The Consolations of Femmes

“What made you sad?” a friend asked, privately, after my last post. I will tell you: someone important in my life is dying of cancer.

We are both femmes. Introduced by a mutual friend five years ago, we’ve become close as family. We both like making houses beautiful, keeping vintage clothing forever, old-school dinner parties and acres of books. My friend has recreated herself again and again, challenging society, making the most of her talents, intelligence, and sensuality. She was wrapping up her Ph.D and starting a new teaching job when she got the health news.

Jan at the Michoutouchkine & Pilioko Foundation in Port Vila, Vanuatu, snapped by me

Jan at the Michoutouchkine & Pilioko Foundation in Port Vila, Vanuatu, snapped by me – we went on a cruise together in 2011

What can I do? Love unceasingly. But, along with that, love respectfully. I do my best to respect how she needs and wants to spend her time, and to help whenever I’m asked. I bring food – mild and easy things to eat, such as risotto, braised oxtail with polenta, a swirled pound cake, rewena bread. She asked, “Can you do my nails?” I said yes. “Sooner rather than later?” Again, of course. Chemo can be hard on one’s nails. I assembled a nail kit (with sterilized clippers and just-for-her files and orange sticks) and Saturday I stopped by and gave her a pedicure at the hospital. She chose a rich, iridescent paua-shell blue. I support her decisions in other ways, too – she is choosing how to treat her cancer and deal with her life issues.

What can we all do for our friends with cancer? At one point, a friend of hers, a single man, had had a heart attack. She observed, “Everyone was sending love and light on Facebook, but nobody DID anything. So several of us banded together and went over to clean his house.” Front up with the hands-on care and in-person presence. And  help your friends feel beautiful in other ways, but keep your own hair on your head – Locks of Love, the world’s biggest cut-your-hair-for-cancer charity, is being investigated for fraud, and in New Zealand high-quality cancer hairpieces are funded by national health care. (Cutting hair has been a sign of grieving throughout human history and in many cultures, so I see where they’re coming from, it’s a pity it doesn’t work very well.)

This is how it goes; I’m sad, in waves, like the ocean around the paua. Then my friend and I see each other, and we are sad together. But then we laugh, and rejoice in each other’s presence, and go on rants about health care and hair – because we’re alive. “We’re making memories,” she says.

Carved gateway at Michoutouchkine & Pilioko in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Carved gateway at Michoutouchkine & Pilioko in Port Vila, Vanuatu


  1. I love your blog, but this is your best piece yet. Very moving. My thoughts are with you and your friend, and let me know if there is anything I can DO for you both.


    • Thank you so much, Carys! I really appreciate your generosity and if I think of something I’ll let you know – who knows, I may enjoy a cheering-up session with you and your adorable daughter.


  2. You moved me to tears with this piece. Your friend is also my friend and I love that you are able to be so supportive to her. An excellent piece of writing filled with emotion and love.


  3. I had breast cancer, a radical mastectomy, a total clearance of lymph nodes under my arm, 6 months of chemo, lost hair, skin tone, energy, then radiotherapy …. but 12 years later I am more alive and in touch with myself and happier than I have ever been. I moved back to Wellington, rebuilt relationships with those I cared about and lived. I don’t do anything I do not enjoy. Bottom line. Life is too short and valuable, those of us who are survivors understand this. Live the best life you can, it doesn’t matter if it us comparatively short or long. Quality is the key. And love, genuine, unconditional love. Enjoy.


    • Thank you for sharing your amazing story! I’ve seen you around town and had No Idea. It just goes to show. Looking forwards to seeing you again!


  4. Pingback: When Your Friend Dies of Cancer | Ever So Scrumptious

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