I am lying in bed writing this, listening to a documentary about Fred Rogers. He’s speaking to the camera, asking his audience to spend 1 minute thinking about someone who has helped us in some way, to be the person we are today, someone who has loved us and we have loved back. I could think of so many people, but today, and many days lately, one particular person has been in my mind and heart. This is about her.
I started university in 1999, as a 21 year old adult student. I felt very lost, out of place, and terrified. I knew I had to get to A2 lecture theatre, then S3, then C1, but I didn’t know where those were exactly. I ran into a high school classmate on the way there. He was well into his double degree and knew his way around campus, so he walked me to the A block for my first class. There I met another classmate from high school (doing the last few classes needed to finish her degree). I sat with this classmate for my first class and followed her lead. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in my next class (she was mostly doing 300 level, not 100 level courses) so I left the lecture theatre without here, knowing only roughly where I needed to go next… I’d been to the S block for enrolment, and managed to get very lost. Luckily, I was spotted in the crowd by a friend from youth choir.
I don’t actually remember meeting Charlene for the first time. I know she was in the youth choir with me, in the late 1990s, but I don’t know if I joined first, or her. We were in different sections, so we knew each other, but we weren’t exactly friends and hadn’t really hung out outside of choir.
Charlene had enrolled the year before, in a BA in Art history, but this year she had decided to change direction and start a BSc instead. She was in all the same classes as me, but she wasn’t new to campus. So I walked with her to my next class and sat with her. We sat together in all of our lectures that year, and we were lab partners in our chemistry lab classes.
We hung out together when we weren’t in class and talked about moving into a flat together (with outhers) the following year. We didn’t end up living together, but we did spend a lot of time together over the summer break – I remember she was on weight watchers and how exciting and funny it was when she discovered that the old jeans she’s just tried on were already done up. I dyed her very thick, almost black hair with purple and red foils…. They didn’t really show up very well. We watched the musical ‘Cats’ on DVD (I had never seen it before). We sewed a shirt for her to wear for New Years, it was the millennium so she wanted something special and we couldn’t find anything suitable in the shops. We counted down to the new millennium together in slightly drizzly Hagley Park.
The following year we were lab partners in microbiology, with 2 others we’d met the year before. The 4 of us made a great team, and we’d often finish our work a good hour early and go to cafe101 for chai lattes.
We would write notes to each other in class. We joked about our ornothology lecturer reminding us of a favourite and lusted after character on a tv show that we both liked. We got into trouble for giggling in a lecture because we were having a conversation about our underwear in our passed notes. In our chemistry lab, Charlene nearly peed herself laughing when I got my boot hooks caught in my fishnet tights and fell off my stool. In microbiology we made the 2 boys in our group handle the Candida samples , when asked why, Charlene replied “you know the tv ad with the racing car in the corner?” which he understood, and we all laughed about this too.
In vertebrate biology labs, we dissected frogs … with limited success. We plucked and dissected pigeons with much humour as they looked like buxom lasses wearing SCA corsetry, boobs pushed up to their chins… Unfortunately this resulted in my laughing the next time I saw one of our friends wearing SCA garb and making her feel self conscious about it. We dissected hagfish, which have interesting anatomy, including a tongue that looks remarkably like a penis, and can turn a bucket of water into thick slime in a matter of hours. There were some terrible jokes resulting from this.
There was always a lot of laughter when we worked together.
That year she introduced me to some of her new friends too, they were all part of a club called Kaos. They thought I was pretty cool.
Meeting this new group of friends added to the growing feelings of discontent I had been feeling about the relationship I was in at the time. I won’t go into it here, but the idea that people actually liked me was new to me… even weirder, they didn’t like him. That was in stark contrast to what I had been led to believe.
Late one night I called Charlene. I needed a second opinion from someone who knew me and my boyfriend, but who’s loyalty wasn’t to him. We talked a lot, and she finally helped me come to the conclusion and certainty that I wanted and needed to break up with him. The next day I did.
It was Charlene who convinced me to add 200 level microbiology to my degree, and told me about lab requirements for genetics that I wouldn’t be comfortable with. I had slipped behind in my studies, so she had finished many of the 200 and 300 level courses before I got to them, so her feedback on these helped me choose the direction my BSc would take. She helped me recognise that the thing I thought I liked studying wasn’t actually the thing I wanted to study (because high school vs university level study divide biology up differently).
Charlene and I remained friends but our studies mostly took us in different directions so we didn’t see as much of each other outside of parties. I went to her 21st birthday, and gave her an iridescent purple rosary. She may have been involved in my ill advised choice to drink and entire bottle of BlackBerry nip on night 1 of the 48 hour party.
Over the years our lives have grown and the parts we played in each other’s lives have reduced, but I know that for me at least the friendship never lost value or significance.
Over the next 20 years we still saw each other at parties and other social events, or have run into each other when we’ve been out and about. The most recent party was probably 2 or 3 years ago, a 48 hour party again. We talked about out friend Seamus, who had been killed in a traffic accident a few years earlier, unbeknownst to Charlene. We reminisced about him, and we sang together, terribly and drunkenly. I imagine everyone found it rather annoying, but we were having fun.
When I found out last year that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer I was sitting on the beanbag in my husband’s office. I read her Facebook post and I cried. She wasn’t even 40 years old and was now having to fight for her life. I followed the updates about her treatment posted to a dedicated Facebook group.
Early on in “lock down” we were told that things had taken a turn for the worst. Charlene’s cancer had spread, in a messy way, to her brain. The number of tumours meant that it wasn’t operable. She was now looking at a very different prognosis. The numbers changed from recovery percentages to likely length of survival. She was initially told to expect a few months, but as things progressed and her symptoms worsened that turned into weeks. I sat in my bed and cried all night.
Charlene is still with us, as i wrote this, and defying the odds like the bolshy bitch she is. Last time I saw her, the day before my birthday, she told me she was in day 3 of bonus time. I told her she had to beat our friend Alex’s record of 6 years… We laughed, but I would really like it if she suddenly got a lot better and did. We don’t know how much longer we will have her, and every day her condition gets a little worse.
She is struggling, on an emotional level, and her friends have been asked for messages of love to help lift her spirits. I have been trying to compose something over the last couple of weeks, but nothing feels right. Nothing feels big enough or grand enough to express my grief, my love, my regret that this us happening. I also think that if I keep putting it off, it will never happen, so here goes…
You were catalyst of major change in my life. You were a purple tinted and glitter covered wrecking ball that helped me destroy the unsafe life I had been living in, which let me build a new, better, more fit for purpose life in this wonderful non-blood-family we share. You helped me find a new direction and discover my passion for microbial ecology, which I had never considered before. You introduced me to the group of people who would become my communityand my support. You have made me laugh too many times to count, mostly about things I definitely can’t share in mixed company. You have encouraged me into some terrible decisions and actions too, most of which led to begging for forgiveness at the porcelain temple. I still think of you, and our silly in-jokes about alternatives to plastic surgery, whenever I have a “big lip day”.
I wish you didn’t have to experience this, because you do not deserve yet more pain in your life.
I love you.