I Wrote A Book About How To Live When Your Best Friend Disappears
Devi S. Laskar’s recent novel “Circa” was inspired by the grief of an intimate friendship cut short by cancer
How do I start this story about friendship and relationships and the power of a good book? If I were any younger, I don’t think I would be able to write this story at all.
It’s about my friend Susan and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
It’s about carrying grief for the past quarter-century.
It’s about how, with my second novel Circa (that I dedicated to Susan) having been recently published, it is time to release all the contradictions and remember with love.
There remain three delineations of time in the years I moved as a reporter to graduate student and back to reporter, from Georgia to Florida to Illinois to Hawaii to New York and back to Georgia, in the late 80s and 90s: Before Susan was sick, during Susan’s illness, after Susan died. Then there’s the fourth category: the intervening years.
Before Susan was sick. These are tidbits that I can rattle off, tell strangers without my throat closing up or my eyes burning with unshed tears.
She was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with my future husband and me. She was pursuing her PhD in social work, ABD (all but dissertation). She was his friend first (but she liked me more ☺).
She was a lapsed Catholic, a big believer in Indigenous rights and native medicine, cared for the homeless and the hungry. In 1991, she and my spouse co-founded the Bouchet Outreach and Achievement in Science and Technology program for at-risk minority kids in Champaign, introducing them to and instilling a love of STEM and science. BOAST as it’s called is named after Edward Bouchet, the first African-American to earn a PhD from an American university. He earned his degree from Yale in physics in 1876. Susan and I spent hours converging on the acronym and the logo. She and my spouse spent hours securing NSF funding to sustain the project long after we were to have all graduated.
She loved the Indian food I cooked and mint chocolate chip ice cream and a towering vegetable sandwich called The Dagwood from the newspaper-themed café near my apartment. She loved the arcade across the street from the university, loved the outdoors and frequented farmers markets with me on the weekends, bought gladioli from the vendors and homemade pies and breads from the Amish who’d journeyed from afar to sell their goods.
She loved walking for charity and in the early 90s I had a collection of t-shirts from all the 5K and 10K cancer research fundraising walks I completed alongside her.
She and I hung out almost every day for two and a half years. Then my husband and I graduated and moved away. For the next two years, we talked frequently on the phone. Every time that I spoke to her from O’ahu I begged her to come visit.
“I will one day,” she said. “I promise.”
During Susan’s illness. This is a loop, continuous, unchanging, exhausting, a movie that I cannot help but watch, a movie that I want to stop watching.
In the fall of 1994, I had just moved to New York City and started graduate school for the second time, at Columbia’s School of the Arts. I lived by myself the first year, in graduate housing, in a studio that was 10 x 16 including the bathroom and the kitchen. There were bars on the windows and the only time when direct sunlight filtered through—around ten in the morning.
One day, she called to tell me she had found a new walking partner and they had been walking for the past month, in the mornings. She added that the whole time she’d been walking with him she had inexplicable pain in her knee and an upset stomach impervious to over-the-counter medicine and kitchen wisdom.
I sighed. “Will you please go to the doctor?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I promised my new walking buddy, too.”
The next time she called, her voice was loud, angry. At first I couldn’t understand what she was saying through her prolonged wails. Then I learned that my 34-year-old friend had leukemia. Acute lymphocytic leukemia. The kind kids beat but adults usually don’t. “I don’t want to die,” she yelled into the phone.
“So don’t,” I said. “Go be the one person who beats this thing.”
There was a valiant effort in the pre-cellphone, pre-email days, getting the word out that Susan needed a bone marrow transplant and needed a donor. Turned out her older brother was a perfect match.
So she had her first bone marrow transplant and she recovered and all was well. Her hair grew back brunette (the shade of her brother’s hair) instead of her lifelong blonde, and she quipped, “Does this mean I’m going to become a Republican, too?” Although she lost her job working for a major-brand charitable organization (because they didn’t want to carry her on their insurance), she had secured a job as an oncology social worker at the local hospital in Champaign-Urbana. The doctors told her that it was possible she could live another five years, more if she took good care of herself and lived a life free of stress. Susan worked even on the days she felt ill (because her health insurance was tied to her job), her boyfriend broke up with her, she had to give away her cat, her medical bills mounted. A group of us, all of Susan’s closest friends, helped out as we could, throwing chili-supper fundraisers and taking over some bills – my husband and I lived far away from her so we decided to take over her phone bill. So she could call whomever she liked and talk for as long as she liked. This went on for a while. A year to be exact.
The second time she contracted leukemia, she called me. Her voice was calm. By this time my husband had moved to Georgia and I was finishing my final year in the MFA program in New York. The doctor shared with her that the leukemia had returned. He had used the word aggressive. Susan’s attitude had changed: “I will go through it again, the pain, the blisters and sores, the hair loss, the nausea. I want to live. But if I don’t make it, I’ll be giggling at you from heaven.”
My husband and I took every available opportunity to visit her in Illinois in those years. We took Fridays off, we drove through the night, we redeemed airline points – anything to spend the weekends with Susan, go out to lunch, catch a movie, play pinball at the arcade. One visit, while I was still in New York, I flew and met my husband in Chicago and we drove in a rented car down to the university. We had a fun time, punctuated by naps and takeout, and just before we left, I pointed out the book-bag full of treats and books to read. She was an avid reader. Among her most prized possessions was a letter from Alex Kotlowitz; she had written him after reading his non-fiction book, There Are No Children Here, and he had written back. That trip, I bought her a copy of my favorite book at the time, one I couldn’t forget: The Secret History. I had recommended and gifted that book numerous times. I had re-read that book frequently and each time I still loved it, immersed in the world of the suspenseful story of those college kids. I left it amongst a stack of other books, novels, memoirs, and a book of poetry by my teacher Lucille Clifton.
“You should start this book at the beginning of the day,” I told her, holding up the Tartt novel. “That way you won’t stay up too late. I know you need to get your sleep.”
I remember her nodding, a disbelieving smile on her face.
“I’m serious,” I said, “but if you do get started at the end of the day and you stay up really late, you can call me. It doesn’t matter what the time it is, I’ll answer.” It was Sunday afternoon, and I left.
Sure enough, thirty-two hours later, at precisely 2:37 a.m., the landline rang in my apartment, this one four times the size of the previous place with a picture window overlooking Broadway and West 112th. She didn’t say hello, she merely asked, “Are you asleep?”
I answered truthfully. “No, I’m up trying to write a story that’s due in the morning and not quite done.”
Susan said, “I’m on page 190! I have to go to bed but I can’t put this book down! It’s so good.” She took a breath. “You were right! I should’ve started it earlier. I’m really mad at you right now because I can’t go to sleep because I have to turn the page and see what happens next!”
Two days later when she was all done, we spoke at length about how we loved the book, how well it was written and how immersed we were in the world of Henry and the twins, our protagonist and the others who made up the close-knit group of classics students. Susan and I agreed that the book reminded us of…well, us. How when we were all students together, we lived in our own universe, unencumbered by the outside world.
“Except for…you know, the murder,” she quipped.
After Susan died. This part is muddy and continues to smother my heart. I have to start while she’s still alive.
I was about to turn thirty a week before Halloween, coincidentally both Susan’s and my favorite holiday. She was going to have her second bone marrow transplant in as many years and the last time I called her was just before the operation. She was intubated. Her oldest sister answered the phone in the hospital room. “She’s written you a letter,” she said. “I’m putting it in the mail today.” Susan’s immediate family had requested that no friends come to Minnesota where she was going to have the transplant – that the sight of Susan post-operation often caused the visitors to break down. So my husband and I made no plans to visit.
The sister put the phone to Susan’s ear and I told her that I loved her, that I’d see her soon. I don’t remember exactly how she responded except that I know she made a noise that I took to mean as acknowledgement, reciprocation.
Three days after my birthday, my husband and I were in California visiting family when the news came in, that Susan had died post operation. There were funeral plans and memorial plans all in the works and we received many calls asking us if we would come to Illinois one last time.
Her memorial was October 31, 1996. The Unitarian church was packed with people from all the facets of Susan’s life – home, school, various works; she was beloved by so many. For example, sitting next to the town’s mayor was a homeless woman Susan had befriended years before and whom Susan stayed in touch with until she left for Minnesota the last time.
My husband sat next to me and wept. Many cried but I was not among them. I kept staring at her photograph, enlarged and framed, resting on a table near the podium where the female minister spoke. In the beginning, my husband and I were asked to say a few words. But the offer was rescinded once the organizers realized we could not arrive early to rehearse.
After the service, we said goodbye to the band of Susan’s close friends and promised to keep in touch. A few months later, we received a cryptic note from one of these friends with a couple of photographs of Susan and a salwar kameez my mother had had made for her in India.
Susan was cremated. Those same friends took the ashes and spread them over a lake at a Girl Scouts camp somewhere in Illinois. We were not invited. We do not know where her final resting place is.
When we returned from California and Illinois there was a letter waiting for us in our mailbox. It was from Susan, sent just before her operation, subsequent coma and death. “You are my family,” she wrote. “I love you.”
The intervening years. I think of all that I could not share with Susan. I think about all the times I reached for the phone to call her, and halfway through dialing her number, remembered she wouldn’t be able to answer.
I think about the moment I turned thirty-seven and realized that I was older than her.
I remember the happiness that I felt when I got word the university awarded her PhD posthumously.
I remember how I pumped my fist in the air when I learned that the BOAST program lives to this day, as a permanent after-school resource for minority children in Champaign, IL.
I know that her name is spoken: the food surplus program she started in Champaign about thirty years ago bears her name – and there is a humanitarian award given by Champaign city fathers that also bears her name.
For the past twenty-five years, I’ve been trying to write a story about our friendship. Circa has taken on many iterations and many forms and most of it was lost in 2010 when I lost the bulk of my writing through no fault of my own.
When I finally sat down to rewrite and re-imagine this story a few years ago, I gave the truth a wide berth. I wanted to explore the nature of grief, I wanted to pay homage to all the wonderful, silly giggling Susan and I did; I wanted to think about all the ways people can disappear, and how silence and stoicism can damage the body. So I followed my poetry teachers’ advice and made a myth from a real-life friendship.
I’m telling a story about how to live when your best friend disappears.