Just Strands by Kip Knott
Normally, I don’t go around hugging strangers. The first time I met Jenny, however, I embraced her before ever learning her name. And when I say embraced, I don’t mean that I embraced her figuratively as a new friend; rather, I physically pulled her diminutive 5’3” 110-pound body to me and wrapped her in the best bear hug my 6’4” 280-pound mass could provide. Amazingly enough, Jenny didn’t pull away. Quite the contrary. That hug marked the beginning of one of the closest friendships I have ever had, a friendship punctuated with laughter, drunkenness, confidences, tears, and—more recently—pain.
I confess that I am no expert when it comes to relationships. I have been engaged three times, married twice, and have made and drifted apart from an embarrassing number of friends throughout my 57 years. Nevertheless, it has been my experience that the most important relationships in my life can be distilled down to just a few specific moments that irrevocably bind me to the people who have played or continue to play the most important roles in my life. More often than not, these moments arise out of extreme joy or extreme sadness.
The first indelible moment I had with Jenny was that first hug. The event that precipitated the hug was the loss of Jenny’s dog, Reggie, to cancer. Jenny had been recently hired as a part-time adjunct English teacher by the college that had hired me as a tenure-track faculty member three years earlier. I knew very few of the 100 adjunct faculty in our department, and Jenny was unfamiliar to me when I saw her talking to our office assistant at the main desk directly across from my mailbox. As I shuffled through the usual publisher fliers that made up the bulk of my mail, I overhead Jenny talking about the death of her dog. The more she talked, the more choked and strained her words became until only a low moan was left to convey her grief. Without hesitation, I tossed the mail back into my box and with one continuous motion turned and pulled Jenny into my arms, where she broke down completely and sobbed into my chest. After a minute or so (It may have been only five seconds, or it may have been five minutes; who’s to say. Time loses all elements of structure at such moments.), Jenny pulled slightly away and looked up at me.
“Thank . . . you,” she stuttered between breaths.
“I’m so sorry about your dog,” I said. “I know how painful it is to lose a pet. I’m Kip Knott, by the way.”
“I know. Thank you again,” she said, nearly regaining all of her composure before she turned and walked away.
When Jenny was eventually hired as a full-time faculty member, I offered to let her share my office with me until one could be found for her. We spent that first year getting to know one another as colleagues and as friends. And in the subsequent fifteen years, Jenny and I have shared many moments that have cemented the bond of friendship between us and allowed us to develop an unspoken pact that we would be there for each other whenever one of us needed a helping hand. Sometimes being there for each other meant doing something as simple and seemingly insignificant as sending funny and often crude texts to one another during particularly excruciating department meetings. But other times being there for each other meant much, much more.
On January 29, 2016, Jenny was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer that required a mastectomy and intensive chemotherapy. Jenny spent the next month contacting family and friends to tell them about the diagnosis and treatment and to reassure them that the prognosis for survival was good. My call from Jenny came on February 27, 2016.
While driving home from a day of antiquing in Holmes County, Ohio, my phone rang just as I was approaching the Longaberger Building, a bizarre feat of architecture that had mutated a woven basket into a seven-story office building. The Longaberger Company was known for making handcrafted maple wood baskets primarily as collectable objects rather than purely utilitarian wares. Founder Dave Longaberger once famously said, “The past is no big deal, the future is,” which clearly defined his product as something to be purchased as an investment and not a practical container. Like the actual baskets displayed proudly by collectors throughout the world, the Longaberger Building now sat empty, a casualty to the Great Recession of 2008.
When I answered the phone, Jenny said, “Hey, you,” in a voice that was too normal to be normal.
“Hey, you. What’s up?”
Without hesitation, Jenny plunged in. “I just wanted to let you know that I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer in January. I’m going to have a mastectomy in a couple of weeks, followed by 12-months of chemotherapy. It’s an aggressive tumor that has grown very quickly, but the doctors are fairly certain that with treatment, they can prevent it from spreading. The prognosis for recovery is good.”
Sunlight glinted off the giant “Longaberger” brass sign that was positioned like a label between the two huge steel girder arches that comprised the basket-building’s handles.
“Uh huh,” I responded, unable to articulate anything more intelligent than that.
“So . . . I just wanted to let you know,” Jenny said. “Where are you right now?”
“I’m just passing the Longaberger Building. I’m on my way home from antiquing.”
“You mean the building shaped like a basket?” she asked.
“Yep. That one.” I looked in the rearview mirror at the building as it steadily shrunk in the distance to something more or less the size of a normal basket. “So the prognosis is good?”
“Yes. The tumor grew very quickly, but the doctors are fairly certain that with treatment, they can prevent it from spreading. The prognosis for recovery is good.”
“Huh,” I softly grunted.
“What?” Jenny asked.
“No. Nothing. It’s just . . .”
“What?” Jenny asked again.
“So the prognosis is good?” I asked again.
“Yes. The tumor grew very quickly, but the doctors are fairly certain that with treatment, they can prevent it from spreading. The prognosis for recovery is good.”
“There! That’s what I mean,” I said triumphantly.
“That’s what?” Jenny asked. “I’m not getting . . .”
“You sound like a used car salesman reading a script. The car has had its transmission replaced, but the mechanics assure me that there’s still 50,000 miles of life left in it. It sounds like you’re trying to sell me something!” I began to laugh. Looking back on it now, I can see that I was laughing less out of the fact that I found her delivery of the news funny, and more out of the fact that I was terrified that my friend could die.
“Oh my god, you’re right!” Jenny started laughing at herself. “I’ve said this so many times to so many people that it’s become rote!”
We laughed together.
“I’m Earl Scheib, and I can treat any cancer for $49.99. Guaranteed good prognosis!” I bellowed, imitating a commercial for the Earl Scheib Paint and Body business that ran ad nauseam on local Columbus TV channels in the 1980s.
“Oh my god, that’s hysterical!” Jenny stammered between laughs.
We laughed some more. And then it hit me: She was diagnosed in January. Why was I just now hearing about this? For a second I felt ashamed for thinking this. When your closest friend tells you at the end of February that she was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in January, your first thought shouldn’t be, “Why am I the last to hear about it?” But my friendship with Jenny had been built on this level of honesty, so I asked her.
“Why am I the last one to hear about this?”
She laughed even harder. “See, this is why I love you.”
“Because I’m a prick for turning this call into something about me?” I said, fully ashamed of myself.
“No. Because you say what you’re thinking,” she said at the tail-end of a laugh.
“Yeah, that’s always done wonders for me,” I said.
Finally over her bout of laughter, Jenny told me as sincerely as possible, “I told you last because I knew I could. I knew with everyone else there would be question after question after question. And I knew that with everyone else I would have to be the calm one, the one to reassure them that I was going to be OK. With you, I knew I wouldn’t have to do that. I knew that you would be OK. And I knew that after telling everyone else I would need to laugh. I knew that you would make me laugh. And look: you did!”
Nurses had told her that she would experience a loss of appetite and nausea almost immediately. . . . Jenny could expect all manner of rashes and skin lesions, severe cramps . . .The next several months looked to be unimaginably awful.
Jenny began her chemotherapy in early April of 2016. Her recovery from the mastectomy had been remarkably quick. The doctors and nurses marveled at Jenny’s stamina and her body’s ability to heal. She and I joked that she had vampire blood running through her veins, and based on the dire predictions for the side-effects of chemotherapy, she would need every bit of the recuperative powers of her vampire blood. Nurses had told her that she would experience a loss of appetite and nausea almost immediately. Beyond that, she could expect hair loss to begin within seven to fourteen days after her first treatment. Eventually, as the poison that is chemotherapy accumulated in her body, Jenny could expect all manner of rashes and skin lesions, severe cramps, and—what seemed to me to be most horrific side-effect—the loss of her fingernails and toenails. The next several months looked to be unimaginably awful. To help her cope with the myriad of chemo-related side-effects, doctors had prescribed a regimen of nine different medications, all of which had their own side-effects to contend with.
Just 13 days removed from her first chemo treatment, Jenny asked me to come to her house on April 20th to begin the process of interviewing and recording her so that she could document her experience from beginning to end, whatever that end would be. When Jenny opened the door, I was struck by just how good she looked. Jenny has always been a strikingly beautiful woman, with eyes like a Siamese cat, beautiful blond hair, and a body that was both slender and voluptuous. The prospect of her looks being ravaged by cancer and chemo were among her biggest concerns.
“Damn,” I said. “Thank god for vampire blood! You look amazing!”
“I know, right?” she said proudly. “Day 13 and I still have my hair! I’m going for the record.”
We moved into her kitchen and took a seat on the cushioned window seat with a view into her backyard. A pair of male and female cardinals flitted through the drooping boughs of pine trees. I set my cellphone on the windowsill and began recording.
“What do you want to talk about first?” I asked.
“I’ve got to tell you about how I’m dealing with the pain and nausea,” she said, with a hint of excitement. “And I’ve got to tell you how I told Kevin about my way of dealing with it.”
Jenny’s son had grown up to become a remarkable young man. Having read many of his assignments from grade school through high school, it was no surprise that he was now studying at The Ohio State University to become a doctor. It was also no surprise that Kevin wanted to know every detail of Jenny’s treatment, its side-effects, and the many medications she had been prescribed to deal with those side-effects.
“Sounds good. Let’s start there,” I said, and then in the most NPR-host-like voice I could muster, asked, “When dealing with the pain and nausea associated with chemotherapy, what have you found to be the most successful treatment?”
“You’re hysterical,” she laughed. “Well I already told you that they had me on nine different meds. Not only was I taking meds for the chemo side-effects, I was also taking some for the side-effects of the side-effects meds. Crazy! The first week was awful. I couldn’t eat anything. I couldn’t keep anything down. And I had horrible cramps. Everywhere. So you know me: I started reading as much as I could about all the different meds I was on. And then I read all these articles about how good weed was at helping people deal with chemo. So I decided to try it. It was amazing. The results were incredible! I felt like I could be my complete self again.”
“That’s good,” I said, plucking one of her long blond hair’s off of her black t-shirt.
“I know, right? It’s been so good that I’ve been able to stop taking all nine of the meds they gave me to treat the side-effects. The only thing was that I had to tell Kevin because I knew that he’d ask. So I sent him all these articles from medical journals. We had discussed it before I started using weed, but he wanted to see the research before I made any decisions. You know that Kevin is a much more serious person than I am. He’s much more conservative than I am.”
“He’s not voting for Trump is he?” I asked, only half-joking.
“Oh god no. But he is conservative, so I was very worried about telling him. So after he read all the articles, he wanted to come over and talk about them. When I woke up that morning, I was super nauseous, and so I hit the one-hit. But with chemo, it seems like I can smoke and smoke and smoke, so I smoked quite a bit, maybe five onesies, and then I felt really good. When Kevin got here, I was super high, but I wasn’t nauseas and I made him dinner. ‘Wow! I can’t believe how good you’re feeling,’ he told me. That’s how good it’s been for me. Honestly, it’s been life-changing. I couldn’t get out of my bed before noon because the nausea was so bad, and then I could only crawl out here to lay on this bench pretty much the rest of the day.
“So anyway, we ate dinner and I was high the whole time and Kevin didn’t notice anything. Then I finally asked him, ‘How would you feel if I told you I was off all nine of my medications and I switched them for marijuana and it’s working?’ And he said, ‘That’s great! I’m all for it. I’m all for it. Absolutely. If you can go off nine medications that all can have a negative effect on your heart, then I’m all for it. It’s all good.’ And so I said, ‘Well I’m glad you think that because the whole time you’ve been here I’ve been high.’”
“What did he say?” I asked, brushing another hair off her shoulder.
“He said, ‘You’re really good. Mom, you’ve got some sort of tolerance.’ He was completely all for it and supportive. So I showed him a pot brownie that I had, and he was like, ‘Please tell me that you’re only taking tiny . . .’”
I noticed several more stray hairs on Jenny’s shoulder, and when I reached over to pull them away, my hand brushed her long locks, causing several more hairs to unloose themselves and fall into her lap.
“Oh no,” Jenny gasped. “Oh . . .”
“I think it’s starting,” I said, trying to remain calm.
“Holy shit, my hair’s falling out . . . while I’m having this conversation! Oh . . . Oh . . . Ok . . . Shit. Holy shit . . . Shit, shit, shit. Not in clumps, right?”
“No. Just . . . strands,” I said, trying to mask the break in my voice.
“Wait a minute. Is that a lot?” she asked, genuinely curious.
“No. Just strands, but it’s . . .”
“It’s begun. It has begun,” she said, finishing my sentence.
After the nurses had told Jenny with absolute certainty that she would lose her hair, she told me that she had made a list of the different hair stylists she could call to shave her head once the inevitable had begun.
“Who’s at the top of your list?” I asked, brushing more hair from her shoulder.
“Darren,” she replied, tears swelling in the corner of her cat-like eyes. “Why am I acting like this is a surprise?”
“Because you were going for the record,” I answered.
“Twenty-day fucking record. It’s day thirteen. They told me no way I’d make it to twenty. They said ten to fourteen. I guess they see this a lot,” she said, bursting, remarkably, into laughter rather than tears.
“They might know a little something about it,” I said, joining in her laughter.
As I reached for my phone to turn off the recording, I looked out the window. The cardinals had been joined by a small flock of goldfinches. Normally, the brilliant yellow males captured my attention, but this time it was the females and their gray, muted feathers that I fixated on. It suddenly dawned on me that I needed to save this moment. Jenny had asked me to keep a record of things as they happened because she might one day want to write about her experience, and I had promised to do just that, so I immediately emailed the audio file to myself.
Unlike all the other moments that bind me to the people I have loved and those I love now, moments that exist tenuously in the wispy ether of my mind, this moment will always remain tangible, a moment that will withstand the shifting sands of memory. And no matter how long it may be after Jenny and I are both no more, this moment will survive to remind future generations that the past was a big deal for those who lived it, and that the future is in part woven from memories, like strands of a loved one’s hair braided together, tied in a silk ribbon, and kept in a basket of keepsakes.