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Peanut Butter and Jelly

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Friendship is a funny thing. You're never 100% certain of how it started, or how it may have ended, but those points aren’t the things that are important. What's important are the moments in between those points, the highs and lows. From the points where you feel like you're derailing from the rollercoaster and plummeting to your death to the ones where you are shrieking in delight with your hands thrown up in the air. But I’m not going to tell you about friendship in general. No. This is the story of my friendship with Mark. But more importantly, it is about one obstacle that we faced during our friendship and how we overcame it.

- - - - - - - - - -

It all started with Mark missing school one Friday. He hadn't told me why. I was worried because he would tell me if something had happened—at least I thought so. I ran over to his house after school that day to find him. It was our weekly cram-food-into-our-mouths-while-watching-stupid-movies day, so I was especially anxious to find him.

I threw open the front door to his house and bounded up the stairs to his room, tripping on one of his many science books that were strewn throughout the house. Panting, I entered his bedroom to find him passed out on the floor with his head resting on the giant teddy bear we won at a carnival when we were seven and his glasses resting on the ground next to him. I nudged him with my foot. He didn’t move. I threw a pillow at him. He rolled over, his dark brown hair becoming impossibly messier. I shouted his name. He opened his eyes blearily, trying to shade them from the sunlight streaming in through the window.

“Where have you been?” I asked him. “I’ve been all alone for an entire day. And we did this really cool thing in science with frogs. You would have loved it.” I said as I fell dramatically upon his bed. As I waited for his answer I tossed his stuffed dog up and down in the air.

“Mark.” I prompted.

A groan was the only response I got. “C’mon man what’s up?”

“I…I don’t know” he finally replied, “Everything’s just weird.”

“What? What do you mean?” I pried.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get an answer because his mom popped her head into the room.

“Do either of you want a snack? I can make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Mark. I know they’re your favorite,” she said.

I turned to Mark, my eyebrow raised in question.

“No thanks, mom,” he replied.

“Ok. Are you sure?” His mom asked, shuffling into the room a bit more while twisting a dishtowel in her hands.

“Yes, mom I’m sure. And we’re almost teenagers; we can make our own food.” His tone was harsh.

I looked back and forth between them. There was more tension in the house than I was used to. I started to really question what was going on. Mark had never been this closed off, and I had never seen his mom hover so much. It was almost as if she was afraid Mark was going to blow up. I turned towards him, startled by my realizations. He wasn’t a ticking time bomb, was he?

“Dude get off the floor,” I said as Mark’s mom walked out of the room. “I know it’s not comfortable. The carpet’s all itchy and stuff.”

“I’m not allergic to wool like you are so it’s not that bad to me” Mark’s said.

“Ok, fine. But really, what’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

- - - - - - - - - -

I still didn’t know what was going on and I was starting to become incredibly frustrated and worried. Why wouldn’t Mark tell me anything? We hardly ever kept secrets from each other. It couldn’t be anything serious, could it? I pushed that thought to the back of my mind. Mark was fine. He was just as happy and healthy as he always was. Nothing seemed that off about him—at least that’s what I tried to tell myself.

As I was overthinking Mark’s state of being I remembered when we met. We were playing on the playground at daycare. I had just learned from my older brother how to hang upside-down from the climbing dome and was showing the other kids my skills. As I was hanging there, I saw a chicken running around. It had gotten loose from the petting zoo that was nearby. I was so startled that I dropped onto my head. While everyone was screaming and running, trying to catch the chicken, I sat there bawling my eyes out. Mark stood there, watching me. He asked why my head was bleeding as he helped me up.

I said, "I don’t know."

I wished that everything was that simple again. I had no idea what was going on at the moment and just wanted my best friend to let me in and help him. I had always listened to him no matter how big the problem, and he did the same for me. It made me feel as though he didn’t trust me. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t just tell me what was going on.

- - - - - - - - - -

When Mark and I got home from school that Monday we went for a bike ride. It was a beautiful fall day; there was a cool breeze blowing across my neck and my wild red hair was whipping in the wind. As I breathed in the distinct and crisp fall air, I smiled. Mark and I raced through the streets and woods until we reached our favorite spot: the rock. It wasn’t much but to us it was everything. Its surroundings of the peaceful forest made it the ideal spot to let our imaginations run wild. It has been known as a boat, a spaceship, a mountain, and on and on. We started going to the rock to eat lunch while we were exploring, and it quickly became our favorite spot. It was a place to escape from the world and just relax and enjoy the outdoors.

“Hey, uh, um,” Mark stuttered.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Y’know how I was gone from school Friday? And then just kinda mopey the rest of the day?” he asked, pushing his glasses further up his nose.

“Yeah. What about it?” I turned to him intrigued by what he might say.

“Well,” he sighed, “um, they, the doctors-”

“Doctors?” I squeaked as I started to freak out, “What doctors? Are you ok?”

 

“I’m getting there,” he replied, being surprisingly patient despite my interruption. “I’m fine, really. I think. They have an idea of why I’ve been so tired lately.”

“Well, that’s good right? Answers?”

“Yeah, I guess answers are a good thing.”

“Did they figure out your nosebleeds too? You’ve gotten some really bad ones lately.”

“They did. It’s really only a hypothesis. They need to do more tests to be sure.”

“It’s bad isn’t it?” I asked dejectedly as I panicked a bit more.

“Potentially. Maybe. Yeah,” Mark replied, fiddling with the moss growing on the rock.

“What’s their ‘hypothesis’?” I asked as I leaned into his shoulder, bracing myself for the news that had my normally stoic best friend so nervous.

“Cancer,” he whispered. He turned his head towards me, wide blue eyes welling up with tears.

I sucked in a breath, my head swimming. I couldn’t believe it. “Really? Cancer?”

“Yeah. They’re like, I don’t know, 85% sure. Maybe.” He struggled to get the words out.

“Breathe Mark, breathe. I’m not going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere. Most cancers are treatable now, even curable. I bet you’ll be ok.” I rambled hysterically trying to reassure him, and myself.

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”

We were both crying by then, sitting on the rock and hoping for the best.

“You’ll get through this. We’ll get through this. I know it. I just know it.” I predicted.

- - - - - - - - - -

Mark was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, which in his words meant his white blood cells were ‘growing like crazy.’” It was a long and hard process trying to rid his body of the cancer. Those few months filled with chemo treatments and a bone marrow transplant were tough, but we had each other and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to help us through.

- - - - - - - - - -

There were many times that we contemplated ideas that were so far from what we could grasp as middle schoolers. I remember one day, we were sitting out on the rock, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that we had brought with us.

“What do you think death is like?” Mark asked me, a tissue stuck up his nose to try and stop a nose bleed.

“Not sure. Never thought about it,” I replied. “Maybe it’s like life, but you’re dead.”

“Then what would be the point of dying?”

“Because we’re humans and not vampires. And I think living forever would get boring after a while.”

“No, it wouldn’t. I wish I could live forever.”

“But Mark, what if the world runs out of peanut butter? Or jelly? Or bread? What would you even live for?” I waved my hands dramatically through the air.

“That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said!” He laughed, almost choking on his sandwich. “A sandwich isn’t what life is all about.”

“Well, no. But I just feel like it relates to it somehow.”

- - - - - - - - - -

One day Mark was admitted to the hospital. The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it. I stood outside his hospital room door with a shaved head and Mark’s favorite sandwich clutched in my fingers. I didn’t know how bad it was, only that he hadn’t been feeling great lately. I was nervous to go see him. I knew that he might be weaker, frailer, and paler than he usually was, but I didn’t expect to see my best friend hooked up to way more wires than usual, cuddling into his mother as she rubbed his smooth head and tried to get him to eat some soup.

I felt hopeless standing in that doorway. He was so weak, weaker than I had ever seen him, all I wanted was to give him my strength so that he wouldn’t be suffering so much. As I inched into the room Mark’s mom gave me a watery smile.

“Whatcha got there?” She asked.

“Um. A sandwich. Peanut butter and jelly.” I held it out towards them almost robotically.

Mark’s eyes widened. “Really? You brought one? Can I have it?”

I stared at him for a moment. His questions brining me out of my trance like state.

“Of course, you can have it. I brought it for you.”

His mom looked shocked. “You want to eat it, Mark?”

“Yeah,” Mark replied. “It actually sounds good to me. This soup is nasty. Give me the sandwich.”

“Ok.” I ran over to his bedside and shoved the sandwich in his face.

“Thanks!”

- - - - - - - - - -

He went into remission and when the cancer hadn’t come back in years, he was deemed cured. I was with him through it all. Our friendship was put to the test, but if anything, it only got stronger.

Today, almost twenty-five years later, we are still the best of friends. We survived high school together and then college. Our weekly food and movie night survived as well. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a must have during those. They have become just as or even more special to us than the rock. We figured that we are like peanut butter and jelly, and peanut butter and jelly put together equals friendship. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is dependent on two things: peanut butter and jelly, just like Mark and myself are dependent on each other. Mark, we decided, is like peanut butter because of his rather bland demeanor while I am the jelly since I brought most of the laughter and silliness into our lives. Much like peanut butter and jelly, rarely will you find one without the other and we’re at our best when we are together.