My Best Friend’s Cancer
by Amelia Harnish
We were cruising west on 14th Street perched atop the backseat of a 1970 Mercury Marquis convertible with the top down, screaming our heads off and letting the hot city wind mess up our hair. I’d been in New York eight weeks maybe, having just moved from Florida to join Nadine. That night, the two of us met up with our other friend Kenza and her gay uncle Mike in the East Village.
“I don’t think we need shots,” Kenza yelled over the synths and bass. We ordered them anyway. “Shut up!” Nadine shouted back. “We got you one too, and you’re taking it,” I said, laughing. This was our game: Kenza pumping the brakes, with me and Nadine forging ahead, full-throttle.
A few drinks later, Uncle Mike offered to drive us across town to the clubs. When we got to his car, Nadine and I couldn’t control our excitement. “This is your car?!” a drunk Nadine squealed. “Oh my God, This is your car?” a drunk me added.
It was a time of total weightlessness, the kind I’m not sure I will ever experience again. Partly because I’m not 21 anymore, but mainly because Nadine is gone now. She died last November, after a long, slow decline. At every step I thought, Well, this really can’t get worse, can it? And then it did, mockingly.
But back then, we were subletting the tiniest studio in existence from a bartender we found on Craigslist, sharing a bed, washing our underwear in the sink at night and frantically sending off our resumes during the day. We loved it. We loved getting into a cab without knowing where we were going. We loved the smell of street trash and dingy Brooklyn bars. Every sunset was a new opportunity to drink too much and suck it all in, like a couple of delirious, hungry sponges.
From the minute I met Nadine, at a sorority party during my freshmen year of college, I felt a profound attachment to her. As soon as we were introduced, I realized Nadine didn’t do banter. She had an uncanny ability to get right to it, and she brought it out in me too. “Everything for these girls is effortless,” I explained that first night. We were sitting down outside on a secluded porch, and I’d explained that my father was dying. “They don’t have anything to worry about.“
“I know what you mean,” Nadine said, grabbing hold of my hand and looking into my eyes. “But just remember — out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls.”
If she were someone else, I may have brushed her off — or at least laughed — because, really, who says stuff like that? Who quotes Khalil Gibran in a miniskirt, legs covered in glittering self-tanner, while drinking keg beer? But I was confused and upset, and I appreciated her intensity. From then on, she was my beacon.
It makes me laugh now to recall the way I latched onto her, and I know she loved me more because I did that. Nadine’s goal was to become a human rights lawyer, go back to Palestine, her birthplace, and make peace in the Middle East. She was founder and president of the Arabic Cultural Society, a former theater queen and the oldest of three. She liked to be listened to, and I fell right in line. When I was stressed about school or whatever, Nadine cooked for me and let me drink her beer. When a lame business major dumped me, she bought blonde dye and gave me highlights. To be honest, I often wondered what she was getting out of our relationship, but Nadine was freakishly giving.
And so, when she called me a few weeks before graduation to tell me she moved to New York, after I’d been living without her for almost a year, I had approximately zero qualms about selling all my stuff and following her there. I knew she’d take care of me.
After our strident first summer together in New York, we found paying jobs and moved into our own place. I would come home from work to Nadine cooking dinner. We’d joke about how she was the wife and I was the husband. “No, you’re the mama and I’m the baby,” I would say, a nod to our college nicknames (Mama Bear, Little Baby). Then we’d sit down on the air mattress that served as our couch, and illegally download The Real Housewives of New Jersey on her laptop.
It was all so easy. Until one day Nadine called me at work after spending the night in the ER.
“That’s where you were? What happened?” I knew she hadn’t come home the night before. But the bar where she worked was a block from Kenza’s place. She often stayed there after her shifts.
“Dude, I don’t know what happened. I had a seizure,” she said. She was taking a practice LSAT at the Mid-Manhattan Library, and then she woke up in an ambulance; her mom was now booking her a ticket on the next flight home. We laughed at the overreaction. “We’ll just get you a helmet,” I joked.
“Obviously the doctors wouldn’t have sent me home if it was really that serious,” Nadine said.
“Obviously,” I agreed.
A week later, she called me from Orlando to say she was having surgery. “It’s a tumor,” she said. “We don’t know exactly what it is yet.” Neither of us mentioned the word cancer, as if saying it out loud might make it so. “I’m not sure when I’ll be back,” she continued. I told her not to worry. I’d see her when I got to Orlando for Thanksgiving.
I spent the rest of the day Googling brain tumors. There are lots of different types of benign brain tumors, it turns out. I felt our odds were good. I told myself Nadine wasn’t old.
When I got to see her, as promised a few weeks later, she was in excruciating pain and barely conscious. They had taken the tumor out, biopsied it. She had a diagnosis: mixed anaplastic oligoastrocytoma. Brain cancer. The next morning, I drove the 15 minutes back to my aunt’s house where my entire family was gathered for the holiday, and instead of eating turkey, I lay in bed with my mother and sobbed.
Over the next eight months, I grew up a little. I began to worry about setting up a 401k and how to handle my boss. Nadine began her maintenance chemotherapy regimen. She slept most of the day. Her world was put on hold, while mine was expanding, and it created a gulf between us, one I thought would disappear once she came back.
But when she returned to New York, all of a sudden, we were adults. And one of us had cancer. She still had eight or so months of chemotherapy to do. I made a silent promise to myself to take care of her, the way she had taken care of me. On her non-chemo days, when she was feeling okay, we’d go out to dinner or drinks like everything was normal. But things were different. The way she talked was different — at some dinners, she’d interrupt conversation to let me know I was having a bad hair day, or make a snide remark about my outfit. I finally asked her about it, and she told me, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I say things sometimes now. It’s like something is unplugged.”
Once she finished all 18 chemo cycles, we threw an epic Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century-themed costume party. I went to Party City and bought two giant rolls of this black plastic with stars printed on it to cover our walls. Our other roommate, Ashley, baked an “intergalactic” confetti cake and decorated it with the words “Fuck Cancer” in white icing. Dressed as space station inhabitants and aliens, we slammed Jello shots with everyone we knew, plus some people we didn’t. Later in the night, as I lifted my drink in a toast to her tumor-free future, I allowed myself to believe she would be fine.
But just four months from our celebration, after she found a new job and got used to having energy again, Nadine sat me and Ashley down in our bathroom, of all places, to tell us her tumor had returned. “I’m sorry to tell you the bad news,” she said through tears, as if she was failing us in some way. Three months after that, the new tumor wasn’t responding to drugs. She had another hastened craniotomy before moving back to Florida for good.
In July of last year, I visited her at home. We watched two episodes of True Blood on her laptop and ate popsicles on her parents’ screened in back patio, looking out over the pool. Nadine smoked a joint. None of the available chemotherapies, which burned her insides and made her nauseous and fatigued, were doing a thing to stall her disease. But she would try one more thing — for her family, she explained — this electrical cap treatment that would send constant tiny shockwaves into her skull.
“I just can’t take this bullshit anymore,” she said. “I’m giving myself two more months and then I’m done. This isn’t living.” I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
“I am part bot,” she texted a few days later, with a photo of her bald head covered in a bizarre kind of hat made of electrodes. “You’re a bionic woman!” I texted back, trying to remain upbeat.
The bot treatment actually stalled things enough that she became eligible for an experimental treatment in Los Angeles. All she needed was another craniotomy so the doctor-researchers could inject a vaccine, created from her own cancerous cells, into the tumor-site. The doctors called the surgery successful. According to Nadine, it was a nightmare. “This is like a horror movie,” she texted me from her hospital bed. “My brain is leaking.”
This is it, I thought, scaring myself. I rallied five of our closest girlfriends, and we flew out to visit her. We could keep her in good spirits. I went in to see her first. By this point, I had seen Nadine after two surgeries and during many chemotherapy cycles. I was there when she ripped her staples out herself after the second surgery. I was there to call 911 when her fists balled up and her head fell back from yet another seizure. But I had never seen her like this.
Her eyes were dark and sunken shells, and her lips blended into the rest of her pale face. I told her I loved her and awkwardly rubbed her arm. “My medicine isn’t working,” she groaned back. They kept her in the trial for a week longer, but she was right. Her medicine wasn’t working.
Nadine died at home in Florida, almost three years to the day after her diagnosis. As I sat in the pews at her funeral, I thought about how invincible we felt that first summer, with nowhere to be and no one to answer to except each other. I closed my eyes and heard her laugh, echoing on the city streets as we stumbled out of that convertible. I wonder if she knew then — as she always seemed to know the impossible — how precious that year would be to both of us, that it would be her last chance to feel on top of the world.
Amelia Harnish is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her @amelia_faith.
Photo via Dan DeLuca/Flickr