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Cocktail Hour in the Produce Aisle

“It’s way too fancy,” I told my husband. “I’d be overdressed.”

My new outfit was a beauty — white and lacy, perfect for a summer cocktail party, but too much for a school function on a Tuesday evening. In the back of my head, though, I heard my friend’s voice. Wear it anyway, You never know when you’ll get another chance.

The last time I saw Shalean, I was bloated from chemo drugs, and both of us wondered if it would be the last time we’d see each other. My prognosis was bad: triple negative breast cancer, already spread to my lymph nodes and sternum. The first oncologist I saw gave me three months. The next one was more optimistic. He put my chances of survival at forty percent.

They started me on an aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, and after one dose, I landed in the emergency room with a bizarre side effect called neutropenic fever. It happens sometimes when chemo meds prompt a drastic spike in temperature and a drastic dip in white blood cell count. It can be deadly. When Shalean came to visit, we didn’t talk about it, but we both knew I might not make it.

Years earlier, when we lived across the street from each other and cancer was a thing that other people had, Shalean had given me the same advice about a different dress. “Wear it to Bruno’s,” she said. “It’s better than never wearing it at all.”

Shalean had a point. We lived in Upper Lake, California. Our town of 900 people didn’t host a lot of cocktail parties or formal events. The Chamber of Commerce holds its annual Kiss-a-Pig fundraiser in somebody’s barn, but otherwise, things were pretty casual. Shopping at Bruno’s, the grocery store one town over, was a social outing. Over piles of oranges or heaps of locally grown pears, we ran into everyone we knew. It was like going to a cocktail party without the cocktails.

Shalean held the shimmery green fabric next to my skin, and its cool silkiness and opulent color made me feel like a supermodel. Then I pictured myself at Bruno’s pushing a shopping cart full of bargains down the toilet paper aisle. I couldn’t convince myself to slip on that sexy new dress so checkers and baggers could see it. It felt like a crime to let that beauty languish unworn at the back of my closet, but I was saving it for something special.

One time, Shalean showed up at a backyard taco feed wearing a slinky black outfit that took my breath away. Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t wear a plunging Versace shocker like the one Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy Awards, but it was eye-catching. She knows how to do it, I thought. I was inspired. She always looked fantastic, but I didn’t follow her example and never wore my dress to Bruno’s or anywhere else.

Sometimes we made pies together, but separately. She’d make filling at her house because she had an apple tree and I’d make crusts at mine because I always have tremendous amounts of flour. Then we’d trade so both families would get a nice dessert. She was the kind of neighbor everyone wanted.

The day I helped her load her U-Haul, I gave her a beautiful dress. “Wear it to the grocery store,” I said through tears. My husband bought the dress for me, but just in case it didn’t fit, he bought another just like it in a different size. One of my most treasured photos is the one of Shalean and me holding up the same dress. We promised each other we’d wear them together, separately.

When Shalean moved from our small town to San Antonio, Texas, a hole dropped into my life where her presence once was. I knew our lives were about to change, but of course, I didn’t know how.

I still don’t understand how it is that she was the one who died and I am the one still alive. It was a sudden, unexpected, shocking, irreversible loss. Complications from the flu took my young, healthy, beautiful friend.

I look at my daughter sometimes and think of Shalean’s little girl running through our back yard dressed as a butterfly or designing an entire city on our sidewalk in pastel shades of chalk. I wonder how she is faring without her mom. How is it that my daughter’s playmate and confidante lost her mom while my own daughter’s mom continues to live?

I look at photos and think of a hundred questions that fill me with yearning and doubt. What would Shalean have thought of my family’s move to Southern California? What advice would she give me about making this new foreign place into a home? About getting fancy for a school function on a Tuesday night? She’d say, “Wear it anyway. You never know when you’ll get another chance."

Shalean was right. I live my life differently now because I know cancer can hit anyone at any time, and it can be fatal.

And, If it isn’t cancer, it could be something else.

I slipped my new white, lacy dress over my head, and to the delight of my husband, I was overdressed for the school function Tuesday evening. Shalean was there with me that night, as she so often is — a gentle, encouraging light.

And in that moment, we were together again, separately.

Versions of this piece were originally published on and WritingClassRadio,

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