when we won an important softball game to advance us in the post-season, and once when I didn’t tell her I was coming home from Iowa to surprise her. I’ve hugged Courtney three more times than that. We are more of a high-fiving kind of group. We like to go outside and be in the sun. That’s how we are affectionate towards each other – sharing rays of warmth and plans of the future.
When Libby walked through door of our apartment, we didn’t hug; we’d rather joke. “The one thing the doctor didn’t touch on was whether or not I get to keep my thyroid in a jar after this is all said and done.” She smiled at us, knowing we needed that. I never truly understood the power of my best friend's smile until that point.
This reassured me that she really was going to be OK. She was always tougher than me. For the first time in almost two years, I caught a faint hint that I would be OK, too. If she was going to take her body back, I was going to take mine back, too. Libby would go through treatment and would eventually have surgery to have the cancer removed. With her treatment, and as the cancer started to really take shape in her life, she grew tired.
Because emotions and affection are hard for us to share with one another, letting Libby know how scared I was was never really an option. I would get so mad about why this was happening to her, and frustrated that I literally couldn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t take her cancer away from her.
It was on one of my hardest days when it finally hit me. I left the gym in tears earlier on, and I messaged Libby to see if she was around. She picked me up from campus to go home; I asked her how she was feeling. “You know, today, I’m actually feeling really good.” I fought back tears harder than I ever had. I felt so relieved, so revived.
The next day, I vocalized for the first time that I needed help with my health. I was going to take my body back, and it was my best friend’s cancer that told me I could do it. I spent less of my time at the gym and more time with Libby and Courtney. We made the point of having dinner together almost every night.
After that, my bad days became few and far between. It was my love for my best friend and the love that I received back that brought me back to the shore.
Only sometimes I wade in the water of the old me; I float on my back and tell her that I’m sorry – I’m sorry for what I put us through.