I spent the weekend of JG's death thinking about our relationship, which was not an easy one.
I remember the conversation in which she told me about her cancer. I was incredulous. One of her closest friends, H, had died two years earlier of breast cancer. Then her friend and writing partner, K, was diagnosed with stage iii breast cancer. And about six months after that, I was diagnosed with stage ii breast cancer. The whole world—and everyone in it—seemed to be mutating, and not in a good way.
My relationship with JG has not been uncomplicated. Early on, she was warm but distant. The eldest child, she didn’t have a lot of interest in her siblings or their partners. But we were on friendly if not intimate terms, though I blundered often. Once she came to San Francisco while Other and I were living there. I had just cut a friend’s hair and boasted that I had done a great job. So JG decided I should cut her hair. Alas, the result was disastrous—one side way shorter than the other and the whole thing just a mess. I was humiliated, but she was agreeable about it. I know I unintentionally offended her by complimenting her “womanly” figure on that visit. The next time I saw her, she was notably slimmer. When she headed home to Massachusetts, she left behind a beautiful Indian shirt. I coveted it. But in an excess of probity, I returned it to her. She was surprised. She’d never missed it, and I wished I’d kept it.
She was renowned in her world (first English literature, later political economy) as a brilliant thinker and teacher. People gravitated to her. She changed lives. But she scared me a little bit. She had a problem with boundaries: put her face too close to yours in conversation, so that you wanted to back away. I once saw her chase someone completely around the circumference of a room in her unconscious absorption in a conversation that was clearly making him want to flee. She also—and this was none of my business, but of course fascinating to me—stepped over the line sexually: had affairs with a friend’s father, a hostess’s husband, a friend’s boyfriend, another friend’s husband, and so forth. The friends seemed to forgive her. And that behavior seemed in keeping with the sense that the usual rules didn’t apply, that she could take whatever she wanted, without consequences. Oddly, as far as I know, she never had a lesbian affair—although her intense relationships with her friends, plus a short spikey hairdo and a somewhat mannish bearing (though she had a girly side too), prompted much speculation that she was gay.
Once I had children, my relationship with JG deteriorated. Perhaps I offended her by gloating over what she didn’t have (unbeknownst to me then, she pursued fertility enhancement and adoption). Perhaps, in my obsession over my kids, I became a terrible bore. I’m not sure. So, although she grew closer to Other over time, she and I were not friends for a good many years. She said cutting things. And I must have said things that provoked them. I don’t know.
But as my kids got older, she took an interest in them, sought them out, seemed to actually enjoy them. Though she had once intimidated and irritated them, they now loved and respected her.
She was also beloved by her community. She lived in a kind of Beatrice Potter New England world, where people had woodchuck nicknames and old-fashioned village roles—there was a mechanic and a cooperative-grocery-store manager and lots of teachers—and an enviable tradition of Monday-night communal dinners for which a dozen or more people would gather every week. She may not have had a biological family (although she did have a husband for about a decade), but she had a very large and devoted communal family, which stepped in to take care of her when she became ill.
Although my friends were no slouches, and I had a companion accompany me on every major event of my cancer journey, I was astonished by the devotion of JG’s friends, who because of the nature of her illness and her singlehood, were critical to her survival and independence. Early on in her illness, they spent nights with her, performed fairly technical nursing duties, drove her to chemo and radiation and lab tests and doctor consultations, helped her research her options. Cancer is a full-time job—actually two full-time jobs, one for the patient and one for her companions—and JG’s friends were wonderfully supportive. Eventually it became clear that JG’s cancer was actually the equivalent of three full-time jobs, and an actual nurse was hired to fill in the gaps.
JG’s illness and my own occasioned a new intimacy. I made a resolve to love her unconditionally, the way I love my children, and there was a glorious three days when I succeeded. I drove up to Massachusetts to take her to a radiation appointment and ending up staying an extra day because the next volunteer stepped down. I tended JG as thought she was a newborn, getting up several times a night to measure and crush superstrong narcotics and feeding them to her in her “bottle,” the plastic funnel that fit into her feeding tube, then staying up to cuddle her and read her back to sleep. It was exhausting, and I was scheduled for a bilateral mastectomy the following week, so I felt raw and surreal. And it was scary because the drugs were so strong that I was afraid that if I measured them incorrectly, they would kill her. But I did it! I really loved her and cared for her with total solicitude—and she understood and loved me back. But we couldn’t sustain it at that pitch. I withdrew a bit—because I couldn’t actually manage an extra child, which was what it amounted to—and I suspect she felt wistful, maybe even resented the promise posed by that loving interlude followed by my withdrawal.
There were many sad muddled overtures in the past three years: the time I took her to a support group, and she was reprimanded for bringing her coffee tankard (her spit jar) into the meeting room. It got straightened out, but not before she was in tears. The time she told me she felt sorry for my children because I was so invested in them that they had no emotional privacy (I can’t remember her precise words, but they were brutally frank). The time she asked me to give her a yoga class, and (partly because I feared being exposed as an incompetent), I gave her such a short one that it could only have been a disappointment.
I admit it. I dreaded having her come to stay. I hated the spit jar and the way it looked like a coffee mug and made you think about the possibility of drinking its contents and the threat it presented of being knocked over. She had bouts of thrush, and I was scared I would get it too. But mostly I dreaded facing her sorry plight—which was just so damn dispiriting. She faced it, but I couldn’t.
But for my 60th birthday, she wrote me a beautiful loving note that startled me with its genuine lovingness (why didn’t I save it?). She wrote a similarly loving note to her mother on her 91st. Did she know these were last words to us? Regardless, I’m grateful for them. I wonder if it’s harder to lose someone you had an imperfect relationship with than someone with whom you had a perfect one.