Bad Donna calls me, as she does each year, to sing-song her signature ditty, “hey, hey, it’s the first of May! Outdoor fucking begins today!” She asks whether my husband knows how to “put a spinner on it.” After a couple dirty jokes, she moves on to cancer.
Lung cancer, she tells me. Both lungs, but a different kind of cancer in each lung. “The doctors say they’ve only seen a few cases like this before,” Donna says. “I really am terminally unique.”
“Terminally unique” is AA-speak for people—usually newcomers—who are garden-variety drunks like everybody else, yet insist they face special challenges the rest of us can’t understand. If they’re lucky, time disabuses them of that notion. Bad Donna’s always quick with the jokes.
Bad Donna’s twelve years older than I am, old enough to have been my babysitter, but not so old I’ve ever given a thought to losing her. The two of us became fast friends at an AA club in Delaware decades ago. Since we share a first name, Donna decided she’d be “Bad Donna” while I—by default not merit—would be “Good Donna.” Bad Donna displays her “badness” on the surface for everyone to see. I’ve never known why she is so sex-obsessed. I asked her once and she said, “go figure, maybe I’m just honest.”
We used to see each other every day at the 7 AM Early Bird meeting, speaking by phone more often during the craziness of early sobriety. Now we talk four or five times a year. I always call her on her birthday in early December. She laments the lovely skin and slender waist of her youth and complains she looks like an evil stepmother. I listen, and tell her she is beautiful—and I mean it.
So, a day off work to drive down to South Carolina where Bad Donna and her husband live now. We are so busy at the office; it’s a terrible time for me to be away, but fuck it. I wouldn’t have made it through those first years of sobriety without my friend attaching “Good” to my name and convincing me I could live up to it. Bad Donna taught me the crushing shame I had carried didn’t have to be my permanent condition.
My GPS directs me to Donna’s door. Ken says he’s glad I’ve come.
“How bad is it?” I ask.
“Hospice comes tomorrow. She’ll start IV pain meds.” Ken says he’s going upstairs to take a nap.
Bad Donna is propped up on pillows in her bed, a cloth turban on her head. Her eyes seem too big and there isn’t much left of her under the covers. I lean over to kiss her cheek and her breath smells funky. Her hands push against my shoulders.
“Get off me, Good Donna, or I’m gonna whip your candy ass!” she hollers. I’m so relieved she’s still got spunk I could cry.
“I brought you ice cream, Bad Donna.”
“I can’t eat that shit. I’ll get fat like you!”
“Suit yourself.” I take a minute to study her and the room. The bedside table holds a bunch of prescription vials and inhalers. Along with a copy of Emmanuelle.
“Did I tell you the one about Snow White at Disney World?” Donna asks.
“No, honey, I don’t think so,” although we both know she did.
“They had to kick her out of the place. They kept finding her sitting on Pinocchio’s face, saying, lie to me, Pinocchio, lie to me!” We laugh.
“I can’t believe it’s been two years since I’ve seen you.”
“And I can’t believe how tired you look.” Then she launches into more jokes.
I try to listen, to laugh when she wants me to, to bring my old friend comfort, but my monkey mind goes through a litany of my own worries. Problems at the office, mostly, and things aren’t great with my teenaged daughter. I’ve been feeling pushed and pulled and pissed off. I never miss my AA meeting, but I’m missing one today.
“Oh,” I say, when I notice that Bad Donna has stopped talking and is watching me. “I’m so sorry, my mind drifted for a second.”
“I’m dying here. Why did you even come? Shit.”
“Do you remember Sheila?”
“Of course, I remember her. Came to meetings off and on for years and never even put together thirty days. Finally took a header off her balcony, didn’t she?”
“Yep, that was Sheila, very pretty, too. Do you remember her funeral? How a couple of guys got into a fistfight at the cemetery, arguing about which one of them she loved?”
Bad Donna hoots. “I’d forgotten that! What a circus!”
“That could have been me, there in that cold ground while a couple of drunken fools slugged it out and turned my funeral into some big cosmic joke. That probably would’ve been me if I hadn’t met you, Bad Donna.”
We are quiet for a minute. I am determined not to cry.
“I haven’t forgotten how you helped us with our bankruptcy. Thank you,” Bad Donna says.
“Donna. Oh, I wish you weren’t so sick.”
Bad Donna eyes the tub of Rocky Road melting in my lap. “You better get us a couple bowls, Good Donna,” she says. “God, I hate funerals.”