Anne MoulThree of us are relaxing together in the hot tub, college friends reunited for the first time in years, when Cat suddenly pulls her bathing suit top down and says, “Look, I think they turned out pretty well, considering everything, don’t you?” Rachel and I, slightly taken aback, nod our heads in earnest agreement. Cat’s breasts look almost normal except for that tan smile of a scar under the bottom of each. Her reconstruction involved some new procedure that didn’t require gel-filled inserts or tattoo artists painting on areolas. Something about saving the skin and rebuilding the underlying tissue. I didn’t catch all the details because I was reeling from the unexpected appearance of breasts we’ve only heard about in emails and face-book conversations.
Nine of us have come together for a reunion weekend in a little town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, an enclave of upscale homes nestled along the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. We were freshmen in the same hall of the same dorm at a small college in south central Pennsylvania in the fall of 1975. Something about that first year away from home bonded us, despite different majors and the fact that a few of us transferred to other schools. After graduation, we scattered to our respective lives, gathering at Christmas until the babies and the jobs and the buffeting of life made even that too hard to do.
Nina is our cat-herder, the one who fans the flames of friendship, who will not relinquish her hold on this crowd of aging freshmen. Who mows down our excuses of why we can’t get together, sending relentless emails until we all just give up and say, “Ok, ok, Neen, we’ll come.” She prods our slightly resistant and oh-so-busy souls into spending a weekend with people we haven’t seen in years. Part of her motivation is “We’re all turning 60 and we need to do this for Cat.”
I’ve always been an outlier with this group, so I was a little apprehensive about the trip. I lived at the far end of the hall, and was more closely affiliated with the nerdy music department than the coolest soccer players. But somehow, I got sucked into their realm, partly because my first husband was in the same class with some of the men and over the years, we’ve managed to sustain a pleasant, grown-up relationship marked by holiday gatherings, annual Christmas letters and the occasional email. The death of Cat’s husband, Rob, a strapping athlete felled by a ferociously quick brain cancer at age 40, suddenly thrust our serene little world into a dark shadow of mortality.
We’re all a bit shopworn these days. Illness, tragedy, and painful relationships have etched lines on our faces and carved scars on our bodies, both physical and emotional. Only one of us still has living parents. Three of us have a family member struggling with addiction. Warm and kind Rachel has dedicated her life to caring for a special needs child, now a young adult, whose disabilities resulted from the colossal ineptitude of a drunken obstetrician. Elegant and forever single Megan recently shouldered the burden of both her parents’ final days and shares sad and beautiful stories of that journey. Megan weeps freely throughout the weekend.
Several of us are childless, not necessarily by choice and in the wee dark hours, worry about who will stand at our own bedsides at the end. Claire, the sweet and motherly social worker, anxiously awaits the birth of her daughter’s second child, hoping and praying that her daughter stays sober. Molly is a renowned infectious disease specialist, and behind the fashion model cheekbones, translucently thin body, and dazzling smile, I sense she’s what the British refer to as “under a strain.”
But perhaps, no one has been hit harder than Cat. We called her chatty Catty when we lived on the hall and that hasn’t changed. Huge brown eyes, high energy, smart and resilient and always ready to find the next party, fall in love with the next cute guy. A tornado spinning through life. Unstoppable.
Cat was a surgical nurse until Rob died and then decided she needed to be at the other end of life, so she cares for babies in the intensive care unit. She soldiered on to raise her four children, recover from a leg broken in eight places after a misstep outside the hospital on an icy morning and in a joyful resurgence of love and hope, married again nine years ago. Last May, Cat was diagnosed with a particularly vicious form of breast cancer, probably a version of what killed her mother before she even got to college. I remember reading a face-book post saying she had lost eleven pounds in one week from the chemo.
In the flurry of emails preceding this weekend, there were discussions of sleeping arrangements. Who has back problems, who snores, who doesn’t mind having a bedmate. Cat sent a cryptic note saying since she now sleeps alone, she would love to have a roommate. We discover that her second marriage has broken up and during our visit, Cat regales us with horrific tales of why that happened.
After a Friday afternoon arrival filled with awkward hugs and “We can’t believe we’re finally doing this,” and “Look at this incredible house,” we discover we cannot stop talking. I didn’t realize until after the weekend was over, that no one ever turned on a TV and we barely looked at our phones. Our time is spent fully engaged with each other. Years of bottled up stories and feelings pour forth and maybe it’s easier because we rarely see each other and there is no one to judge. We feel safe with people who shared our first days away from the security of our parents.
Sometimes just a few of us gather with coffee in the morning or a glass of wine by the dock at night. Molly and Nina, the most athletic, take a 30-mile bike ride together. I drove with Claire, who I probably know the least and find myself telling her things I seldom reveal to anyone. It’s as though we all went home for a forty-year weekend and can’t wait to share the stories of what happened while we were there.
Rather than going out to restaurants, Nina plans lovely candlelit dinners on the screened-in porch. Our faces are bathed in flattering light, crystal tears from both laughter and sadness sparkling on our cheeks. Someone places her phone in a bucket to amplify the music from Pandora’s ’70s station. We drink wine and eat crab cakes and broiled salmon. The second night one of us suggests we say grace, so we clasp each other’s hands and Molly, our beautiful and brilliant physician, thanks God for the food and Cat’s renewed health and the opportunity to be together after all these years.
Cat brings stacks of old picture albums with her, the kind with the sticky cellophane magnetic pages. She urges us to take some of them home to keep. “My kids aren’t going to want these when I’m gone. I want to make sure they stay with other people who remember.” It is the only time she even hints that her life may end sooner than ours.
On the first page of one of the albums is her official write-up for allowing guys in the girls’ bathroom the first week we were at school. She is still proud of the typewritten citation informing her she is under probation for the entire semester.
We leaf through the albums, marveling at the faces in the yellowing photos. Our long straight hair with feathered bangs. Boyfriends with styled hair and ’70s mustaches sporting pastel tuxedos with giant lapels.
“Remember that guy? Who was dating him? Isn’t he the one who dumped buckets of water in our room that night? No, that was someone else. He’s the one who threw Nina’s stereo out the window when they broke up. I remember when I first brought Jerry home to meet my parents, they thought he was mafia. Rach, why were you always in your underwear? Oh my God, look at those dresses. I wonder whatever happened to that girl who had the sideburns? Was she the one who kept the rat in the cage? It wasn’t a rat, it was a hamster. His name was Thurber. Remember he’d go rolling down the hall in his little plastic ball?”
I can still smell the popcorn and hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blasting out of our rooms.
A group of us spends Saturday in the harbor village, picturesque and crowded on a gloriously warm autumn day. We shop and then eat lunch in a crowded bar. The waitress snaps a picture of us huddled together in our corner booth. We take a boat ride on the river, not Cat’s idea of a sunset cruise on a catamaran but it will have to do. Cat leads the way for mid-afternoon ice cream cones followed by a wine-tasting. We talk about where we’ve traveled and where we still hope to go. Cat wants to go to Scotland and so does Megan and maybe they will go together next summer.
Cat tells us about Shawn, her second husband and how they jumped into it too soon, in a desperate attempt to soothe each other’s pain. But there is drama, a troubled stepson, Shawn works too hard and drinks too much. It takes a strong person to balance Cat’s fierceness and Shawn just didn’t have the goods. Claire says to me on the way home, “I know Shawn had his problems, but there were three people in that marriage. I don’t think Cat will ever get over Rob.”
We admire Cat’s post-chemo hair which has come in curlier and more salt and pepper gray instead of the warm chocolate brown of her college days. She shows us pictures of the stylish wig she wore during treatment and says she’s considering cutting her real hair that way. We tell her to go for it. When you look at Cat, you see a lined and prematurely aged face although her eyes still reflect joy in life and a spark of mischief. But those eyes have watched a young husband draw his last breath, leaving behind a widow with four children to raise. That face has hovered over a toilet bowl for hours, expelling the toxic residue of medication needed to save the life of the body attached to it.
We whisper to each other in our rooms at night or sitting on the Adirondack chairs outside, “Is she ok? Is she in remission? Does it seem to you like she’s almost over the top, trying to pack everything in—still working full time and planning trips and throwing huge weddings for her girls and talking about meeting someone again?” Yes, to all and can you blame her? None of us has teetered that close to the edge of the precipice yet, so Cat is blazing a trail for us. She’s showing us how it’s done.
The second evening we play a convoluted game of Apples to Apples where you use only the cards with the adjectives. Each person takes a turn being “it” and players choose a card from their hand that they think describes that person best. The person being described then chooses the one they think is most accurate. We are a thick-skinned group comfortable enough with each other to laugh and not be offended by some of the adjectives. Cards picked for Cat always ring strong— “boisterous,” “intense,” “courageous.”
Cat and I share what I assume is normally the kids’ room in this mansion. She’s on the bottom bunk and I’m on a twin bed in the same small room. Neither one of us can sleep. The beds are miserable, the room is hot and stuffy so we talk late into the night. Not about cancer or life or anything deep, but about our animals. I am a pet parent and currently have two dogs with major medical issues. Cat tells me about what she’s been through with her Golden Retrievers and assorted cats and the best options for pet insurance and places for specialized veterinary treatment. We fall asleep to the sound of each other’s snores. I am happy to be her roommate so that for at least two nights, she is not alone. I suspect I will remember this night forever.
We all hug each other for real when we leave on Sunday, the awkwardness gone. We’ve dived beneath the surface of brief emails and chirpy Christmas letters. We’ve been at the bedsides. Watched the children stagger home after a night of drinking. Sat across from the accountant while he tells us the only option for the business is to file for bankruptcy. Noticed the missing spoons from the drawers, an indication that someone in the family needs them for drug use. Seen the sinister shadows on the x-rays, sat in the reclining chair while the life-saving drugs drip into our veins. Listened to beloved parents ramble on, lost in a haze of dementia.
We are powerful sisters. We are women who listen patiently to each other’s stories. Who laugh and cry together about the past and following Cat’s example, stride bravely into the future, ready to take on whatever it brings. Who, despite the years and miles of distance that separate us, still know when to place a gentle hand on an elbow when one of us is groping blindly in the darkness, like a college freshman in her first weeks away from home. The women who we know will nod in enthusiastic agreement when our turn comes around to raise our shirt and say, “I think they turned out pretty well, don’t you?”
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