“It’s way too fancy,” I told my husband. “I’d be overdressed.” My new outfit is a beauty — white and lacy, perfect for a summer cocktail party, but too much for a school function on a Tuesday evening. In the back of my head, though, I heard my friend’s voice. Wear it anyway, she whispered. You never know when you’ll get another chance.
The last time I saw Shalean, I was bloated from chemo drugs, and both of us wondered if it would be the last time we’d see each other. My prognosis was bad, and cancer treatment side effects threatened my life twice early into my journey. It was unspoken, but we both knew I might not make it.
Years earlier, when we lived across the street from each other and cancer was a thing that other people had, Shalean had given me the same advice, in person, about a different dress. “Wear it to Bruno’s,” she told me. “It’s better to wear it to Bruno’s than never to wear it at all.”
Shalean had a point. Our town of 900 people didn’t host a lot of formal events or cocktail parties. The chamber of commerce held its annual Kiss-a-Pig fundraiser, but otherwise, things were pretty casual.
I held the shimmery green fabric next to my skin, its cool silkiness and opulent color making me feel like a supermodel. Then I pictured myself at Bruno’s, our local grocer, pushing a shopping cart full of bargains down the toilet paper aisle and hoping someone else’s kids didn’t hug me spontaneously with potato chip residue on their grubby little fingers.
At the time, I couldn’t convince myself to slip on that sexy new ensemble and drive to the neighboring town so checkers and baggers could see it. But all the same, it felt like a crime to let that beauty languish unworn at the back of my closet.
One time, Shalean showed up at a backyard taco feed wearing a slinky black outfit that took my breath away. Don’t get me wrong; she didn’t wear a plunging Versace shocker like the one Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy Awards, but it was eye-catching cocktail attire everyone could love. She knows how to do it, I thought. I was inspired. She always looked fantastic, but I didn’t follow her example and never wore my dress to Bruno’s or anywhere else as a matter of fact.
When Shalean moved from our small town to San Antonio, Texas, a hole dropped into my life where her presence once was. Sometimes we made pies together, but separately. She’d make filling at her house because she had an apple tree and I’d make crusts at mine because I always have tremendous amounts of flour. Then we’d trade so both families would get a nice dessert. She was the kind of neighbor everyone wants.
The day I helped her load up her U-Haul, I gave her a beautiful dress. “Wear it to the grocery store,” I told her through tears. My husband bought the dress for me, but just in case it didn’t fit, he bought another just like it in a slightly different size. One of my most treasured photos is the one of Shalean and me holding up the same dress. We promised each other we’d wear them together, separately.
I knew our lives were about to change, but of course, I didn’t know how.
I still don’t understand how it is that she was the one who died and I am the one still alive. It was a sudden, unexpected, shocking, irreversible loss. I look at my daughter sometimes and think of her. I look at photos and wonder about questions that have no answers.
But there’s one thing I’m certain about: Shalean was right. I live my life differently now because I know cancer can hit anyone at any time, and it can be fatal.
And if it isn’t cancer, it could be something else.
I slipped my new white, lacy dress over my head, and to the delight of my husband, I was overdressed for the school function Tuesday evening. Shalean was there with me that night, as she so often is — a gentle, encouraging light. And in that moment, we were together again, separately.
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