When I was in fourth grade going into fifth, my classmates and I received news that our school would be consolidating with Toulon a year earlier than originally planned. If you’re from my hometown then you already know what this means, but if you aren’t, here’s a brief rundown: my small town elementary school class would be doubling in size (and when you’re in a class of roughly 40 kids total, that feels like a BIG deal). So us Wyoming and Toulon kids started fifth grade together, and there were two girls in Miss Woodford’s class who I decided early on that I did not like: Ashley Foglesong and Jill Schroeder. They were cool and smart and confident and all of their Toulon peers seemed to think they were great and I was probably (definitely) a little jealous, and when my friends and I accidentally kicked the ball too far during recess and it landed in their vicinity, they chose to keep the ball instead of giving it back to us. I wrote them off as “not my friends” after that moment in the way you do when you’re ten, and expected it to stay that way.
We eventually all went off to junior high together, and after a few years, I was surprised to find myself warming up to both Ashley and Jill. We started to eat lunch at the same table, and talk to each other in classes, and crack jokes at our lockers together, and soon enough I was inviting them over to my house before the school dance. In eighth grade Ashley and I became even closer, and got to the level of friendship where you learn more about the intricacies of someone’s life, and the people and things that make them tick. I found out how funny and goofy she was, and that many of her family and friends called her “Red” because of the color of her hair. She joined my family and I on a trip to Virginia Beach and DC, and I tagged along with her and the Foglesong crew to some cattle shows. I rode the bus home with her sometimes to stay the night, and we sat in her room and talked about boys and how scared we were of high school, and one time I farted while were watching a movie in the basement and we giggled our faces off about it, as did her parents and siblings when it turned out her brother had been hiding under the bed at the time to scare us and went on to share this story with their entire family. (Side note: We were 13 at the time and all of our friends referred to Brett as “Ashley’s cute older brother”; needless to say, I was hilariously mortified.)
Ashley and I got older and continued to grow up alongside one another — we played basketball and ran track together, and Ashley’s competitive spirit and strong will made her one of the best people to share a team and a locker room and a relay race with. I spent time at her grandparents prior to games, and Harry and Carolyn often made us dinner and treated me like one of their own. Ashley and I eventually ended up living together during our last two years of college at Bradley, and Ash was dating this guy who went to Western, and I went with her to Macomb for a few visits that often included live music at local bars and house parties and late night McDonalds runs. She eventually married the guy who went to Western, and I stood up as a bridesmaid in their wedding – we were 22 and I didn’t know a thing about weddings or marriage, but she did, and Ash and Eric happily started their life together. She moved to a new town with him and finished her grad program to become an Occupational Therapist, a job that she’s thrived in from the moment she started. She and Eric also became parents, and she flourished as a mother in the way we all always knew she would.
I tell you all of this because I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of person Ashley is, and how fortunate I am to be her friend, and how much life we’ve lived together in our past 21 years of knowing each other. I’ve been thinking a lot about this because a little over three weeks ago, Ashley was diagnosed with breast cancer. She contacted one of our girlfriends that afternoon to let each of us know without the burden to share the details being on Ash herself, so I hadn’t spoken to her yet when I received a text from her at 1 am that night about setting up a photo session before she’d be starting chemo – we looked at our calendars together, cancelled some prior plans, and set it up for the following week.
I walked through their front door and immediately heard Ash and her sister, Carla, shout out “no crying!” before I even saw them, which naturally made me laugh rather than tear up. Ashley walked into the kitchen and was radiant – Carla had helped her do her makeup and her hair, and she was wearing the new dress she’d bought for our session a few days prior. I photographed Ash alone with the kids prior to Eric getting home from work, and they played with toys and did secret handshakes and ate scotcharoos together in the living room. She read them a book the doctor had given her that helps explain breast cancer to children; it was clear that she had already read it with them many times before my arrival, as the boys completed the sentences she was reading about helping mommy pick out a wig and how they could give her hugs when she eventually isn’t feeling well. Eric joined us once he was home, and I snapped a few of them all together prior to taking Ash and Eric out on their own. They giggled a bit at the awkwardness and unfamiliarity after all these years of taking photos of just the two of them, in the way you do when you’re used to almost always having a child on your hip or between the two of you on the couch or clinging to your leg. We marveled at how it’d been nearly ten years since their wedding day, and Ashley laughed at the way Eric was looking at her at one point; he then mentioned being taken aback by how beautiful she looked, and the sincerity in his voice made it clear that he meant it.
Ashley started her first round of chemo last week, and today she had an appointment to make sure her numbers are looking good. I laid in bed last night and thought of her – of how these nights in bed must be so strange for her, in those moments when it must feel like the rest of the world is asleep and she’s alone with her thoughts and the quiet. I’d never personally understood fearing one’s own mortality – in years past I was always more concerned with the idea of losing the people I love, and thus the possibility of something happening to me didn’t feel as frightening. But as I laid in bed last night and imagined Ashley lying in bed at that same time, and Eric lying in bed next to her, and their kids in the bedrooms nearby, I noticed a tear on my right cheek and felt like I finally understood it. Because sometimes fearing one’s own mortality isn’t a fear of death itself – it’s a fear that’s born out of this beautifully overwhelming, immense love, and out of wanting to be there and care for those around you, and knowing that you need and want much, much more time to do that. When Ashley and I were texting that night after she had received her diagnosis, we talked about both the crappiness of the situation as well as her strength – when I told her she really was one of the strongest people I know, she recognized that my statement was true, and this is one of my favorite things about her. Ashley has always known exactly who she is and what she wants and where her strengths lie, which has been further grounded through becoming a mother, and establishing herself in a career she loves, and finding her place in a new community, and solidifying her faith. She’s optimistic and pressing on and taking charge in the way Ashley does, and has her brief moments of weakness, too – and I admire her for not only being strong, but also for allowing herself to sit in those waves of fear and sadness sometimes, too.
Tonight she is cutting off her hair – because in true Ashley Sue fashion, she is taking the bull by the horns and doing so ahead of time so she can donate it to go toward a children’s wig. I know people originally started calling her Red when we were kids because of the color of her hair, but now that we’re older, it feels like there are so many other qualities that define her as such. It’s her tenacity and her toughness, her sense of humor and her strong will, her fiery, competitive spirit and her wit. She’ll be surrounded by her husband and kids as she does so, and her parents and her sisters and her faith, and as her friend, I am as proud of her as I’ve ever been in all the years I’ve known her. You’ve got this, Red. All of this.