Three days before my family and I were set to move halfway around the planet, I called my best friend to wish her a happy birthday. After I sang my usual out-of-tune rendition, I said, "You're going to come see us in Bali, right? You and Timmy and the girls? Promise you'll visit, Sherie."
"We'll see. It's just that right now Timmy is—"
"What kind of sick?" I asked. Sherie and Timmy were vegans, as were their daughters, both adopted from China. The family owned a health-food store/cafe in Washington. If you were ever in Port Angeles, and in deep need of a soy or oat or hemp or almond or rice latté, theirs was the place to be.
"He has this bellyache that just won't go away and he's been losing a bunch of weight."
"I don't know. His doctor seems kind of worried, so he ordered a CT scan."
"Sherie. I'm not going to Bali," I cried into the phone, hoping my husband Victor would hear me and stop taping up boxes. Our cat Rex jumped up onto my lap. I sunk my hand through his soft fur, thinking how wrong it would be to leave before we knew what was up with Timmy. I also fixated on the stark fact that I was on the verge of quitting my life in California, abandoning all that was safe and familiar.
And, why exactly was I doing that?
Because, like any restless, 40-something-year-old woman, I was a looking for a change.
Because I'd spent three years writing my third novel, and it got rejected by ten editors.
Because when I saw a job opening at a new school in Bali, I impulsively decided that I wanted to live in Bali, so I made my schoolteacher husband send his résumé.
While Victor and the director chatted over Skype, I paced the floor behind him, imagining myself writing a new novel while gazing out towards a blue-green sea. I pictured Victor and I making love (again) with warm breezes washing over our naked bodies. I saw Loy, our 6-year-old daughter, dashing through the swaying palms alongside a gaggle of friends from all over the world.
Two weeks later, Victor flew to Bali to check out the school, and when he called to say he'd accepted the job offer, I panicked. Even though it'd been my impetuous idea in the first place, I accused him of being rash. I had far too many questions that still needed answering, but before I could voice my concerns, the Indonesian phone line went dead.
Now that we were about to relocate 16 time zones away, I realized I didn't want to live overseas. I didn't want to learn a new language or have to navigate my way through the unknown, or—quite possibly—the unknowable.
A small sick part of me felt grateful for Sherie's news. This was a good excuse. I'd tell Victor I couldn't leave my best friend in her time of need. He'd call Green School and explain the situation, then ask for his old job back. I'd fly to Washington and be by Sherie's side. I ran my palm back and forth along the hard nubs of Rex's vertebrate as I fantasized my escape plan.
"Don't be an idiot," Sherie said with such a hearty laugh, she instantly gutted my resolve. "It's probably nothing. I promise I'll write you as soon as I know."
"Are you sure you—?"
"Go to Bali, Lisa. We'll visit as soon as Timmy feels better."
Not long after settling into our bamboo hut in the middle of a jungle, Sherie sent an email informing me that the doctors found tumors, and Timmy was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "They said it's curable," she wrote.
I Skyped her, asking what I could do to help, knowing there was nothing I could do. "Don't worry," she said, buoyantly. "He'll be fine. Like his doctor said, he's young and strong. He'll beat it."
"Enjoy your adventure, Lisa. I love you."
By this point, I was not, in fact, enjoying my adventure, and I'd begun begging Victor to quit. The school had turned out to be nothing like he'd been promised. Our living situation was untenable. But Victor, being the devoted idealist that he was, remained committed to staying. And so I went about my days, slathering insect repellent and sunscreen on my child every morning; sweeping piles of ants off our breakfast dishes; shooing away stray dogs who begged at our front gate.
Two weeks later, another email arrived:
A few days ago, Timmy was taken to Seattle by ambulance. The chemo that was supposed to shrink the tumors put him into acute kidney failure. His mouth is full of sores, his body is bloated like a dead whale. It's the most horrible thing I have ever been through, watching him in such pain and feeling helpless. After pulling out his feeding tube one night, in rage and pain, he said he wanted to die, but for me and the girls, he's willing to try whatever they do for a little longer. I know you'll want to come, but you don't need to be here. I have plenty of support from other people.
Other people? Could those other people give her what she needed? I closed my eyes and thought back to that misty morning almost 30 years ago when Sherie and I stood side by side in a tiny room cutting up dead fish.
We'd attended the same university, and both lived in the dorms, but, until our sophomore year, we'd never exchanged one word. She ran with the drinking crowd. I got silly with the theater clique.
One day during biology, the director of the Marine Mammal Rehabilitation Center gave a guest lecture, during which he showed slides of adorable doe-eyed seals. When he finished speaking, he asked if any of us would be interested in volunteering.
Out of a hundred students, only two hands raised: mine and that redhead who partied all the time.
On Saturday morning, we drove to Sausalito in her car. I traced circles on the fogged passenger-side window. Thankfully, Sherie cranked up the radio so we could avoid having to make conversation.
Inside the facility, we were greeted by Nicky, the volunteer coordinator. "Thanks for coming, girls," she said cheerfully. "Let me show you around."
She steered us down a long staircase to a field of tanks holding the wounded and parent-less pinnipeds. We met Clyde, a blind sea lion. Next to him was a harbor seal named Mary nursed a deep gash from a boat propeller. Two elephant seal pups played in the pool at the end of the row. "They're orphans," Nicky said, pouting, "and since they can't feed themselves yet, we force-feed them with feeding tubes."
And who was going to make the fish mash that was to be sent down the little ones' gullets? Naturally, the new girls were.
We followed Nicky into a tiny kitchen. "Let's see what we've got here," she said, opening the refrigerator. "Herring and oh, here's some mackerel. Yum!"
She threw a stack of fish onto a cutting board and demonstrated how to make fish milkshakes. After hacking off the heads and tails we had to pulverize the raw flesh with a precisely measured amount of water.
"Have fun!" she said, backing out the door.
Picture it: the two of us standing side by side, each with a sharp knife in our hands and the smell of fish up our noses. The minutes dragged by; the only sound in the room was of fish flesh being severed. While hacking through a particularly hard fish head, an eye ricocheted off my knife and hit me in the face.
After I muttered a profanity, Sherie turned and stared at me. "You have an eye on your cheek," she remarked with a totally straight face, her right eyebrow cocked.
"Thanks," I replied, peeling it off and flicking it to the floor.
She began carving again, but then she suddenly dropped her knife. I thought maybe she'd slashed her hand open and I waited for the blood to start spurting, but then I realized she was laughing like your best friend laughs when you tell a stupid joke.
After we made about a million liters of fish mash, we walked down to the beach and talked for hours. We might easily have stayed until sunset, but as we were starving college students, we couldn't afford to miss a meal.
By the time we made it to the cafeteria, Sherie had her arm slung over my shoulder. We wandered past the salad bar, and when we saw that fried fish was on the menu, we grabbed one another in a tight hug and burst out laughing.
And now there she was, dealing with feeding tubes again, and I was nowhere close to within reach. All I could do—all I did—was send her lots of emails reminding her to keep the faith.
Then, one late afternoon, as I was excitedly telling my family about the troop of monkeys I ran into while walking in the jungle, I saw an email from Sherie pop up:
Timmy's heart stopped at 7 AM today. His body couldn't take the growth of the cancer, and he was too sick from the first chemo to get any more chemo. I'm grateful for being able to see firsthand that saying goodbye to a person and letting him know that we will be OK without him was what let him slip out of pain and into the realm of spirit. Thank God he had a dying wish that I could focus on now. From his mouth full of sores, he whispered, "Happiness, happiness," as he nodded his head at the girls. If you could come to the service, I would be thrilled, but I know Bali is a long way away.
A few months later, Victor finally concluded the school was a disorganized disaster, and our life in paradise was anything but. We didn't leave Bali soon enough for me to attend Timmy's funeral, and for too long now, I've regretted that I wasn't there to memorialize him or to be with my best friend as she suffered her beloved's death. I should have been cooking her vegan meals to help keep her strength up. I should have been the friend who sat on the floor with her daughters, reading them cheery books, holding their small, scared hands in mine.
Though she'd ended that last email with the line, "Thank you for your love from across the ocean. I felt it," I'd never really believed it. Not, at least, until last week, when she posted this on Facebook:
Today, on the 10th anniversary of Timmy's death, I feel gratitude for knowing him, happiness for remembering the joy he shared, and sadness for him not knowing our daughters. Later on, Kira and Maile and I will plant yellow flowers in the sunny, front garden, and place his ashes under the roots. His favorite color, yellow, will announce his loving presence, every time we come home.
The moment I read Sherie's words, I instantly let go of the distant but enduring echoes that have nagged at me for the last decade. She reminded me that for love to be felt between two souls, the body need not be present. Just as Sherie was grateful that she was able to let Timmy go in peace, I now know that even though they were simply words sent across the ocean, they were truly heard.