We instantly hit it off as ten-year-olds will. We invented super-heroines and designed their costumes. We were into some dolls she'd been given by American relatives. We probably created very detailed inner lives for them. I don't really remember much besides the mental vignettes of us as children, playing, absorbed, intent.
Six months later, her family moved to Israel. I was devastated, but we decided to write letters. And we did, letters about kid stuff, then letters about boys and after four years her family came back to Cape Town and it turned out that I was the only one of her friends who hadn't dropped off the radar.
We picked up our friendship again, sort of, but things were different.
Then my parents moved to Australia and so my kids and I continued to visit, and each time, Debbie and I would get together.
There's something about being with friends that you've known most of your life, even if your lives have separated more than remaining intimate - there's still that commonality of shared lives and life experiences that binds you together in ways that no new friendship can ever duplicate. The time apart is irrelevant except in that there's some catching up to do, and even if you've drifted away in some aspects of your lives there's still a history that bridges all gaps.
Two and a half years ago Debbie was diagnosed with breast cancer with bone metastases. She was upbeat, even though there's no cure. People can live for fifteen years with bone cancer she told me. Hers responded well to hormone treatment and when I saw her a few months later she was well and positive and calm and philosophical.
She sent out email updates from time to time; I assume to people like me, geographically or emotionally distant, not in that tight circle of her daily life. I was so grateful to not have to nag for details because they seemed to arrive just when I was almost at the point of asking. She did say it was difficult to field endless multiple phonecalls about her progress so I suppose the emails were self-protective, but still.
I was in Australia for barely a week this past December but we managed to get together a couple of times.
She was thin, a bit drawn and tired easily. The cancer had spread to her liver. Even though she was still undergoing treatments I think the notion of her death had become more real to her, something close enough to make out in the distance but not immediate. She did say she wasn't yet ready to let go though, but I think she was imagining a time when she'd have to.
When we said goodbye after the second visit I told her to be there when next I visited Australia and she gave a small smile and said "We'll see". As I stepped out of her car and closed the door I think I knew then that I'd never see her again. It took a while for me to pull myself together after that.
In her updates she was matter-of-fact about the physical ups and downs, matter-of-fact about how her life was constrained by her cancer, matter-of-fact about treatments that stopped working and ultimately, matter-of-fact in her last email when she told us she was terminal.
She said she had accepted it. She said she was at peace with it. I hope those last ten days were quiet, calm, pain-free and peaceful but if I was Queen of the World that cancer would have hop-skip-jumped right past her without even registering.