I got a Christmas card today. Because of the crazy weather here in Portland, our mail delivery has been a little off schedule. We always get a few cards after Christmas, but this year there were a ton of them. Then today, we got one more. To understand why this one was different, I have to go back about 19 years.
I won’t tell you the who or the where, because I want to preserve privacy, but once upon a time I attended a certain community college. The head of the program that I was in became a good friend of mine, a sort of mentor. Though it was not a writing program, I ended up sharing the stories I was working on with him. Later, the stories morphed into two books, In the Blood and Driven, and I shared those, too. After twelve years I rewrote the books, and sent them to this friend. He offered good feedback, and it was of particularly special value, because of all the people who’d read my writing, he was the one who’d been there from the creation of the characters. He and I had discussed them when they were first coming into being. He had believed the life into them with me.
Last summer, when I finished revisions on my third book, I sent it to him as well. It came back a few weeks later with a note. He couldn’t read my book. He’d recently discovered that he had a brain tumor. I should email him for more information.
I contacted him and was sent a list of emails that had made the rounds to his friends and family. He’d had surgery and his prognosis turned out to be better than he’d initially expected. There were no numbers yet for the chemo he was getting, but people with similar types of cancer generally lived one to two years, five if they were lucky, and a few might live for ten. The information I received was somewhat ambiguous, so I never got a clear picture of what my friend could expect, but I was left with the impression that he might live longer than that. I wrote back to him—the sort of email that you only send someone at a time when it really matters. One that tells them the truth about why you respect them, and pays tribute to memories you never before admitted were important. I asked to be put on his list for continued updates, but I never heard anything after that.
There is another facet to this, one that so far, I haven’t been able to share. While doing research for my book In the Blood I studied brain injuries, so I understood the difficulties my friend described in his email. I felt like I had intimate knowledge of not only his condition, but also the frustrations it must cause. I had put myself inside the head of a character dealing with similar issues, a character I cared deeply about, and I felt that this experience somehow bound me to my friend.
It’s not easy to describe how all this affected me. It was more than just the potential death of someone I cared about. When I didn’t hear back from him, I realized that regardless of how long he might live, my relationship with him was over. I could see from the emails he’d sent that he had a close network of family and friends, and I could also see that I wasn’t part of that network. I was an old student, a person to correspond with at Christmas. At this complicated time in his life, he was paring things down, tucking in to his core—as well he should—and I would probably never hear from him again. There was something so poignant about the glimpse I’d had into his network. I knew without a doubt that he was deeply loved. And some small, dark part of me was pained by the idea that I wasn’t a part of that community. That this person, who I’d shared my fictional world with, who had been part of it for longer than anyone else, was now lost to me.
The Christmas card, of course, was from my friend. It was late not only because of the weather, but because with his “fragmented brain” he couldn’t quite remember who I was when he received my holiday greeting. As I stood in the kitchen, reading the card, my husband asked who had sent it. I couldn’t speak, could only hand it to him. At moment like that, if you open your mouth to let out the words, the tears come with them.
I don’t fully understand my emotions—whether I am jealous of a dying man, or feel shut out of yet another tribe, or if there is some degree of altruism in me, and I just want to connect with my friend and offer him this tangle of compassionate energy that I feel when I think of him. I’m afraid that I must be a truly selfish person. Maybe I’m a fool to post this at all. But one thing I’ve learned about writing is that if you’ve felt something, then chances are, others have, too. That the way you connect is by having the courage to share your most secret parts.