I first met my ‘Girlies’ at university. We each joined the canoe club during Freshers Week, the only four girls from our year group: we were outnumbered. But it wasn’t until a couple of week later, our first weekend away kayaking, that we really bonded. After a day of paddling and swimming down a scary river, we spent the night shivering together in our soaked tent. Frozen to the core we barely slept. Instead we spent the next six hours cuddling to keep warm, laughing at the absurdity of the situation- camping in the north of England in November during a storm! We left the weekend soaked to the core, icicles on our wet shoes, but firm friends. And that firm friendship continued for the next three years. We spent a lot of our spare time together: canoeing, drinking, dancing and more drinking. Some of the best years of my life, some of the best times of my life, some of the best memories of my life… were made alongside my ‘girlies’.
After university, we each went in different directions, and to opposite ends of the country. However we remained close friends, largely helped by the tradition we started of regularly going away together for a weekend. Straight out of university, these trips would see us camping in grassy fields, sleeping on floors in each others’ rented flats, or balanced on bunk beds in youth hostels. But as our careers progressed, we left the mud and cold behind, and treated ourselves to hotel breaks or holiday cottages around the country. Over the last fifteen years we’ve skied, we’ve swam, we’ve hiked, we’ve climbed, we’ve abseiled… but funnily we’ve never kayaked together again! We’ve seen each other covered in mud, and dolled up to the nines. We’ve eaten together in grassy fields, and five star hotels. We’ve watched each other mature from wayward students with no direction, to career ladies with families. We’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together. We’ve shared some wonderful times… romantic engagements, buying houses, beautiful weddings, welcoming babies. We’ve shared some difficult times… losing parents, splitting up with partners, hating jobs, family arguments. But despite the distance, despite the often greatly differing routes our lives have taken, the girlies have remained my bestest friends.
Yet when I first got ill, as I did with everyone around me, I pushed them away. Exhausted by life, I didn’t have the energy to maintain any friendships. I was fatigued and poorly after visits, drained after phone calls, too weak to write an email. Shocked with my deterioration, I wanted to hide my illness. I was embarrassed I was ill, ashamed of my new disability, afraid others would pity my changed state. Envious that life was continuing normally for everyone else, I shielded myself from people’s wonderful lives. I turned off Facebook, ignored the phone, made no effort to contact any friends. I closed in, retracted in to my own shell, tried to hide from the world. Like I did with all my friends, I hid from the girlies. I remember declining a hospital visit from Zoe, ignoring Katie ringing my mobile, refusing to speak to Madi as Phil passed me the landline.
But instead of allowing me to stay in my bubble, instead of allowing me to retreat under a rock, instead of allowing me to hole-up in my house- the girlies didn’t give up on me. Used to getting non-committal answers from me whenever they tried to come over, they took to arranging their visits with Phil. Turning up to see me because they knew, as much as I wanted to hide from the world, it was important for me to spend an hour surrounded by love, laughter and unwavering support. And often the visits were only an hour. Despite a couple of them living three hours from my house, they would endure the cross-London traffic to spend a mere sixty minutes with me- as that is all I could cope with. Six hours of travelling for one hour of friendship. Gradually over the next year, their love helped pulled me out of that hole and bubble. For the first year of illness, aside from my immediate family, they were the only people from my old life that I saw. And after a while I started answering the phone to them, enjoying their calls, ringing them myself. After a while I looked forward to their visits, loved spending time with them again, started arranging meet-ups myself. And after a year, partially helped by their unwavering friendship, I felt strong enough to reappear in society, log back on to Facebook, announce my illness to the world. No longer ashamed, but proud I was surviving. No longer envious, but content with my little lot. No longer too exhausted to maintain relationships, but ready to reconnect with my other temporarily-abandoned friends.
Aside from a short break when I was at my most poorly, our girlie bi-annual weekends together have continued throughout my illness. Yes some things have inevitably changed. Now we go away for a less tiring 24 hours, within arms reach of my home. Now we don’t leave the cottage, but spend the weekend on the sofa. Now they look after me and do all the work. Now I need to take frequent rest breaks in my room. Now I can’t drink or stay up until the early hours. But the other more important elements of the weekend have remained the same. The camaraderie, the friendship, the support, the love. We still spent the whole weekend chatting and catching up. Sharing our lives: the good and the bad, the sad and the happy, the tricky and the fun. Despite everything that life has thrown at us since university… despite bigger houses, smarter clothes, more responsible jobs… despite terminal illness, shocking bereavements, stress… we have not changed. We are still the same four girlies that bonded over kayaks and alcohol in that soaked tent on that cold November night.
The other weekend we went away again, 17.5 years since we all donned wetsuits and stood together by a river the first time. Time has flown by. It was a celebratory occasion: Katie proudly wearing her shiny new engagement ring, Madi proudly showing her eight month bump. We decorated baby-grows, plaster cast the enormous belly, played spin-the-dummy-on-the-baby. We talked weddings, engagements and love. And we laughed a lot. It was a fabulous 24 hours, just what I needed.
So thank you my girlies. Thank you for three amazing years at university. Thank you for seventeen lovely years of friendship. But mostly thank you for being by my side this last 4 years of illness. It’s not easy being friends with an ill person.
Probably the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, was to sign up for my university canoe club. Not only did I meet my wonderful husband, but I also met my best friends ‘The Girlies’. The other weekend we excitingly discussed the celebration we will have in a couple of years- our 20th anniversary of meeting. Hopefully I will have had a lung transplant, so we could fly to New York: stay in luxury, drink in posh bars. Or maybe we will re-enact our famous first camping trip: shivering together in the cold, drinking vodka shots. I know which one I’m voting for.