A Visceral Love

Lisa (foreground) and Carolyn (white t-shirt) at a book club retreat

Lisa Solod: 60, divorced, 2 children

Best friend of 10 years: Carolyn Ford Eagle, married, 2 children, died ... cancer in 1996 at age 49

“What women don’t acknowledge about women’s friendships is that it’s almost exactly like falling in love with a man except it’s not erotic, it’s visceral.”

How did you meet?

I was a northerner living in a small university town in Virginia in the 1980s and 1990s. I was very left wing, so it was hard to find women I connected with. But I found this feminist book club and Carolyn was in it. Once a year, usually in the summer, the book club would do a retreat and spend the weekend together. I remember, maybe a couple years into the book club, we were having a discussion and Carolyn pulled up her shirt and showed us her mastectomy scar. That was the first I knew that she had had her breast removed. I don’t remember why she did it. She wasn’t a showy woman, but it was something that she revealed to a few of us. I couldn’t believe how brave she was. I had just begun to feel brave about my own life and so something in that moment spoke to me, gave me a message: I knew I had to have her as my friend. Our friendship just took off from there. It was as if we had both been waiting for each other.

What was the friendship like?

Carolyn and her husband lived on her family’s farm. She and her husband had been living in Africa for several years, their children had been born there, and they moved back to the farm when her parents died of cancer. It was a ramshackle building on this beautiful piece of land with a pond. It was very pastoral and romantic.

I just fell in love with her. What women don’t acknowledge about women’s friendships is that it’s almost exactly like falling in love with a man except it’s not erotic, it’s visceral. She was the friend I’d always wanted. I was Jewish and felt so out of place in a very small church-going community. I didn’t have a particularly good marriage, which I recognized, but didn’t know what to do about it. I didn’t want to be in this tiny town in the South and she made it all bearable.

When we began to be close friends, I had a one-year-old and Carolyn had two young children. She had found the lump in her breast while she was nursing her daughter. She ignored it at first. Then she had the mastectomy. I think she always knew that she had found it too late and it had already spread. She struggled with cancer the entire time I knew her, but with periods of remission and good health and great joy. Carolyn was so strong and so positive and, except at the end, she never complained or pitied herself. I was almost 10 years younger than she was and I didn’t understand death very well. I am 60 now and I think about death all the time, which is perhaps somewhat morbid, but there is a lot more reason to do so.

Carolyn was very quiet and really, really smart. She had lived in many different places and had so many different lives that when she opened her mouth to tell a story the whole room just shut up and listened. She was beautiful; she had grey in her hair, she never wore makeup, and she wore thrift shop clothes. Her shoelaces were always coming untied, she was scattered, her house was a wreck. She was so different from me and somehow we complemented each other. She was one of these people everybody likes. I wanted to be as good as she was. I have never been as good as she was and I don’t think I ever will, but I think I’m better having known her.

Why did Carolyn like me? I don’t know. I’m interesting and funny. I am upbeat, I am not needy and I was fun. I was someone who she could be honest with and I was floundering too. She had a fatal disease, she had lost her parents, and she missed Africa. We gave each other a person with whom we could be absolutely raw. And I think she liked that I behaved as though she were normal. If she wanted to talk about the disease, I talked about it, but otherwise I pretended it didn’t exist and I think she needed that.

Describe how the friendship ended.

My husband and I liked to go to her farm. We would sit in her kitchen and her husband would cook and the four of us would talk. Sometimes she and I would go outside and just wander. I loved swimming in her pond. A lot of our trips were to get treatment, but we always tried to do something else too. We had to drive an hour and 15 minutes to the hospital for radiation and chemo, but we would always plan a shopping or a lunch or some sort of adventure on top of the trip. We would go to bookstores, go to tea, try a new restaurant, shop for wigs. We tried to make a little adventure out of it.

She would call me up and say, “Well, I heard that chiropractic can help. Come with me to do this.” And we would go. But mostly we had parties and dinner parties and cooked for each other. I like dinner parties. I think they’re wonderful and I was sort of famous for mine. I put together the best possible mixes, interesting people, and I would cook wonderful food and they would come at 7 p.m. and leave at 1 a.m.

The last year of her life, I was spending a huge amount of time with Carolyn. My friends and I took shifts. We were there all day, every day, and hospice came at night. The last six months of her life were particularly intense. She was in a wheelchair and then bedridden. But she held on. I would sit with her for hours. She didn’t want to leave her children, she was determined that they should have a memory of her and I’m absolutely convinced that was what kept her alive. When she died her children were around 11 and 13.

She fought really, really hard to live as long as possible. The doctors were stunned. Not in a million years should she ever have lived that long. The cancer came back and came back and came back. Then, at the end, it moved to her brain and her bones. But she was a miracle of fortitude and determination.

How did you cope with her loss?

After Carolyn died there was a huge void. It was as if I no longer had anything important to do. I had a four-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, so I had lots to do, but I felt a huge void. And that sense of community — of all of us coming together and doing the work of caring for her — was gone. Everything fell apart. I became disenchanted with the book club. I knew my marriage was going nowhere even though I stayed for some time after.

I’m in several groups on Facebook, writers’ groups, feminist groups. A lot of women have had relationships like ours, but I think there are a lot of others who have never had women they could trust, who have been betrayed or have been unable to form those deep relationships. I think, all in all, for me, women have been the ones that kept me alive. That’s just always the way I have operated. I’ve been married twice. I’m in a relationship now. I’ve always had men in my life, but women are what sustain me. I will always have an empty space for Carolyn.

I have a wonderful best friend now, Katherine, a woman I have known for a dozen years, and I love her. And my oldest friend is a woman I have known since I was eight who I am still friends with 52 years later. She lives many hundreds of miles away, and yet when I see her or we pick up the phone, it’s like we saw each other yesterday. She knows who I am and there is no backstory that she doesn’t know. I’m very fortunate that I have really wonderful women in my life.

Women say to me, “How do you meet women at your age?” I don’t know, I guess because this is important to me. You do what’s important to you, right? When I was raising my kids, people would say to me how do you have time to read the newspaper every morning and I looked at them and said, “This is important to me. I do this because it means something to me. I make the time to do this.” I have always called myself an intellectual lesbian. I prefer women to men. I don’t want to sleep with them, that’s the only part that doesn’t work for me, but I really do prefer their company.

Carolyn had a lot of people who really loved her. Her memorial service was huge. I gave the eulogy, which is just about the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I suspect that my particular grief wasn’t taken any more seriously than anybody else’s, which is okay. You’re not trying to one-up anybody. I think my husband knew how profound it was for me, my children even as young as they were knew, but I don’t know if anybody else did.

I’m a lot older now and I have had a lot more death in my life, a lot more grieving and it doesn’t get any easier of course, but the older you get the more it becomes a part of your life. Carolyn was the first grown up person I watched die and that’s pretty profound because, as I said, at that age it’s not something that’s on your radar.

I still miss her. For three or four years, when I was still living in Virginia, I’d be walking down the street and I’d swear I saw her driving by in her rickety old Saab. It was unsettling, but it was also comforting. I really felt I would see her out of the corner of my eye or catch a glimpse of her or see her car. I’d much rather see that then the picture I had of her at the end. It took a long time to get the picture of her dying out of my head.  

Before Friendship Dialogues was a gleam in founder Ellen Pearlman’s eyes, a group of over two dozen women answered her online plea for women who had lost a female best friend. Ellen is eternally grateful to all the women, including Lisa, for opening their hearts to her and sharing their personal stories of love and loss. It was through this process that the seeds for Friendship Dialogues were planted. Thank you!