The Mighty Logo

'Being Sick Is Lonely': An Apology to the Friend I Lost

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

To my Friend,

I first met you at a children’s community center where I taught your son. You had special permission to be with your son during class. I thought it was odd that he kept clinging to you the whole day. He was about 8-years-old and it was unusual.

“That’s her,” my teaching partner said. “She’s the parent who is sick with breast cancer.” My partner sounded a little annoyed. I knew why.

It was hard to teach your son when you were around. But, family is more important than school.

You could have died any day.

Your son knew it too. So, he hung on with white knuckles. His anxiety and fear was palpable.

Soon, I thought, he will only touch empty air where his mother should be.

One day, you approached me after class.

You were so friendly and vibrant when you spoke. We found a shared love of traveling and an interest in different cultures. You moved with energy and I saw glimpses of the adventurous person underneath.

But, when you stopped talking something changed. Silence covered your face like a mask on a skeleton.

I noticed the effects of cancer. I saw that your cheeks were gaunt. There were dark circles under your eyes. You walked like an old lady.

Somehow, you kept living longer than expected.

Each day, we talked at the end of class. Eventually, we decided to meet outside of work.

You came to my home for lunch and I went to your home as well. The first time I was in your apartment, I noticed how cramped and rough it was. And yet, there were children’s paintings and craft decorations that made it bright.

I saw signs of creativity and determination.

You figured out how to build strong kitchen shelves from milk cartons. Your son wore clothes with sewed patches of superheroes. He would always show the other kids in class the superheroes. He loved them.

I remember the first time I realized you were poor and struggling to make ends meet. You poured some juice for your son and told me, “I have to water it down. It’s too expensive otherwise.”

The evidence was all around. You were very poor, yet you still found ways to engage your son and make him happy. You still had me over for lunch and didn’t expect anything in return.

We talked about our lives and you told me, “It’s lonely.”

I didn’t understand.

“Being sick is lonely,” you clarified.

“Why is it lonely?” I asked naively.

“No one wants to be friends with someone who is dying. My old friends are gone, and new people leave when they find out I’m ill.”

You looked at your feet as you spoke.

I was shocked. I tried to process it.

You were always smiling; full of ideas and activities. But, no one would give you a chance. They judged you. Some people avoided you like a walking curse.

After that I messaged you more. I liked you and wanted to become good friends. I wanted to make you happy. I wanted you to feel supported.

And, the moment you finally felt that, I had to leave the country.

I remember sitting in your car. We were saying goodbye. You hugged me for a long moment. When we pulled apart I saw that you were crying.

An awful feeling hit me. I was leaving. You would be alone again.

I started crying too.

“I’m sorry I have to go,” I said.

I felt as if I was playing into the pattern of your friends abandoning you. I think you read that on my face.

“No,” you shook your head. “I’ve been happy these past months. Thank you for being my friend.”

That was the last time I spoke with you.

I went back to my home country. I sent an email and the reply came weeks later. You were tired and it was hard to write. I wrote you back. I talked about how I was strangely tired lately and felt off.

You replied a month later. By then I was too weak to write. I was in pain and wracked with a long list of mysterious symptoms. I forgot about the email.

Months went by. Then a year.

My head became clearer and my health a bit better. I was able to read and write again. One day, I was deleting old emails and I came across yours.

A flood of shame and fear hit me. Shame, because I had been a terrible friend, and fear, because you may be dead.

I sent an email.

There was no response.

It took six months of silence for me to believe you died.

I worry that the last emotion you felt from our friendship was disappointment and hurt. I can imagine you in the hospital, alone, without any friends or family. You had no support, but you held it together for your son. Your poor son, who I can see holding nothing when all he wants is to hug you.

I wish I was there with you when you died. I want to say sorry, but it’s too late. I hope your last moment was your son holding your hand. I hope that you knew you had a friend, even through my silence. I hope you felt loved.

I want to tell you that I understand now. Being chronically ill is isolating. You do lose friends and family. You do feel sick and full of pain, but smile and act as if everything is OK.

It’s lonely.

Having someone you can be vulnerable with and open with is important. Everyone needs support.

And although you may never read this letter, I want you to know that I’m sorry. You are my friend and I should have been with you until the end. I didn’t understand how much meaning and joy our friendship brought to your life. Now, being chronically ill myself, I finally understand.

I’m sorry, my friend.

Photo credit: Margarita Khamidulina/Getty Images

Originally published: June 17, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home