I still remember the first words I read from her, 31 years ago: Mfwako’s friend’s sister Barbara gave me your letter…
I’d written to a 13 year old girl in Canada called Mfwako (yes, really) whose details I’d found in Jackie magazine. I was only 9. I don’t know why I was reading Jackie, which was for teenagers. No doubt Mfwako wrote back to all the 13 and 14 year olds who got in touch with her. She gave the 9 year olds’ letters to her friend, who gave them to her sister, Barbara, who gave them to her friend. Who wrote to me.
She had the most beautiful handwriting. It didn’t seem possible it was a child’s. I was always so excited to receive those letters. The envelopes were always decorated with stickers (and they still are to this day!).
It was an online friendship before online friendships. I never met her, but I knew she was my friend. We sent each other letters, cards, presents and photos. We knew all about each other’s lives.
Sometimes the letters slowed down a bit, then they would pick up again. But we never stopped writing.
Our lives had incredible parallels. She married a man with the same name as my husband exactly one week after I got married. Her daughter (eldest child) was born in the same month as my younger son.
Around that time, the letters stopped and the emails started. For many years, I only switched the computer on once a week – to do my Tesco order and check whether I’d got an email from my penpal. And if I had, I would always reply straight away.
We always sent cards at Christmas, always with a photo of our kids in a Christmas outfit. Her daughter looked just like her, her son just like her husband.
As the kids got older and life got busier (and I started using the internet WAY MORE than once a week), the emails dwindled to just once or twice a year. When we moved to the rented house, I misplaced my address book. I wouldn’t be able to send her a Christmas card! I emailed to ask for her address and there was a delay in her getting back to me.
The reply was a shock.
She had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few days earlier. I got her email the day I heard my friend Emma aka Crazy with Twins had got the all-clear. I was devastated to read this. Another young(isn) woman struck down by cancer. Another mother. Another woman with everything to live for. Another woman who wanted to be there for her children as they grew up.
I felt as though we’d grown up together, although we’ve always been thousands of miles apart. I’ve known her longer than virtually anyone. Now she was facing an uphill battle against cancer.
She’s had her surgery and it’s all looking fairly positive. It’s been a tough few weeks for the whole family. The cancer was at a very early stage and hasn’t spread. She will find out soon what treatment she needs. She’s still got a way to go.
The good news is, we’re back in touch and I will be following her progress from thousands of miles away and willing her to recover just like Emma recovered.
She’s my penpal and we’ve still got an awful lot of writing to do.