by Kylie Stamm
The walk around the neighborhood is so familiar to me, I could follow the sounds of the water and the shape of the sidewalk with my eyes closed. I’ve walked and run it so many times over the years.
Bindi looks up at me with a slight head tilt, and I ask if she wants to go outside.
What prompts a walk with Bindi?
Sometimes it’s for physical activity: I would be snuggling in the fort Abi’s brother, Chris, and husband John masterfully made...for literally hours, without moving, except to slide myself upright after my body was slowly absorbed into the cushions, pillows, and blankets. I have to stretch my legs.
Sometimes it’s for Bindi, restless and eager to see the outside world.
Sometimes it’s for the family, because her mom is prepping the house for the next batch of visitors, her dad is prepping for dinner, and John is prepping the new bed with the hopes of better sleep for our girl.
Often, it’s just for clearing my head.
I grab the leash off of the back of the door and prompt her to sit with a familiar hand signal and verbal prompt that she knows well (though
sometimes usually defies). She runs down the stairwell and immediately goes right, the side of the neighborhood that faces the water. I always pause and stare. Often times I take a picture. I think about our boat rides in the summertime and one on the way home from Abi and John’s post-engagement cruise when we rode in to “Africa” by Toto. We made it our anthem simply because her dad didn’t believe the hype was real. Still doesn’t. Except I think he actually does, but it’s become a game. Our game.
Deep breath in, deep breath out.
Bindi tugs on her leash to start walking toward the clubhouse. We pass a spot that’s forever ingrained in my mind: the first time I watched Abi struggle with the loss of her voice. This summer we were taking Bindi for a walk and she got overly excited about an approaching dog and human. She jumped up, barking excessively and Abi yelled a command Bindi recently learned, “settle.” This would prompt her to quiet down and lay immediately. But Abi didn’t really yell. She couldn’t. Her “yelling” was a breathy, whispery copy of what it once was, like a bad recording on an old cassette tape. Watching her face as she processed that she had no control over Bindi was heart wrenching. It looked like it hurt her physically to try and muster up a voice that’s no longer there, and hurt her even more emotionally. We were thinking the same thing. Having no control over her voice was a direct parallel to having no control over her body… her health. One brief moment demonstrated so much loss and hurt. She whispered to me, discouraged, “Tell her to settle.” That day I discovered one of my new roles: amplifier.
I clear my throat and sigh.
I glance to the left and I see the mailboxes. Whenever I see the mailboxes, I think of one of our hardest and sweetest moments, post-diagnosis. Abi was talking to me about Todd, her dad’s best friend who passed away. We talked about kids, the future, and what it would be like… after. After. I look away from the mailboxes.
Bindi and I reach the clubhouse. I think about our Abi’s Army gathering last spring and how loving this community can be. I look at the grassy field and think of the endless cornhole tournaments I’ve lost over the years. I think about parties, showers, and more parties. I glance over to the pool that’s still open at the end of September and think about our summers. We bonded over our love of water and I picture that old dirty dancing lift story that never gets old in my mind. It is supposed to be easier to lift someone in the water! I remember playing sharks and minnows and wondering about Abi and Nate’s remarkable commonality: their ability to hold their breath for a concerning, extended duration. They always won. Now, I get upset thinking about how Abi can barely walk around the neighborhood, let alone chase people underwater at the pool. My eyes start to feel wet.
Bindi looks longingly at me and I realize she thinks we’re standing in the grassy area to “ya-ya”, her bonus play time that we only do after dark so the neighbors don’t get too riled... It’s early evening. Not quite sunset. Not yet dark enough. The dark will come later.
I break it to her with a light tug and a gentle call to keep it moving. One more deep breath for me. We make it down the sidewalk and I see John and Marci’s house on our left. I remember the time we went there to borrow outdoor gear for Abi’s First Descents adventure. We marveled about how much we loved their adventurous spirit and generous hearts. Bindi’s pulling me along as I remember how much First Descents meant to Abi, and how she described the joy of feeling a sense of power over her own body after just finishing her first six rounds of chemo. Back then, it felt like so much poison in the body, and we were eager for a cure. Now, I feel grateful for anything that prevents dramatic spread, anything that gives us the gift of time. It’s funny how my bar continues to shift.
We make our way down and around the bend, and my mind is clear. For a moment.
Then, I think about why I needed to take a walk: I’m already anxious about leaving. When I come back everyone will ask, The Question.
It’s genuine, but I always struggle with what to say. Do I bring up days where she agonized over her excruciating pain, rotating in and out of the heating pad, bathtub, back rub cycle in between getting sick and escaping for brief moments by hiding in child’s pose? Do I talk about the days when she only got one hour of sleep in 24 hours? Do I describe jumping into the back rub rotation whenever possible, which Abi describes as “next level friend shit”? (I laughed but I realized she’s right.)
Do I mention her cries of pain and frustration? They’re the kind that make you sick to your own stomach because there is nothing you can possibly do take the pain away. Or the frustration. Or the cycle.
The cycle is vicious: take medicine for pain and nausea and chemo and thyroid and everything else that’s needed; get nauseous, but try to eat something so the medicine sticks; get sick and lose all the food needed to hold the medication and all the medication to somewhat ease the pain, manage the illness, and everything else that’s needed. Pain, nausea, fatigue. Repeat.
Or do I tell them about the day she felt so good that we broke out of the house to meet John for sushi. The day she debuted (for me, anyway) her adorable overalls? That day, we had a shopping outing and everything, while her energy was still strong. It felt “normal” again, for a moment.
Do I tell people about our late night quality time watching Sharp Objects after everyone else went to sleep, with her feet propped up on my lap and both of us piled under mounds of blankets? We watched with one eye open while dramatically turning our heads from TV to each other and back to the TV, mouths gaping open at the storyline. How could it continue to become anymore dramatic?! (Make sure you watch the closing credits of the finale, we’re just saying).
Do I continue to talk about The Fort? Seeing her little cousins jumping up and down on the air mattress, hearing their giggling cries for Abi as they wander in and out of the hole John so badly tried to close up… the home felt so warm with love and life, like everyone sitting around the fireplace on Christmas eve.
Do I share that we geeked out over formats for her bullet journal for hours, even though the content should have been our biggest priority? It reminded me of our plans to start a business together in the years to come, and the reverie brought a warmth into my body just knowing we can still have these moments.
All of these things are true and authentic. The pain is real. The joy is real. But real and authentic don’t give me the answer to the hardest question.
I’m angry. I’m scared. I am not ready to leave.
I wipe the few remaining tears that have dropped lightly onto my cheeks and Bindi trots along, looking back occasionally to make sure I’m still following her.
We cross over a small parking lot and make our way around another bend between a house and a fence along the back of the neighborhood. We’re halfway around the block and Bindi stops on a porch and faces the front door. It’s Abi and John’s old house, before they moved in with her mom and dad. I feel a lump in my throat as I pull lightly and say:
“Come on girl. We don’t live here anymore.”
I have a flashback to our last New Years Eve at their house, one of my favorite traditions. This one was right before her diagnosis. Abi had back pain and rolled around the floor trying to ease what she thought then was a pulled muscle from running. We joked about how dramatic it looked to be rolling around in a fancy romper on the floor. Little did we know that as we were lighting our sparklers, drinking our fancy cocktails, and taking over 500 photo-booth photos that a monster was growing inside of her.
Bindi doesn’t move right away, so I close my eyes for a moment while I imagine we both take a deep breath.
Along the sidewalk I see little things like John’s old parking spot, the neighbors house that we randomly went in one night that could have ended in a Girl With the Dragon Tattoo sort of way (spoiler alert, sort of…), and the corner that reminds me of when we used to go running. Abi and her dad used to run together, which they affectionately called the #RhodenRunSeries. I started to join on occasion, even though I have a complicated relationship with running. Sometimes at that corner, one of them would suggest we sprint the rest of the way home. As you can imagine, it was not my favorite corner for quite some time. The body is something I constantly think we take for granted.
We cross the street and we can either turn left and go home a little quicker, or we can go straight and finish the longer loop. Bindi decides for us when she sees another dog further ahead and bolts forward.
How are you not tired, dog?
We approach the intersection by the main entrance of the neighborhood and I think about the times we used to turn right and walk toward the beach. Bindi loves the beach, and so do we. I remember when Abi first got a short haircut, right before the full buzz, we took one of our last long walks to the beach. Of course we didn’t know that necessarily at the time. Her dad had to come pick us up because it was too long of a long walk back and her energy was low. Now we’re lucky to get a loop around the block on a good day. I shake my head as I think about my bar shifting yet again.
Bindi glances to the right like she’s remembering, too, but keeps going forward.
A little ways ahead, I look to the left and see Jon and Kim’s house, where we housesat over the summer. It was another one of my favorite trips, but I’ll always remember it as the first time I felt the weight of our friendship impacting Abi in a way that she had to navigate on her own. Her energy was so limited that we mostly watched the Bachelorette, movies, and laid low. Quality time is my love language. I absolutely loved being able to work, read, eat, make fun espressos, and hang with Mario the pup. More than anything, I appreciated having access to my best friend for a series of days. But I remember her tears, angry and frustrated with her limitations. I saw the weight of it resting on her chest like a 20 pound blanket, and I just wanted to lift it from her body and carry it myself. It hurt me because I couldn’t take that burden from her, or make her fully believe me when I said I was so happy to be there. She knew, and it hurt her even more.
She expressed such genuine disdain with her perceived inability to be the friend she wanted to be for me. She wanted to be able to take me out to restaurants and local spots we couldn’t believe we hadn’t been to yet. She didn’t have the energy for our usual coffee shop camp outs to take on new projects. We thought about going out to the movies and propping our feet up in the cozy recliners at AMC, but it was easier to stay home and debate over movies for a few hours (poor John) before landing on Logan over The Greatest Showman. (Why were we in such a Hugh Jackman mood, anyway?)
Her love is so big, I wish she would know that she’s more than the friend she wanted to be for me. She’s the friend I need. She wanted to go out on big outings and adventures without realizing that she would listen to me talk for hours, and that’s what I needed most: family, work, friends, love, hurt, questions… all things she would still take on with me regardless of the setting.
But the limitations of cancer are real, and I can’t invalidate how she feels.
Bindi stops to take care of her business and I recenter in my mind. We’re almost home. My mind wanders again to not being ready. I think about my morning conversation with her mom that dug deeply into my spirit. She was checking in on me - that never ceases to amaze me about both of her parents and John - and I fumbled over my words as I described my battle with work, taking time off, and figuring out how to balance it all. I can’t begin to express how much I treasure her reflecting with me. She put words to what I have been feeling and unable to say for so long, articulating the pressure I carry to do the “right thing” with my job. “I love my job. And I have to have something to go back to… “ she trailed off. “...After,” I imply internally.
My body tightened and tears poured out of my ducts as I grappled with her words that resonate so deeply within me: I’ve been so removed from most of my world.
Just a few weeks ago two of my closest friends invited me over for dinner, commenting casually that we hadn’t seen each other since April. I was in genuine disbelief that I could have let that five months pass, but when I walked in the door, my friend was six months pregnant. There was a whole, sweet baby growing, all this time. Of course in the moment, I am completely overwhelmed with undeniable joy. And then my heart feels a pang as I think about how long they were trying to reach me and share this joy in person. The thought returns to me that I have been so removed from most of my world.
I haven’t had the chance to tell them yet, but I realized something afterwards that was even more special than I could have imagined. Their little girl came to me in my dreams to tell me she was coming a few months ago. I dreamt of a little girl with big blue eyes, and her name was Violet. I kept telling people, “I know someone is pregnant!”, but I couldn’t figure it out. My heart was overflowing. These two have enormous grace in their hearts for me, and unfortunately have been down a similar path as Abi and John themselves over the last few years. There’s a certain level of grace that comes from really understanding. And as understanding as anyone may truly be, it was eye opening for me to my core: I am living in two different worlds. In one, I am hiding.
And so I think, what will I still have… after?
Will everyone continue to carry this grace for me?
Bindi and I walk along the water and make a left to head back toward the house. I take her down the alley behind the house so I can hit the trashcan on the way inside. Holograms appear before my eyes of a table setting for twelve on a warm, summer evening while the sun sets and the family pours the seafood boil out on the table covered only in newspaper. One of my favorite birthdays. One of my favorite families. One of my favorite friends. Our life is different, but our friendship is the same, if not stronger.
Deep breath in, deep breath out.
Another deep exhale.
I tell Bindi to sit, take the leash off, and excitedly tell her to “go home!” She runs up the first flight of stairs and I take one more extended breath to fill my lungs fully. and I hold it at the top, just like in yoga. I close my eyes and hear Bindi as she pants on the first level. She’s waiting for me to come too, her eyes asking, “are you ready?” Long exhale.
I climb up the stairs and give her a hug.
“Thanks for the walk, Bindi girl.”