The story of a special friendship between two brave women…
by LJ Jacobs
I met Joy at a local support group for people living with a terminal illness.
She had not long been given her prognosis and was very scared and shy. I introduced myself and asked very candidly what her illness was. I then tried to make her laugh and feel at ease by telling her that, in a poker analogy I often used, I’ll see you ‘your breast cancer’ and raise you an ‘arse tumour’. She chuckled at that and totally lost it when I added that there were more bumps up my back passage than inside a braille bible.
“So,” I said, after the ice breaker was over, “how long have they given you?” I was as casual as if I were asking her what her favourite food was - that’s because I’d become so acclimatised to the whole end-of-life scenario.
I felt I had overstepped the mark, though, for she suddenly stopped smiling and the colour drained from her face. She gulped and held back tears. It was the pop to her bubble that brought her hurtling back to the here and now. She said quietly, “Three months, they say, give or take.”
“Well, that’s three months more than me,” I said after a short pause, and winked at her, trying my jokey demeanour again. “I’m on borrowed time. My doctor’s losing money in backroom bets! But it’ll happen soon enough, so we’d better get on with our friendship, hadn’t we? Just remember, you’re not on your own.”
She couldn’t hold back the full flow of tears any longer and let go.
“Come here, love,” I said, and hugged her, and she, though hesitant at first, hugged me back like a little girl might hug their mother after waking in the night from a bad dream.
It was a nightmare alright, but we both couldn’t wake up from this one. It was here and all we could do was accept it. But at least we had each other.
We would talk for hours every day about this and that as our friendship grew. Sometimes conversations turned to our scary situations. The things we were really worried about. Because it’s not the dying or the torture to the body that’s the scary part - it’s the fear you have for the ones you’ll leave behind.
I had my mother and father and three siblings.
Joy had three children all under four and a useless AWOL husband. She had no other family. She didn’t want her babies to end up in the system - a system that would surely chew them up then spit them out.
I suggested she spend what little time she had left vetting a new family to give a loving home to her children. That way, she would leave knowing her babies would be taken care of by the right people.
She said she wished she could find someone like me.
I told her that I was strictly a cat loving spinster. There was also the small problem that I was heading to the same place as her… the bone yard, and probably sooner.
She laughed. It was lovely to see her laugh.
Unfortunately, the tears and sadness were starting to take over everything else.
Joy was far too young to die, but she did die, and I couldn’t stop it from happening, no matter how many times I prayed.
As she grew weaker, amazingly, I grew stronger. This left the doctors baffled.
But I would have gladly swapped places with my new friend in a heartbeat. After all, she had those beautiful kids, whom I met numerous times before the end…
She left me in the early hours of a Wednesday morning. All through the two days of her downward spiral, I held her hand while looking at her features crumpled in pain. It was a pain so bad that had I the opportunity, I would have gladly upped her morphine myself. The doctors were very merciful, though, and supplied enough of the opiate to have the desired effect.
She would dose in and out of consciousness, sometimes she gasping for air. She once muttered, “Please look after them, Shel. Please…” She ended her ordeal with deep rattles in the throat, before finally giving in and letting the weight of the discomfort fall from her like heavy chains.
She gained her wings and moved on, but not before I made a promise I wasn’t sure I could keep. But she had to hear her children were going to be alright.
She was at peace now. Her earthly face painless again.
I looked over some of our photos together in the last months. She had kept her beauty. Even on the battlefield in the war with cancer, she could put women half her age to shame.
I was inconsolable at her passing. I fell into a deep grief and then a desperate depression.
The depression that came was so serious that I had to be hospitalised. It was an irony really - my tumours were shrinking, but my heart was broken. It’s shameful to say this, but I’m sure a lot of people would have understood, I wanted to do what cancer couldn’t and end my life.
I stood on the long busy bridge that sunny morning and looked out at the great expanse of water. It was the bridge that connected the island to the mainland and was notorious for what I was about to do.
Seagulls flew around me, as if waiting for me to either cast bread or become carrion. A few F you’s and arm waves spooked them enough for me to continue.
I made the mistake of looking down at the long drop and quickly closed my eyes, but regardless, I knew I had to go through with this.
My knees were shaking, and my heart thumped so hard I could hear a whooshing in my ears, like a washing machine in a spin.
You can do this, I thought. You can.
And so, I did.
It was a magnificent dive. People behind me gasped, oohed and aahed.
I had my eyes shut, but I eventually opened them halfway down. And I’m glad I did! I could feel the wind on my face and see the glorious glint of sunlight dancing on the surface of the water, like angels.
I was falling, falling, falling…
Suddenly, I felt my feet being tugged back by the elastic bungee cord.
Yes! I did it!
I started to come back up, then fell again, and continued like this for a few moments until I came to a gentle swing.
“You did it, Shel,” Joy’s children said, as they ran and hugged me after I came back to the bridge. They were pleased for me, and I must admit I was very pleased with myself, too. Never in a million years did I think I would ever be able to do something as daring as that.
Joy’s beautiful children all live with me now. The judge agreed that I could be their guardian as soon as I got the all-clear and my depression under control. It was all the motivation I needed. It is what my friend wanted, and it is a promise I now know I can keep.
I realised I had to get a grip and stop feeling sorry for myself. There were more important issues and concerns. The children needed someone more than ever to love and care for them, and I had the second chance that not many people are lucky to get.
I gave the children a home, and what it lacks in material things, it more than makes up for in cuddles. We speak of their mummy often. (Joy will always be their mummy. I’m just here until we all meet again - which in my heart, I know we will. Love is too strong to die.)
The children are cat lovers like me - which helps since I have three of the curtain wreckers. I’m now involved in full time fund raising, which involves frequent bungee jumps, and we raise quite a lot of money towards a cure for the terrible disease that took a loving friend and mummy far too soon, and so many others like her.
I’m just so grateful for each new day now and live each one like it could be my last. I’m happy, healthy and content. I just want others to be able to experience that, too.
I will always jump for the ones who need it.
I will always jump for Joy.
LJ Jacobs was born in Chester, England and raised in North Wales. He lives in a small hamlet and enjoys the quiet life. Most of his days are spent working in the aviation industry - it puts food on the table if not an enthusiasm in the heart. He loves music and writing. His heroes are the bluesman Robert Johnson and the author Ernest Hemingway. He enjoys gentle sports and is a player of poker and chess.