I met Laura on the first day of orientation week at Vanderbilt our freshman year. Over six feet tall, with long red hair and blue eyes, her appearance alone was arresting—and her personality just filled a room.
As we all said our final good-byes to our parents, I desperately sought out new friends to surround me and give me comfort from that first sharp sting of loneliness. Laura, on the other hand, stood apart from everyone else.
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked another girl, Carol, who had gone to high school with Laura.
“She’s fine,” Carol replied. “She just needs to work things through on her own. Let her be.” So I let her be, even though I so wanted to do something, to bring her sparkle back. It was tough, stepping away from our moms and our dads, having so much ahead of us, but still knowing that a door behind us had quietly closed.
We got through it, Laura and I—in our different ways. I somehow survived a tough sophomore year when I became sick and had to take a year off. My father was going through a tough time of his own and losing a year’s worth of tuition only put a meaner edge on his anger. I hunkered down inside myself—and when my parents went to bed, I talked through all my feelings on cassette tapes and sent them to Laura so that someone was there for me. Not just someone, but my now and forevermore BFF.
Laura was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in her twenties. She had had an array of odd symptoms, but the alarm bells went off when she fell during a tennis match. She didn’t catch herself—her arms weren’t certain what their role was anymore—so she just landed on her face.
I was scared for her. I wanted to hold her, comfort her, share tears. That wasn’t for Laura, though. She wanted information; about her disease, her prognosis, what she could expect. There were no tears—if Laura, couldn’t cry, how could I? So I called the M.S. Society (no Google back then) and gave her what she seemed to need the most.
Our friendship has ebbed and flowed through the ups and downs that are a part of everyone’s life. The comforts of the everyday, those singular moments of joy, the times of delight or giggles, the heavy footstep of stress. Bit by bit, Laura’s M.S. has made her world smaller, but it has somehow never diminished her essence. She endures with a quiet stoicism and a matter-of-factness, understanding that railing against the circumstances that now confine her to a power chair won’t change anything.
I still want to find a way to soothe, to lessen that burden just a little bit. She was hospitalized this year for over three months, battling a complex infection. I never saw a single tear slide down the side of her cheek. All I could do was be with her, a bit of every day, to smile and hug and talk about what was going on outside of her hospital window.
Laura is one of the bravest people I have ever known. She gets through her tough times by just sticking it out, by pulling up strength from her gut. I still need the comfort of the people I love. I also need my routine. Exercise. Meditation. Prayer. Preparing my family’s evening meal. They all give me little whispers of comfort, a virtual hug when no one else is around. I guess I have finally learned from Laura the importance of being attentive to your self, pulling up that inner strength to help you get through whatever you have to face.