2000s Archive

Tough Love

continued (page 2 of 3)

We go out in the rain. We go out when it’s dark and there’s frost on the field. Even when I come down with a midlife case of the chicken pox we go, because Debbie has already had them and by now it’s too cold for anyone else to be in the park that early.

We run and we lift, and when we simply can’t, we just show up and walk. But I am not such a heroic friend. Even though I long for the right to sleep until 7:30 every now and then, I know that this is the relationship I’ve waited for my whole life.

I like to give advice. How much of my life has been spent listening to friends complain about their miserable relationships, their miserable jobs?

They wish they could quit school or go back to school. They want to lose weight, take up painting, move west. I listen. I advise. I have a reputation as someone who gives especially level-headed advice, and for that reason I am the person many people call. But the simple truth is, people make up their own minds. They change their lives when they’re good and ready, not when they get a sensible tip. And certainly this is how it should be, but it’s hard not to feel like all those phone calls received in the middle of the night were a giant waste of time. Why do people so fervently seek out counsel and then neglect to take it? It was one of the mysteries of life until I became my accountant’s personal trainer. That’s when everything changed. When I say run, she runs. When I say lift one more set, she bites her lip and pulls up her weights. Does this make me a good friend or just another person with control issues? I can’t say for sure. All I know is that it feels great.

And Debbie is starting to lose some weight. She has taken on an oxygenated glow that makes her friends praise her beauty everywhere she goes. She passes the compliments on to me. Other people begin to ask me if I will work out with them, and for a few minutes I consider dumping the book I am writing and changing careers.

Hard winter sets in, and Debbie picks up a couple of colds from her children. She coughs violently in the morning, but I blame it on grade-school germs. We give up running for walking. We slack on the weights. She wheezes. I decide it’s time to consult the professionals. I book us a trip to Canyon Ranch Health Resort.

Three days before we leave for the spa in Arizona there is a message on my answering machine. Debbie is crying.

“I’ve been cheating,” she says. “I had to tell you before we left.”

Debbie’s mother has done phenomenally well with her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the massive tumors in her lungs have shrunk down to nothing. She has quit smoking. Meanwhile, Debbie has started to backslide and is up to five cigarettes a day, which accounts for her recent return to hacking. She has her reasons. The stress in her life at this time would make most people turn to heroin, much less slip back a little toward a 20-year habit. When I pick her up to go to the airport, she tells me she had put a couple packs of cigarettes and several travel-size bottles of Scotch in her suitcase but then, at the last minute, had taken them out again.

I want to tell you that I act with compassion, sympathy, that I reach out to help. Clearly my dear friend is struggling. Instead, I open up my newspaper at the airport and stick my head inside. I am sullen. Smoking!

The rule is supposed to be that I get to make all the rules! I start to resent those cold mornings I dragged myself out of bed. If I had known she was going to smoke, I would have just as soon slept in.

Still, it’s a long flight once you factor in a change of planes in Dallas. By the time we arrive in Tucson, I adjust my attitude back to one of friendly support. We are in the desert now, with no gas station or liquor store in sight, and I know Debbie isn’t the type to set off on foot.

Canyon Ranch is a good place to go if you want to start all over again. It’s an even better place if you’ve already started over again and just want a little shove to get back on course. We are given water bottles and tote bags and tours. When they take us to see the nurse after registration (it’s all part of the check-in routine), I ask if we can go together. Our request is declined.

“You’re not joined at the hip, you know,” Debbie’s nurse tells her sharply as I’m led away. “You don’t have to take her everywhere you go.”

Debbie explains that we are friends.

“If you ask me, that girl needs to get a life of her own.”

I wonder if the nurse is onto something. Do I need to get a life of my own?

We meet with the exercise physiologist, who gives constructive advice on how to improve our morning park workout. We meet with a nutritionist who makes Debbie come clean about every single thing she eats. If there had been a food component to the Spanish Inquisition, I can only imagine it looked something like this. While taking copious notes, the woman gets more and more specific. “And when you go to Captain D’s and order the two-piece fish dinner, what do you get with that? Do you eat both of the hush puppies? How many of the french fries do you think you eat? Do you put ketchup on them? At KFC, do you get the original recipe?”

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