From Chicken Soup for the Gardener's Soul

Madeleine’s Wheelbarrow

What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.


I’ve always known Madeleine.

We were both born and raised in the same small Alaska town. But it wasn’t until we both found ourselves married with small children and living in the same city that we became best friends.

Every morning as soon as the older children were off to school, we’d call each other and talk over the day’s plans. In the summer, we spent many days in our gardens together while the children played. At Madeleine’s, we picked countless weeds off the bank in her backyard. We’d load them in her big green wheelbarrow—along with a child or two. Then we’d wheel the pile over to the other side of the bank and dump out the wheelbarrow load—taking the kids out first!

In 1996, we had just finished putting in our spring gardens. Suddenly, we weren’t thinking about gardens anymore, but survival. I had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Immediate surgery was my only option. I was only thirty-four, with two young children. My husband Pat and I were numb with shock.

It was Madeleine who stepped in and steadied us. While Pat, my mother and my sisters concentrated on me, Madeleine made sure the everyday tasks were taken care of. Efficient and organized, she handled everything from meals to play dates for the children.

She even thought of the garden. Already it was weedy and overgrown. She knew how frustrated I’d be, trying to recover from major surgery, staring out at a tangled jungle and too weak to do anything about it. Madeleine gathered a team of friends, and together they snipped and mowed, pruned and planted. I came home to a shining house, a full refrigerator and a beautiful garden.

Madeleine and I adjusted our routine of friendship around my slow recovery and a steady stream of doctor’s appointments. The surgery appeared to be working. Life went on.

Then a year later, it stopped.

Madeleine was dead. On a bright, sunny summer afternoon, my best friend was killed in a tragic boating accident. She left a bewildered husband and three little boys, the youngest only three. The sudden, brutal loss shredded everyone who knew her—her family, her church, her friends. Our lives were dazed.

A month later, the doctors found my cancer again.

The double blow of Madeleine’s death and the recurring cancer shook my faith in nearly everything. I felt sick in mind, in body, in heart.

In the gray days of October, my family and friends gathered to help me. They were as loving and supportive as anyone could wish, but I was painfully aware of who was missing.

“Try to relax,” the nurses said. “Think of something happy.” But the chemotherapy was agonizing. I spent days hunched over like an old woman, my muscles too cramped from vomiting to let me sit up.

When the chemotherapy treatments finally ended five months later, I told myself I would never be so weak again—spiritually or physically. I began working out, reviving my battered body. With the help of time and friends, I began to revive my battered faith. And I began to see Madeleine, not as the friend I no longer had, but as a friendwhowould bewithme always. I pictured her watching us all from heaven. I pictured her wheeling her green wheelbarrow around and making a beautiful garden even more beautiful. God must really be organized now, I thought.

Gray autumn came again. The cancer was back. But this time was different. This time, I was ready. Madeleine was with me again.

Once a week for twelve weeks, I lay in the hospital, watching the chemo move through the IV tube. “Try to relax,” the nurses said again. “Think of something happy.”

So this time, I pictured Madeleine walking through heaven with her big green wheelbarrow. I pictured all the prayers my family and friends had for me, floating around like bits of light. Madeleine gathered up each prayer, one by one, and put them in her wheelbarrow. Then, as the chemo started dripping in, I imagined her tipping the wheelbarrow over me. The white lights of love and prayer floated down and into my body. I became filled with a white, starry light that protected me from harm and cleansed the “bad” spots.

Every time I envisioned the wheelbarrow and its load of prayers flooding my body, I knew I was not alone. I had my husband, my children, my parents and sisters and cousins. And an angel for a best friend.

It’s autumn again. This year, I have no cancer.

Jenny Gore Dwyer

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