By Jessica Lynne Henkle
My best friend has lost her words. I don’t mean that she has writer’s block. I mean some unknown force between her brain and fingertips is holding her words hostage. If Maya Angelou is right—that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you”—this is the most distressing symptom. More than the dizziness, the chest pain, or the constant fatigue. More than swollen joints, throbbing temples, or the heart that slams against her ribs when she makes the slightest movement. It’s the spider of sickness that’s spun a web in her gray matter, catching every word like a fly.
I am not a doctor. I’ve always been squeamish and have no mind for science. I would not have lasted a day in med school, but I sit in the living room with my friend and her husband, typing every symptom as they volley back and forth. Confusion. Seizure. Numbness on the right. I catalogue and cross-reference on MayoClinic.com, as though, if countless medical professionals haven’t been able to diagnose her, I can with only a website and the knowledge I’ve gleaned from watching House. In almost every episode, someone suggests, “It might be lupus,” and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s not.
It might be lupus, the doctors tell her, but no two cases are alike, and the trouble with autoimmune diseases is not the symptoms you can see, but the ones you can’t—the ones my friend cannot describe. “What does it feel like?” I ask her. “Squeezing? Aching? Tightness? Burning?” “Yes,” she tells me. “No, no, no.” It’s like the game we used to play, when one of us was writing a story and couldn’t think of the right word. We’d explain to the other what we wanted to describe and would bounce back and forth through a dozen possibilities, until we found the one that fit. This is like that, but then, it’s not like that at all.
Easter is upon us. When Jesus walked the Earth, people fled to Him in droves to be healed of their infirmities. Those who couldn’t make the journey alone were led and, in some cases, carried by their friends. “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.” I sit with my friend as she lies curled on the couch, in a posture we jokingly begin to call her “fancy pose,” because what else can we call it? I listen as she lists her symptoms to doctor after doctor, study the barrage of tests they’ve ordered, the blood that must be drawn. I wonder if moving a mountain might be easier than being healed.
In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes, “I do not feel my friend’s pain…She says, if anyone knows this pain besides me, it is you (and J, her lover). This is generous, for to be close to her pain has always felt like a privilege to me, even though pain could be defined as that which we typically aim to avoid.” I have driven over two hundred miles to be close to my friend, and in turn, to her pain. “I need help,” her husband told me. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I said, “Neither do I,” but once I’m here, I do. I do, and I can’t explain it: why I feel my friend’s sickness somewhere so deep inside me, the instinct of how to help her just comes pouring out.
For all the years we’ve known each other, we’ve described ourselves as two people paddling one canoe. Occasionally, we’re both at the oars, but more often than not, only one of us is rowing, when depression or heartache or simply the rigors of staying afloat render the other incapable of forward momentum. This woman who’s talked me off the ledge a thousand times, whom I carried through a divorce and having to leave her son—we’ve cradled each other’s wounds as closely as our own. I can tell when she’s lying, even via text. I can tell what she’s thinking when she doesn’t say a word. “I need to put the clothes in the…” she trails off. “Washer?” I say. “No, the other one.” “Dryer,” I tell her. She nods. “Thank you.”
We talk to the doctors again, and again. I tell them of her newest symptom, which my friend keeps on forgetting, possibly with intention: she’s reading backwards. Only one of them finds this interesting, and I don’t know how that’s possible. I don’t know how they can look at her with such placid uncertainty. Don’t you understand? I want to ask them. This isn’t just some inconvenience. This is her life. Medical personnel glance at me and ask, “Who are you?” We tell them, “Best friends,” though it makes us sound like we’re in grade school. “Sisters,” I want to say instead, because what we are needs more weight. Because I alone hold her words, and that counts for something.
Finally, one doctor—the only one we trust—suggests a different test, for something I can’t spell without Google’s assistance: pheochromocytoma. I’ve never prayed for a tumor, but I pray for one now—the extremely rare, benign mass that will explain everything and, once removed, will make it all go away. Let this be the miracle we’ve been awaiting. Let this be the gift to my good friend who still listens to my problems, even as her reality shrinks every day, who as Nelson writes, “has never held any hierarchy of grief…which seems to me nothing less than a form of enlightenment.” I recite this line to my friend, watch to see if it sinks in, or if it, too, will get caught in the word-snatching web.
In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris writes of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who stood in the long lines to “leave letters and packages for loved ones caught up in Stalin’s purges.” A woman recognized Akhmatova and asked, “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova replied, “I can,” and Norris writes, “Akhmatova at that moment fulfilled a prophetic role, as well as an apocalyptic one: I can describe this. Just the act of describing can be defiance, in the face of terror; it allows the powerless a glimpse into another reality, one in which words and images (not guns and prisons) have power.” I read this passage to my friend, but instead of “guns and prisons,” I say, “disease and doctors.” I promise her, “I will describe this,” and relief floods her face.
I remember the day we met at our writer’s residency, where by chance or fate or a combination of the two, we were assigned as roommates. Despite an awkward start, within hours, we knew we shared a kindred spirit. I’d happened upon this kind of connection before, though it’d always fallen apart. This time, I didn’t want to know what was coming—if I’d learned one thing, it’s that nothing good ever lasted, or at least, never stayed the same. Over the years, our friendship has taken on many forms, and yet, it has remained, even deepened. Maybe, I think now, that means nothing bad will ever stay the same, too.
My love of running is one thing we’ve never shared, but I run for her now—for the fifteen-foot walk from the couch to the bathroom that sends her heart rate skyrocketing and leaves her out of breath. As I sail through the neighborhood, an essay begins to brew, and I hurry back to the house and tell her, “It’s coming.” She doesn’t have to say a word for me to know she’s jealous, but not in the way you’d think. It’s the same way, when she got remarried—mere months after my own wedding fell apart—I, too, was jealous. I wanted to be able to know that joy with her, but not an ounce of me wished it wasn’t happening to her, or God forbid, that it was happening to me instead.
Maybe this is how we do it: how we keep the breath of hope alive. If only one of us can be rowing, then that one must row. “You’re a good friend,” people tell me, and I think, Am I? What else can you do in a situation like this, but order cake instead of dinner, then spend hours eating and listening to music, laughing like nothing’s wrong and never was and never will be again? Her husband shakes his head at us, as we leave each other breathless—our jokes nonsensical, our sentences half-formed. Even before the sickness descended, no one could follow our conversations. One of us could always finish the thought the other had only begun.
Jessica Lynne Henkle was born and raised in Southern California. She has a BA in English and Art History from Boston University and an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. Her work has appeared in Revolver, Northwind, and Spirituality & Health, among others, and her short story, “Fire Season,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She runs, works, and prays in Portland, Oregon, where she’s always writing something. You can visit her at jessicalynnehenkle.com
Sami Jankins holds an MFA in Screenwriting from UC-Riverside at Palm Desert and is the founder of The Tiny Tim Literary Review. Previously she was a dating advice columnist for The Good Men Project’s column - Dating in the Digital Age with Sami Jankins as well as the press and social media editor for The Coachella Review. She wrote a blog for a number of years called Chronicles of Cheerful Clotter for HemAware Magazine, where she detailed her life with chronic health conditions. Sami is also an associate producer and press manager for the documentary Invisible: The Film, which focuses on individuals living with chronic pain and invisible illness. She has served on the Board of Directors for the National Hemophilia Foundation, spent time as a Senatorial intern, and was Miss Wisconsin for the ANTSO program. In addition, she has had articles published in Chronicality, Elephant Journal, The Glow (Australia), I.G. Living Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Mighty, National Pain Report, Ravishly, and YourTango. Her interests include ukuleles and sloths. Find her @SamiDan19.