Laura and I met online Feb 1st of this year in a Sisters breast cancer group. In her first video, Laura smiled and told me she’s from Leeds in Yorkshire, and I left her my own introduction from Decatur, Georgia, each of us happy to connect over these first shy hellos. We soon merged with a larger online Sisters group where we all got to know each other and Laura better. We learned she’s a Kate Bush fan, art maker, teacher, friend, mother, lover, and we all loved her vibrant, passionate, beautiful, soulful self, and of course that glorious accent. All of it was ace, as Laura would say.
For now our group is seven ladies, five in the US, one in Canada, and Laura in the UK, and our ages range from early thirties to late fifties, and we are connected along this journey that is breast cancer. I’ve compared our video platform to a hop on hop off bus. When we need to get on, we hop on, and find a new experience waiting for us with new information, connection and care, or we hop off and rejoin again when we can. Depending on what stage of treatment we’re in, sometimes we show up with hair on our head, then with no hair, and then with hair again. We show up however and wherever we are and whenever we want, and we cry and we laugh, but mostly we just show up and share.
At first, for me Laura seemed far away, far across that pond we knew was between us, but with each new video, that distance melted. As Laura began her afternoons, we would wake up to her occasional morning Marco Polo videos (polos as we call them) and find she’d already completed her writing and yoga morning routine, walked her dog Wally and moved a mountain or two long before any of us had even begun to stir. As our bonds grew some of us sent each other little gifts; I sent Laura chocolates which she loved and later mailed Wally some bacon bones, but they were returned to me in the States for some reason marked “undeliverable.”
Our friendships have brought a positive, helpful energy as some of us are still dealing with surgeries, chemo, radiation, and other treatments still ahead. Sometimes post chemo and still with steroids in her system, Laura would fast talk through her videos, giddy and silly, and other times her lovely enormous eyes would widen and her voice dim when she was having a particularly difficult day. The ease of showing up as we are before people who understand and want to listen is a comforting reminder that we are together for all the seasons of our lives, of our years, and of our cancer.
We cry, we laugh, but mostly we just show up and share.
This past July, my husband and I visited our son who was studying abroad in Oxford, and Laura agreed we should meet. She’d take the train from Leeds into London, and we’d set aside a day in which to play. She videoed me after she’d bought her ticket and now this fun almost fictitious online creation of ours would get to step out into the sun. We let the group know our plans and promised to send a polo. We knew it would be a ball, but couldn’t have predicted the unprecedented London heat wave with temps soaring to 103F and cancelling all trains. The rails buckle in such heat, my mechanical engineering student son told me. Laura and I were certainly disappointed as was the group, since they were excited to take the trip vicariously through us, but cheerful Laura decided it just wasn’t meant to be and besides, she’d come to the States next year and visit New York.
Fast forward several months and my husband had another trip planned—technically a necessary international mileage run if he wanted to keep his Delta SkyMiles diamond status—and this new travel itinerary could and would include London! I proposed another try at a visit to Leeds, but Laura said she’d likely still be in the middle of radiation. Drats! We kept up our chat back and forth, however, and because of our will, we found a way and a day after her radiation was complete. I suggested we not tell the group–a tad deceitful, yes, but I didn’t want there to be another disappointment and also there’s nothing quite like a good surprise, is there? Cancer patients put their lives on hold, and with so many appointments, travel is mostly nonexistent. We knew our group would enjoy a Laura/Susan Leeds redo and we’d send them a video when it happened.
On schedule, the 9:03am train arrived at London Kings Cross station Platform 5, and I found a great seat with a table in a mostly empty car across from a woman who’d scored a similar setup, also on her way to Leeds, to one of the The Ivy restaurants she oversees. As we settled in, we got to talking and each admitted noticing the palpable somberness in the air since the Queen’s passing and burial just two days earlier. I learned this lovely woman was from Italy–either Sicily or Sardinia, I don’t remember—but had lived in the UK enough years to now feel a part of it, and admitted that she deeply felt this loss of Her Majesty the Queen. She worked some and we talked some as hay bales, cows, and fields whirred by, accelerating the 2.5-hour ride.
Soon I would see Laura’s face and be in the company of her voice in real time—a half hour to go, then fifteen minutes more, and then I’d be there. Finally, the train pulled into the station, and I hopped off, glancing at my text from Laura on where exactly we’d meet. When I looked up, just a turnstile between us, before me was this magnificent beaming face with wide eyes full of love, and I fell into her open arms as if they were my own mother’s. So much emotion in this long-awaited embrace. I’m really here, we both kept marveling, and Laura captured this moment in that surprise video we couldn’t wait to send the group.
Laura had the entire day’s itinerary set and said she’d run it by her therapist that morning who thought everything sounded great. I love that my visit made it into her session, and that the day was equally important to her. This girl outing in some ways felt stolen and deliciously and satisfyingly selfish, one of those rare opportunities you don’t question, you take. First, Laura said she’d show me around her city, Leeds architecture and history and places she thought I’d find interesting, and then we’d have a nice lunch at a fancy place, Uber to her house, see her sons and dog Wally, and then walk to the whale rock. I was all hers until 6 o’clock, and so we began our adventure. We saw the Leeds Corn Exchange, a gorgeous building dating back to the 1860s, and the equally stunning Leeds Market and County Arcade, and Laura bought me a box of her favorite Yorkshire tea as well as a hand towel with Leeds landmarks.
Lunch was deluxe, as Laura would say, and we got seated at a nice window table. It was a beautiful restaurant and as I was taking it all in, I noticed the lady from the train in the other corner of the room at the lunch meeting she’d been preparing for, and she recognized me too and smiled my way. Like old friends, Laura and I talked and laughed nonstop, and each time a server came by our table, it flooded us back into our reality as restaurant patrons who ought to look at the menu and order lunch. No one rushed us, however, and we enjoyed delicious soup, salad, and salmon, and the attentive staff seemed to feed off our good energy.
Afterwards, we caught a cab to Laura’s house where she left another video: “Hi everybody, I’m with Susan and we’re going into my house. She’s come all this way. Susan is still here and so am I. I’m taking her to see my yellow gate and cheeky hens and so weirdly Susan’s here! You know they (her hens) started eating their own eggs? It’s so gross.” Soon after, it was no surprise that our phones began blowing up with new videos:
-One woman from her NC home shaking her fists exclaimed: “Susan and Laura! Oh my gosh. Ahhh, that’s so exciting, what a surprise! Susan’s makin’ the rounds, she’s gonna have met all of us in the next year.” (I’d already met two ladies in May while visiting my son in NYC)
-Another from her car while driving in Canada: “WTF that’s so cool, what a lovely surprise!”
-Another in Michigan post chemo from her pillow where she was resting: “I love seeing you two together. That’s so sweet.”
-Another, walking the streets of New York, “Oh my gosh, I was so happy to see you guys together!”
-Another, smiling from her home on Long Island, “I loved seeing Susan and Laura together.”
Inside I met Wally, the part shepherd all love pup we’ve seen in so many videos and who now had an edible parcel from America to open, and I didn’t hesitate to let him nibble a few. Laura’s older son was home so I met him and later on, his brother too. In past videos, Laura’s occasionally nudged her sons to say hello to our group, and they’ve politely obliged, but it was particularly special to meet them at their home in person. It was a win-win-win, traveling on my own by train to a new place, a full day with Laura, and the happy greetings we shared with our Sisters group.
While we’d been busy around town dining and laughing, Wally, I’m certain, had been anticipating a walk. We booted up (Laura loaned me her new boots) and coated up (Laura also loaned me her waterproof coat) for the rainy walk, a light mist none of us minded, and set off toward the whale rock on meandering trails, steep inclines and through dense forests. Occasionally we’d look at the time and realizing we still had loads, the day continued unfolding just as Laura had planned. Wally occasionally went exploring off leash, but always returned when Laura called. What a good boy. The whale rock was just as I imagined, a large stone whale-shaped outcropping with an eye cut into one side. We sent the girls another video and again, those likes and hearts came rolling in. When did we plan this? How long had we known? Oh, how they all wished they could be there too, and we wished that for ourselves. For this entire day I knew just how lucky I was.
Over the course of this day, all the bits of videos Laura had previously shared with us on her walks unfolded before us. We passed the sweet foal who’d grown up quickly, and I stopped for a photo. We picked red and black currants, the black ones tasting the sweetest and the red ones uncomfortably tart in my mouth. (Did you know? Great Britain grows more black currants than anywhere else.) Even the acorns seemed special, and I grabbed one which I still have, because it’s not every day you get your hands on a Leeds acorn, is it? We passed apple trees, too, full of sweet tiny fruit and we each picked and pocketed one. Walking and talking together and surrounded by the beginnings of Fall, we’d unlocked a big ball of wonder which followed us around like a happy summer cloud.
Back home, still cloaked in the misty day, we unpeeled our layers and left them inside by the back door. We checked the time again and we still had more time, so Laura suggested we have cake and tea. Her friend had made a lovely apple flan, gorgeous custardy goodness inside, flavorful thinly sliced apples outside and bits of almond all bound together in a brilliant tart, something I’d never had or made but am going to try. We took our tea and cake upstairs to Laura’s room and sat on the bed to enjoy it all. Like 8th grader BFFs we talked nonstop, and Laura pulled things off her shelves to show me–books she liked including one by an author she loved and knew I would too that she insisted I keep and read, a lovely plate she’d made—with all her other artistic talents it seems she’s also a potter—and the inset of a record album she and several friends had created, all gifts for me. As we ate pie, drank tea, and laughed, we posted another video for our friends, and Laura joked about my American accent which her friend earlier noticed and kidded that in these few hours together, Laura’s voice had taken on a similar American lilt.
“Do you want to see my scars?” Laura asked earlier but we were too busy eating apple flan and exploring her room to switch gears back to breast cancer, the reason we met in the first place. But when she asked again, I said, “Sure.” We got up and went to her bathroom and she lifted her shirt, and I was at first struck (and a little jealous, actually) by her firm belly (which clearly didn’t make a habit of apple flan) and then I saw the beautiful blank slate in the space her breasts once held. It was the innocent chest of a sweet little girl, a post mastectomy canvas lovingly cleared of unwanted intruders and wiped clean to begin again, leaving behind two whisper thin scars each in the shape of a smile. She thought her surgeon did a remarkable job and I agreed. I showed her my own scars, two thin lines from two lumpectomy incisions plus two small divots from subsequent biopsies, which Laura said looked like dimples. Her smiles and my dimples. How cute are we?
It was getting to be that time, so Laura helped me pack up my many gifts and we said our goodbyes to her two sons and to Wally. At this time, Leeds was in the middle of its rush hour and as her car slowly inched along, time suddenly sped up. We agreed if I were to make my train, I’d need to walk the short distance, so we said a quick goodbye and I set off on foot. Laura kept her eye on me, and I turned to see her car advancing in traffic before I waved one last time and crossed the street, disappearing into the station. It was an extraordinary day full of flan and fun, and I sunk into my seat on the crowded train as it made its way toward London realizing you’re never too old to make new friends and you never run out of love.