One day Noelle asks me if I want to go swimming with her. She wants to go to the lake, so can I give her a day? She had been talking about going to Bigelow Hollow for a while. I’m what you might call ‘indoorsy,’ but she’s Noelle. So when she asks, I say “of course.”
So we’re driving to Bigelow Hollow State Park on an early August afternoon. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been swimming, let alone in a lake. But the sun is shining and the trees are green. I can’t imagine a more perfect day.
We get to the park. It’s stunning. The parking lot that we pull into has a boat launch, giving an unobstructed view of the still waters and evergreen trees.
…we sit and watch the trout swimming around our calves and just appreciate the day, our friendship, and the water.
There are kids running around, and frenzied mothers chasing after them. We park the car and walk through the woods on a small dirt trail. We walk past the pond where most of the kids are wading and continue deeper into the woods. After about a quarter of a mile or so, we get to a serene spot, where there are several picnic tables and a rocky beach. I step into the lake and am surprised at how warm and clear the water is; I can see the rocks beneath my feet and the tadpoles swimming around. We swim out to the rock in the middle of the lake and sit on the edge of it. Our feet are in the water, the sun is on our backs. We sit and watch the trout swimming around our calves and just appreciate the day, our friendship, and the water.
We head back to our picnic table, towel off, and head back to the car. She had hinted at making a second stop, but she wouldn’t tell me where. I hope that wherever we were going, they won’t mind me showing up in a wet bathing suit, but, as usual, I let her take the lead.
She winds her car through the quiet, tree-lined roads that make up the Connecticut countryside. She says she knows the way, but we’ve been driving for over an hour and we keep seeing this one intersection over and over. It’s almost like we’re stuck in a time loop of some kind. I’m feeling warm and drowsy from the sun, and we fall into a comfortable silence.
…I was out to prove that nothing was going to change us—our friendship, our laughter, our shared love of drinking—either.
“Calley, I want to talk to you about something.” I sit bolt upright.
In her put-together grownup voice, she tells me that the cough that she’s had on and off for a few months is lung cancer. They found it a few weeks ago and she’s going to start radiation and chemo right away. Also, they did some scans and they found that it had spread to her brain as well. She probably isn’t going to live longer than a year.
She’s calmly telling me the whole story, with much more detail, and I’m quiet. I’m letting it sink in. My beautiful best friend is going to die? That can’t be right. She’s only 40. She outswam me and didn’t even run out of breath. I’m thinking about my grandfather dying of cancer; me sitting at his bedside in the middle of the night while everyone else was sleeping, wondering if each breath he took would be his last. I’m picturing my strong, happy friend in a hospital with poison being fed into her body through an IV, while she wastes away to nothing.
She stops. She looks tentatively at me for my reaction. What do I say?
“Oh my god, Noelle. You’re always ‘me, me, me.’ It’s not always about you. I stubbed my toe last week, and you didn’t even ask how I was doing.”
We both burst into tearful laughter. After the laughter stops, we talk more about everything. I ask questions, she answers. I tell her I would obviously do anything that she needed me to do. Later I’d come to understand that by responding the way I did, I gave her the best gift I could give her. That one joke eased her biggest fear. I was still going to be the same friend I had always been. Cancer was happening, nothing could change that. But I was out to prove that nothing was going to change us — our friendship, our laughter, our shared love of drinking — either.
This wine is everything that the two of us need right now.
We finally make it to Noelle’s surprise destination. Taylor Brooke Winery. Just what we need: booze.
Noelle had only recently gotten me into wine, so this is actually my first winery visit. She tells me this was the wine she had served at her wedding. We sample a couple varietals as I walk around in awe that a fancy place like this will give me free wine. I buy a bottle each of their Summer Peach, Traminette, and Chocolate Merlot wines, and Noelle buys a few for her cellar. We also pick up some crackers and a few cheeses, and sit outside on the patio. We open a bottle of the Summer Peach and sit around in the sun, enjoying the wine and cheese.
The wine is sweet and crisp and very sippable. I don’t like using this word, but it is just delightful. I don’t have a sommelier’s vocabulary, but I know how I feel. This wine is everything that the two of us need right now.
It’s a beautiful winery. From the porch, we can see a garden full of bright colors and a curved stone path, with the vineyard in the background. There’s even motherfucking hummingbirds. There’s a table of four next to us, and they have two handsome border collies. We chat amicably with our fellow patrons about the beautiful weather and the wonderful wine. It’s a Rockwellian moment in a Hopperesque existence.
I wish I could take away all her pain and give her sunny days for the rest of her life.
After 15 minutes of this scene, we get reminded that we’re in Connecticut. All of a sudden, the skies open up and rain starts falling down in buckets. Everyone outside runs inside to seek cover from the attack. But Noelle and I keep sipping our wine and laugh. The umbrella that is covering our heads gets pulled straight upwards by the wind and is thrown across the patio. We chase it to the parking lot, still drinking and laughing, until we finally give up and go inside.
Once inside the winery, I look at my partner in crime, soaking wet for the second time today, and think to myself that I would do anything for this girl. I wish I could take away all her pain and give her sunny days for the rest of her life.
But that’s not how it works. Sometimes it rains. You can run and hide from it, or you can raise your glass of wine, smile conspiratorially to your friend, and say, “fuck it, bring it on.”