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YJBM Arts & Humanities: "Losing a Childhood Friend to Cancer"

April 13, 2021
by Henry Sackin

She had an angelic, impish beauty that pulled your eyes back for a second glance. A picture in a high school reunion photo tumbled me down a rabbit hole of memories some 60 years ago. With Facebook and email, we condensed the years of our lives into a few paragraphs and a smattering of photos. A second marriage for her, no children, but stepchildren, several jobs and several places lived, and by the way I'm dying of cancer, what's up with you?

When you're 12 years old, there are wisps of personality that eventually congeal to form a self. Reconnecting years later triggers chilling flashbacks of the person you once knew. Fleeting memories stick in your mind: summer houses near each other, lazy afternoons lying on the grass imagining who we'd be when we grew up. Sitting together mornings on the bus to day camp, we held hands when no one was looking. She was beautiful, and I had a secret crush on her.

Back then I was always too shy to show my feelings, but now 60 years later it felt much easier. Maybe I could help with her illness? I knew something about the latest oncology research. I longed to understand the narrative of her life and learn all she had done since we were children. It was a puzzle I had to solve. As we corresponded, I ventured into a land of might-have-beens. I began to question choices I had made in my life. I'd never taken risks for love, always played it safe, waiting for someone to like me before I made a move. I regretted never reaching out to her until now. So many years had passed where we could have been good friends or more.

We continued writing, and I tumbled farther down the rabbit hole. I began to muse about an imaginary life we might have had together in some parallel universe. Would we have been compatible as adults? I wasn't sure how much we really had in common. We were different even when we were young. She was a free spirit; I was a geek, obsessed with detail and documentation. If we had reconnected years earlier, would the trajectory of our lives have been completely different? Missed opportunities gnawed at my concentration.

The worse her health became, the tighter I clung to our friendship, and the more eagerly I awaited her emails. She wrote long rambling paragraphs about details of her past I never knew. After traveling in Europe, she had returned to live for a while near our old summer house. Perhaps, like me, something drew her back to the days we spent together. I desperately needed to know more. In the next few months, she became a friend I didn't want to lose. Despite aggressive therapy, she wasn't getting any better, and I decided I had to see her, even if it was my birthday weekend. Time was running out, and I needed to learn how she imagined our childhood friendship. Could we have sustained our affection, or was it just my fantasy?

At our visit, I coaxed her reluctantly along paths where our lives had intersected. I talked of sitting on the porch at her summer house years ago. It was a particularly hot and muggy day. Cicadas buzzed an incessant drone in the overhanging trees. We sipped lemonade, and I watched the sun dance shadows across her hair. That afternoon we played ping-pong, laughing as puffs of wind caught the ball. Yes, I'm sure I had loved her then, but now there was a line I could not cross. She had a husband whom she loved, and stepchildren, and grandkids. I was the outsider that day, a visitor from a distant time and place. We wandered again through fragmentary pieces of recalled events and remembered friends until the silences became awkward, and I knew it was time to go.

Before leaving, I spoke of watching her one day at summer camp. She was sitting by the pond, waiting for the afternoon swim. The humid air beckoned an evening rain. White floats that marked the deep water were strung like so many oversize plastic pearls. Dragonflies flitted back and forth, skimming inches above the water’s surface. A single, half-hidden bullfrog uttered a hoarse, throaty note from a clump of weeds. The sun brightened her face, and she seemed completely relaxed, delighting in a perfect day.

A month later she died, and now I'm staring at a picture in a high school yearbook of a young girl, smiling about something I'll never know. I try to reconstruct her life in the years we were apart and wonder if we could have loved each other as adults. I search for clues in what I can recall, but I'm playing a game I cannot win.

Henry Sackin Ph.D. Yale '78
Professor of Physiology & Biophysics
The Chicago Medical School

Submitted by Kathryn Woodford on March 31, 2021