My school friend has cancer
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My school friend has cancer
If your best school friend has cancer, there’s a lot you can do to help. But what if your friendship ended before the cancer appeared? A true personal story by Michael Feldman.
The ending of this story is tragic. It is 2005, my school friend 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 Sarah. Sarah 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 per-cancer Sarah
I have wonderful pictures with Sarah on field trips and birthday parties. As we entered middle school, it was not considered cool to speak with Sarah as she was quiet, not particularly fit, in remedial courses for reading, and had what I remember as having rosacea all over her face. 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 Sarah’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 Sarah.” 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 I hope.” Teasing of the ‘unpopular’ children is a signature memory of my childhood.
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.
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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 for a long time and that she was incredibly sweet. It was probably a patronizing comment disguised as a defense. Despite my insistence that Sarah 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, Sarah did not make the invite list.
Sarah, my school friend, has cancer
Sarah’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 Sarah’s cancer spread quickly and flipped the social construct of our grade. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be friends with Sarah. If you were close to Sarah, 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 Sarah. People went to them for news and gave them the most sympathy as members of the core – part of Sarah’s family.
If you were outside that group, you clamored to do things that made you closer to them, Sarah’s family, or to Sarah 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 Sarah.
The school held a giant birthday party for Sarah and, at that moment, our class was closer and kinder to each other than ever before. In March, Sarah 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 her getting cancer for me to want to reach out to her. 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, Sarah’s family invited our class to their home. I approached her mother, “Mrs. Elman, I am so sorry for your loss, and I just want to apologize because I was friends with Sarah 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. Sarah loved you.” Did she?
Last year, my twin brother and I were talking about Sarah. 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 Sarah.” Looking back, I think that our class rallying around Sarah was a positive moment, but I wonder what it would have been like if we had been kind before my school friend has cancer.
Our kindness stopped at her death.
Michael Feldman is playwright living in New York City, New York. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Human and Organizational Development.