I have felt a huge reluctance to write anything about my friend, Lisa Bonchek Adams, who died March 6, 2015 at the age of 45.
First of all, Lisa was a writer of personal stuff. Anything she wanted known about herself, she said. And there was A LOT she did not choose to write about.
Lisa was also a close friend to many incredible writers, and it’s admittedly intimidating to add to the chorus, when that chorus is composed of so many authors, poets, and journalists.
But my apprehension really comes down to one simple thing: Every time I start writing about her my chest feels like it’s going to collapse and I can’t breathe and I feel like this fresh grief will flatten me.
When Lisa was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, in the fall of 2012, she sent out an email to tell her friends about it. I remember I was standing in the auditorium of the New-York Historical Society and Ed Koch, looking very frail and old and like he’d lived a full life, was speaking at the opening of the museum’s World War II exhibit. I was with my daughter, Violet, and her friend, Janelle, and as I read Lisa’s words, I thought I would faint.
For the next few weeks, Lisa’s many friends tried to figure out what to do to help. True to her form, Lisa was painfully clear about what she wanted done—and not done. I remember her posting on Facebook asking people to stop sending gifts and flowers to her home because it was frightening her children. I never stopped being amazed at how straightforward she could be.
About a month later, she mentioned to me that she would love to be a guest on “Hash Hags,” the radio show I did with fellow writers Ann Leary and Laura Zigman. It was ostensibly a show on which we interviewed authors, but truly we were just good friends and wanted an excuse to talk to one another regularly. We were thrilled that Lisa wanted to be on, so we immediately bumped our next guest and put her in.
Laura, Ann, and I had been taking turns introducing the guests. When Lisa came on, it was Laura’s turn. The real truth here is that Ann and I would pretty much read the bio off the person’s website or the flap copy inside the book, whereas Laura would sit down and write beautiful, smart poignant intros. In all fairness, Ann had to drive two hours to be in the studio and run the show; my excuse was that I like to take the easy way out. It was always kind of funny when we had two guests and the first guest would get a moving, 1,000-word Laura intro and the second guest would get me saying, “Jon Ronson is from … England, is it?”
So we were set for Lisa. We did the show via Skype and routinely endured computer and phone problems. So when Laura started to read Lisa’s intro and it went dead quiet, Ann and I immediately assumed we’d lost the connection. But then we heard Laura quietly weeping, and soon Ann and I joined her. Not Lisa. She was calm and sweet and steady and said, “It’s okay. Laura, you can do this. If I can do this, you can do this.”
That was Lisa. The one who should have been drowning in tears was keeping us together. And we went on to do the show.
I wish I could remember who tweeted to Lisa that she was the calm in her own storm, because it was so poignantly true. She was always taking care of everyone around her and helping us learn to navigate this situation. How do you have a friend you love so much who is terminally ill? How do you talk to them? How do you stand it? She reached thousands and thousands of people who had mothers, sisters, wives, and partners with breast cancer—or had it themselves. She answered their questions, provided comfort, and taught us all to appreciate life, see the beauty and not waste time. She started every day tweeting, “Find a bit of beauty in the world today. Share it. If you can't find it, create it. Some days this may be hard to do. Persevere.”
Lisa and I had a lot of lunches over the years. While my marriage was crumbling, she was generous with her time and advice. On one of her three-week stays at Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, I visited with her as often as I could. I watched in awe as she dealt with the nurses and caregivers. (No surprise, Lisa was all of their favorites.) She questioned everything, making sure they had it all right. She was so fucking smart, I told her frequently that I wanted to choose her as my primary care physician. We ended up having three Friday night dates there and Lisa told me I could bring wine (for me) if I hid it (I smuggled it in a Hello Kitty thermos that stunk of apple juice). I wouldn’t have had to bring it if she wasn’t so stingy with her morphine drip so we could both share it. (I made those jokes a wee bit too often; I think the palliative nurse became a little wary of me).
As awful as it was for Lisa to be away from her family for so long, I was selfishly sad when she returned home to her husband and three children in Connecticut. For that period, it was like she lived across town and I knew everything happening with her.
There were so many times in the year that followed that she and I would talk/text and I’d find myself bouncing maniacally from one topic to the next because asking her “How are you?” was unendurable to me. It wasn’t like she was going to say, “Things are going great.” The best you could hope for was that whatever course of treatment hadn’t worked would be followed up by a new plan that would. But I learned from Lisa to stop being a pussy and just ask about it all. If she could live it, I could hear about it. And she’d always come back to my life and all of the many complaints I had and validate each one of them.
I don’t think I’ve revealed anything surprising here. I wish I could ask her what I’m supposed to do now without her. A million times a day I want to text her something that she would love—a picture of a corgi that is not as cute as her Lucy; or a photo of a sale item wear from the J.Crew catalog that no one would actually wear; or how fucking amazing it is that her Research Fund not only hit the $100,000 goal she set (after passing many smaller ones) but passed the new goal of $125,000 (and at last check was at $135,144). I know this isn’t news to anyone who’s lost someone. You reach for them and they are not there.
I miss her terribly.
Lisa was one of my first friends on Twitter in 2009—that is how we met. And one of the nicest things I’ve heard in the past few days is the people who said they found Lisa through me. How could I ever give anyone a greater gift than that?