I once had a friend, but she is no more. Her presence left imprints in me and bettered my life at the time. As a child, she could organise her stuffed animals into elaborate social structures and families and play with me for hours. As a teenager, she explored black mascara and lipstick with me and posed for pictures that we laughed about afterwards. When my beloved dog died, she wrote me kind letters reassuring me that yes, I would be loved like that again and I wouldn’t always feel this gaping hole inside me. She was a trusted companion throughout some of my most formative years and was one of the first persons outside of my family that I knew was completely loyal to me. What’s more, she possessed a wisdom beyond her years to dismiss my flaws and point to my attributes instead. I hope I was as good a friend to her as she was to me, but with the benefit of hindsight I cannot help but feel that I was the lucky one. I certainly was fortunate to have her in my childhood and adolescence.
By our late twenties, life had taken us in different directions and we only saw each other sporadically but we were still friends. She wrote me a text over Christmas saying she truly was the happiest person alive, for she was to become a mother in the spring. Months later, I learned that she had breast cancer, which she fought throughout pregnancy, childbirth and her son’s babyhood. This tale could be one of sadness, for having to leave your child prematurely must surely be the most desperate, life-sucking feelings any mother can ever experience. Knowing that you will leave early, and living with this knowledge for some time while your body deteriorates, is beyond most mothers’ ability to grasp, including mine. But facing this while still embracing life, still giving every moment everything you’ve got, makes her story – her life – one of the most remarkable that will ever touch my life.
That is why her tale will have to be one about a life lived to its fullest, about the bravest of spirits.
After having given birth, she told me her infant son’s presence overshadowed her illness and that it was difficult to see the darkness looming when she had such goodness in her arms. Once she knew the cancer was terminal, her message to friends was that she was perfectly content to spend her time with her beloved boys. If we wanted to come and see her, it would need to be to laugh with her, not to cry, for that was not how she wanted to spend her final months. It took me a while to understand that she had grasped and accepted the extent of her illness, because her messages were so infused with optimistic spirit, so alive. While facing this great abyss, she even found the time and energy to give her friends parting messages and keepsakes. My little guardian angel was a gift from her, and it has travelled with me to Asia and back. When I became a mother, I hung it over the changing table and it has been keeping watch over my babies since the dark winter nights I brought them home from the hospital. Lately, my youngest asks for the angel so she can hold it while I change her, well knowing that we put it back afterwards and it’s not for play.
Seven years ago was the last time I saw my friend in life. We sat for a while in her home, her at the very last stage of her illness but still able to laugh, to talk, to reminisce. It was wonderful to see her, but knowing it was the last time took a huge emotional toll on me and I had to stop the car driving back to cry uncontrollably.
Not long after her passing, I was back in Asia walking the street on which I lived at the time in the midst of the cement jungle that is downtown Hong Kong. A colourful butterfly fluttered towards me and decided to land on a nearby wall, finding a sunny spot to rest in. I stopped. It was the first time that I had seen any other insect than a cockroach on our street. My friend had said that when she had shed her body, we would find her in the wind, in the grass and if she could, she would come back as a butterfly. Even though there probably wasn’t anything else in this moment than a random visit from an insect, I had to pause. There we were, me and the butterfly on a cement wall for a few fleeting seconds while the hustle and bustle of daily Hong Kong life went on around us. Taking it in, there was no way even a grieving mind could accept that my friend and all that she was had collapsed the essence of her spirit and infiltrated the butterfly. She simply couldn’t have fitted into that tiny body. But over time, I have come to look back at those moments in another way.
If the power of thought can move mountains, why couldn’t the echo of a life so infused with optimism and love help move a butterfly’s wings? If only for a few fleeting seconds, if only to send a message of hope, if only to give me the message she had helped plant firmly into my life early on:
You are not alone.