In the early 80s, my best friend was Margarete. She was a home economics teacher in Kansas and had been married only a few years. We first met in a Young Marrieds Sunday School Class at a Presbyterian Church. We got to know each other there and then began to go out for lunch and do things together with my husband and hers. We talked several times a week on the phone and went out to eat together every weekend.
We had so much fun together that we decided to go on a vacation together in the fall of 1982. We went to visit the Truman Dam and went to Branson, Mo to Silver Dollar City. We had a great time. Laughing and joking and cutting up. Unforgettable.
Margarete had a smile which lit up the room. She had short dark hair and brown eyes. She stood about 5’4″ tall and was slender. We laughed about how she and her husband had met. We talked for hours about big and small things. She had an easy smile and a pronounced Texas drawl. She was full of good ideas and lots of fun. We were looking forward to our future. We planned to have kids at the same time and raise them together. We had a lot of plans. We were sure that we would do a lot of things together in the future. But, real life interrupted our plans.
One day she called me up to tell me that she had this cough that wouldn’t go away. She had no fever and didn’t feel bad, just an annoying cough. I encouraged her to see her doctor. The doctor gave her an antibiotic. 10 days later, she had the same cough and she called me up. I told her to return to her doctor for a different antibiotic. Perhaps the first antibiotic was not the right one for the particular bug she had. She went back to the doctor and had another ten day course of the new drug, but the cough persisted.
Then, Margarete called me up and told me something that gave me a weird, sinking feeling. She told me that she was losing weight and wasn’t even trying to lose weight. Her waistband on her jeans was so very loose. I desperately wanted to believe that the weight loss was from a fungal infection or something. I called a pulmonary nurse friend of mine and she said that some fungal infections could cause weight loss. My fears subsided. If the doctor would just treat the fungal infection, Margarete would be fine. But, Margarete didn’t have a pulmonary fungal infection.
It was, by now, the last few days of 1982. The doctor wanted to admit Margarete into the hospital for additional tests. Margarete talked him into waiting 3 days until after the New Year. Margarete was only 26 y/o. We all celebrated the new year at a newly opened Chile’s in Overland Park.
I got a call from Margarete’s husband the day after she was admitted to the hospital. A chest x-ray had revealed some kind of mass in her lungs and the doctors would do a bronchoscopy to see what it was. The results weren’t good. It was adenocarcinoma of the lung. A type of cancer old people tend to get and it was advanced. This cancer was not related to smoking and besides, Margarete was not a smoker. She had a large tumor in one of her bronchi. They started her on a course of chemotherapy and radiation.
All of the rest of Margarete’s friends left her and I never recall seeing anyone else again during the next two years. It was as if they vanished. Margarete’s folks came up from Texas to support her through all of the side effects. I went over to her home several times per week to support her, too.
The chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair. Margarete’s beautiful dark brown hair never did return exactly the same color nor texture. She bought two wigs to wear. The radiation to her lungs burned her skin and it weeped and was painful. And the nausea, painful sores in her mouth and other GI issues made life pretty tough for her and she lost even more weight. She was a walking skeleton.
Margarete’s spouse was struggling in comprehending and adjusting to his wife’s illness. He was worried about her and also was very worried about what was going to happen to him. Margarete and I went out to a coffee house one day and she was trying to understand her spouse’s inability to be a greater source of strength for her during this time. It was a hard reality for both of them.
Over the next year and a half Margarete and I talked about some pretty serious subjects. There wasn’t as much laughter or joking anymore. She was not feeling well. And, she was getting short of breath. I spent most every evening, that I wasn’t working, with her.
For a short while, Margarete drove herself to the chemotherapy/radiation treatments. That did not last long. She became weaker and very easily fatigued. And, she was vomiting and really pale.
I remember Margarete telling me that her mother in law had driven her to one chemo appointment. Her mother in law told Margarete that she could smell cancer on Margarete. That was the last time her MIL drove her because Margarete didn’t want to ride with her MIL any more. I couldn’t believe that someone who loved her could say something so insensitive to her.
One day about a year later, Margarete called me after she had gone to pick up something from a store not too far from her home. She couldn’t remember how to get home. I knew that she would not be driving anymore nor would she always be the same forever. The cancer had spread to her brain. I was devastated.
Now, things were beginning to spiral downward. She had three hospital admissions. Her last two admissions included time in Intensive Care. Sometime during this time, I found out that I was pregnant. I never told her. Our dream was to have our babies together and I couldn’t bear telling her that I was going to be having a baby. She had always wanted children, too. I figured that I would tell her when I began to show.
I’ll never forget the day she came home from her last admit to KU ICU. It was October of 1984. She got home about 11 am and she called me. She sounded cheery but I could tell she was tired, too. I asked her when I could come over and see her and whether there was anything I could bring her. She said she’d love to see me later that afternoon, but that she wanted to take a little nap after lunch and she would call me when she woke up. I planned to go to her house then.
Margarete never called me. That phone call when she got out of the hospital was the last time I talked to her. She did have a small lunch and then took a nap for several hours. When she woke up, she became quite short of breath and slightly confused. An ambulance was called and she was taken to the nearest hospital emergency room. She died in the ER. She was 28 y/o.
Margarete’s mom called me with the news. I was home alone. I remember feeling as though someone had punched me in the stomach; I couldn’t breathe. Then, I remember just sobbing. Heavy sighs and sobbing. And, feeling so alone. And feeling empty.
Margarete’s funeral was a blur. I remember reaching out to touch her hands which were crossed on her tummy. Her hands were cold and I wished I hadn’t tried to touch her. It was horrible. Margarete believed in God. I didn’t want her to leave but I knew that she wasn’t suffering anymore.
My life continued following her death. The birth of our daughter 6 months later helped me to divert my mind from my grief. I was 30 y/o.
It has been nearly 30 years since Margarete died. I have not forgotten her. I’ll hear someone laugh like she did and her memory comes flooding back. I hear someone talking about cooking classes at school and her memory comes flooding back. I drive by her condo off of College Blvd and her memory comes flooding back. Some of my heart died, too, the day that she died. I know that one day I’ll see her again.
A few years ago, Margarete’s mother sent me Margarete’s cross that she wore. I cherish it. I wrote a poem about Margarete which her mom put in their Christmas letter a few years back. She is still on my mind. I still miss her. She was my best friend. After she died, I find myself more hesitant to completely give myself in friendship anymore. It was so painful to lose her.
PS The above recounting of a significant time of my life? Still difficult to think about 30 years ago…Thus, my grammar, sentence structure, etc etc may not be perfect through my tears as I recall all of those moments.
This experience changed my life. Since that time, whenever I lose someone important in my life, I have already been down that path before…the pain, the temporary loneliness the grief. Friendships mean so much more than in the past because I know that life doesn’t give us guarantees…And, loss of any friendship brings back this original grief, too. Life was not always joy-filled nor safe nor secure. Yes, this experience changed my life. I ‘woke up and smelled the coffee’, as Ann Landers would say. I stopped being naive and innocent during this seminal moment early in my life.