Tuesdays with Julie: How Racquetball Partners Battled Breast Cancer

For years, we played racquetball against each other. Breast cancer showed us how to play together.

Life Before Cancer
For the past 12 years, through one divorce (mine), two boyfriends (hers), the raising of our sons (two apiece), and several cancer scares (my breast lump, her unexplained bleeding, my suspicious moles), the single most stable thing in my life, and in the life of my racquetball partner, Julie, has been our twice-weekly game. Doing this one thing requires detailed knowledge of each other’s schedules: how early and late it’s okay to call; when either of us is going away; the blackout dates when our other obligations — tutoring kids (her), deadlines (me), therapy (sometimes her, sometimes me, sometimes both) — make us unavailable to play.
Julie is often my first call of the day. So I wasn’t surprised, one Tuesday last September, when she phoned at 7:30 a.m. What did surprise me was what she had to say. Not her usual breezy, "I booked court four for five o’clock," but, "I’ve been on a treadmill for the past few days."
Julie, on a treadmill? Had she found another workout? I reminded myself that thanks to a combination of whining ("I’ll die if we don’t play this week") and bribery ("I’ll pay for your parking, I’ll have your racquet restrung — just don’t stop playing with me"), Julie and I had weathered threats to our commitment before.
"A treadmill?" I repeated. For years, Julie and I have been shaking our heads at the iPod-wearing people getting nowhere fast on their treadmills and StairMasters. The two of us would share a satisfying hit of healthier-than-thou self-righteousness every time we wove between the rows of these whirring dervishes outside the racquetball court. Was Julie abandoning me, racquetball, our years together, for a machine?
"A treadmill of medical tests," Julie explained. "I have breast cancer," she said, and quickly added in a confident voice that defied grief or pity, "They caught it early. I’m going to be fine."
Not Julie, I thought. My mother had a mastectomy 30 years ago. My best friend had one 10 years after that. Both of them, and most of the women with breast cancer I’ve known, are alive and well. But Julie is someone whose well-being I count on for my own.
Assessing the Opponent
Since we met at our gym’s racquetball challenge and started playing together — first sporadically, then in three-ways and doubles, eventually monogamously — Julie and I have had our issues. I don’t like her sneaking up behind me when I serve. She doesn’t like my hogging center court. There’s a harshness between us when we play, a competitive streak that carries over to our breathless, ruthlessly honest between-game talks. I’ve never liked her bugging me to stay out of the sun. She’s never liked my criticizing the men she dates.
Although we have a lot in common — I’ve written books about what’s wrong with the public schools; she’s spent her life teaching in them, trying to make them right — Julie and I rarely spend time together off the court. Still, we share a strange sort of intimacy. When she retired from teaching, I went to the party. She came to my wedding and to just about every local book reading I’ve done. I see her more than I see my close friends. The advice Julie gives me while we’re stretching or toweling off is some of the best I get. Julie is someone I care about. Someone, I realized in that moment, I love.
"Of course you’ll be fine," I reassured Julie, and myself. As she filled me in on the details of her treatment schedule, I remembered the months it took my mother to get back on the tennis court after chemo; the years it took my best friend to recover from radiation. Selfishly I thought, "But what will I do without you until you are?"
"Before the surgery," Julie said, "I want to play as much as we can." As much as you can, I knew she meant. As much as you will.
BC (Before Cancer), Julie and I played on Tuesdays and Thursdays at five p.m. I held us to that schedule with the nonnegotiable rigidity of the control freak that I am. AD (after diagnosis), relieved of my delusions of predictability, my priorities were reordered.

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