“Hi, Linda, it’s Gwen Carr,” says a familiar voice when I pick up the phone at work. It’s been decades since we last spoke, but I would know her voice anywhere. It’s as familiar as a soft, worn, much-loved sweater. I tell her that and she says “Well, we did spend a lot of time together at one point in our lives.”
Gwen explains that she found me on the website of the cancer wellness centre where I work. She goes on to say that she has cancer but has been doing well since surgery 18 months ago. Although I pretend this is news, the truth is that I knew about her cancer. As a staff member, I’d seen her name on the list of patients registered with the Centre but couldn’t reach out to her for confidentiality reasons. I am not pretending, though, when I tell her how sorry I am that she is going through this.
Gwen says she is coming to the centre the next day and we arrange to meet. When she arrives, she hugs me and exclaims, “It’s so good to see you!” I want to hug her back but I’m uncomfortable. Our COVID policy, understandably, doesn’t allow any physical contact – even between long-lost friends. I gently extricate myself as I explain this and we move to my office. When we are more than six feet apart with my desk between us, we remove our masks and I am looking at her face for the first time in more than 30 years.
Memory is a funny thing. We remember people the way we last saw them. Gwen and I met in grade school and lost touch in our early twenties. She was and still is beautiful but seeing her now feels like the future crept up on me and tapped me on the shoulder. I’m sure she feels the same way.
When we were young, my father called her Moonface to tease her because her face was as round as a perfectly full moon. Her skin was luminous with a few pale freckles sprinkled across her cheeks. Her straight, shiny hair cascaded down her back like a coffee-coloured waterfall. She said she would never wear it short because it wouldn’t suit her “moon face”. But her best feature was her smile. It lit up her face often, quickly and easily.
Gwen still has a warm, engaging smile, even if her teeth are slightly discoloured and look smaller in her mouth. Her eyes are the same dark brown and are framed by flawlessly symmetrical eyebrows. Her hair, though, is a shaggy, medium length.
“I like your hair like this,” I say and she flashes that smile. “Thank you. I lost it during chemo and it’s just growing back.” Then she points to those perfect eyebrows and says, “These never did grow back. I pencil them in every day.” And just like that, we giggle like the school girls we once were.
Gwen tells me she misses work and wants to go back, but her oncologist won’t let her. “Why do you want to go back when most of us are thinking about stopping?”
“I played competitive badminton but chemotherapy put an end to that. I have neuropathy in my hands and feet so I can’t play anymore. Badminton and work were all I had and now I don’t have either.”
My heart hurts at the loneliness I hear in her voice. Then I wonder if I am imagining it because she has a husband and two grown children in her life.
A few days later, Gwen comes to see me again. “I just wanted to say hi,” she says. We chat for a few minutes and when she leaves she says apologetically, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to disturb you.” This time I’m sure about the loneliness.
The nurse on staff reminds me about boundaries we need to keep at work. She says I can direct Gwen to her or to a counsellor if needed. “I know, I’ve got this,” I tell her.
I send Gwen a message asking if she wants to join a group of us for dinner the following week. I don’t know if she wants or needs a counsellor. But I do know it sounded like she needs a friend. And that is something I can be.