I was not there for her until she had cancer.
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A classmate has cancer
The ending of this story is tragic. In 2005, a classmate has cancer. She eventually dies. Her death was the defining moment of my classes – the last year of middle school. What is amusing about this story is how it “changed” all the kids in my grade, from the jocks to the class clowns – albeit temporarily.
No one in my middle school really knew this girl, who I will call Jane. Jane was not cool in the traditional middle-school sense of the word. She wasn’t skinny or pretty – just kind. We had been friends in early childhood but drifted apart, as we had not been in any of the same classes for years.
I used to know Jane
I have wonderful pictures with Jane on field trips and birthday parties. As we entered middle school, it was not considered cool to speak with Jane as she was quiet, not particularly fit, in remedial courses for reading, and had what I remember as being freckles all over her body. I tell myself the reason I did not reach out to her was that we were not in classes together, but if I am being honest, it was just not socially beneficial.
I do remember defending Jane’s kindness and worthwhileness one time. My best friend, who I will call “David” and I were walking down the hall and I said “Hi Jane.” She smiled back. David didn’t say anything and then as we walked away said, “Doesn’t she look like a lizard? I don’t know why you talked to her. You aren’t going to be friends.”
Let me be clear, it is not like David was a looker. He was chubby with a Jewfro (Note: I originally typed this as “Jew fro” but was corrected by Google Drive to make it one word. Yiddish is disappearing, but apparently, “Jewfro” is a word), and a massive birthmark on his neck, which I remember being repulsed by the first time I saw it from a distance on the bus to Jewish day camp.
He was popular because he was the class clown, the less intelligent, but more gregarious type. I snapped back at him that I had known her from a long time and she was very sweet. It was probably a patronizing comment disguised as a defense. Despite my insistence that Jane was great, I did not reach out to be her friend and in seventh grade, when my twin brother and I had our B’nai Mitzvah, Jane did not make the invite list.
Jane has cancer
Jane’s textured freckles were actually the results of tumors growing all over her body from a rare condition she had been born with. It was a battle that she endured quietly as long as I knew her. Flash forward to the start of eighth grade and those tumors started becoming cancerous and terminal – a rare occurrence.
The news about Jane’s health spread quickly and flipped the social construct of our grade. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be friends with Jane. If you were close to Jane, you moved to the top of the totem pole. At the very top were the members of her “homeroom.” They were the core group that had “connection” with Jane. People went to them for news and gave them the most sympathy as members of the core – part of Jane’s family.
If you were outside that group, you clamored to do things that made you closer to them, Jane’s family, or to Jane herself. For instance, one day I spent hours researching how to source plastic bracelets (Lance Armstrong was still a hero at the time and Livestrong very popular) with a message about Jane.
The school held a giant birthday party for Jane and, at that moment, our class was closer and kinder to each other than ever before. In March, Jane passed away. At the funeral, everyone in our grade was a puddle, even David who sat next to me and mourned the loss of a “friend.” To this day, I do not think I know who her friends really were. Who were the people that had stuck with her through the ups and downs in middle school, the nights when everyone else was at a Bar Mitzvah party, and then cancer?
I was not there for her until …
What I do know is that I was not there for her until she had cancer. It took a deadly disease for me to want to reach out. Someone who I had seen in the background had become somewhat of a celebrity in my mind — a person I needed to fit into the social construct of my class.
After the funeral, Jane’s family invited our class to their home. I approached her mother, “Mrs. Smith, I am so sorry for your loss, and I just want to apologize because I was friends with Jane when we were younger, and then we just weren’t in classes together. I’m so sorry I didn’t invite her to my Bar Mitzvah.”
Looking back on this, I think it might be the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever said, not what a grieving mother wants to hear. She was gracious and told me, “It’s OK. Jane loved you.” Did she?
Last year, my twin brother and I were talking about Jane. He said, “Can I confess something? I think I was the only one, but I didn’t cry at her funeral. I didn’t know Jane.” Looking back, I think that our class rallying around Jane was a positive moment, but I wonder what it would have been like if we had been kind before cancer.
Our kindness stopped at her death.