I have a friend who, in the face of recurring cancer, throws a Kentucky Derby party.

And she won’t let you in the door unless you’re wearing a hat. And she expects you to bring a dish which you will describe to the other guests as she points to it, making sure the gaze of everyone in the room is centered on, in my case, extraordinary, high end wieners in bourbon sauce. (Don’t laugh. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for my “signature dish,” that one dish that mourners would bring to my funeral, wanting to comfort my mystified descendants who themselves will have never tasted said dish since they never went to any Derby parties with me.)

So my friend, the one with the recurring cancer, the one facing a list of horrors the very next morning, things that involve a hospital gown and anesthesia and recovery and chemotherapy and a host of other assaults on her person, exhorts everyone to vote for the best hat, insists that each of us pick a horse, and wants to know if we are properly appreciating the special Kentucky Derby 2016 salad. The brims of our hats touch when we talk; we’re not used to the maneuvering needed to manage big hats, bows fall in drinks, pinned-on roses slip out of place. Still we wear our finery. None of us will surrender our lovely hats. They get lovelier and more precious by the minute.

We are obedient guests.We gather around the TV to watch the Kentucky Derby as if we had been reading the Daily Racing Form every day since last year’s race. We nod like we know each jockey’s colors. “I like that guy’s outfit,” I aside to another guest, noting the broad purple stripe, and ignoring his quizzical look. I push the mint leaves to the side of the special Kentucky Derby commemorative glass to take the last swallow of julep. I have no business drinking anything this strong, I think. Where is the wine? But it’s not that kind of party. It’s mint juleps we are to drink and we do. Amazingly, they are the best mint juleps on the planet.  My friend won’t have it any other way. She insists.

A picture is taken of me and my friend who is weaving her party through the hoops of recurring cancer and in the picture, she is beaming, her smile incandescent like the light bulb in my grandmother’s kitchen that lasted decades, the tiny wires inside like the veins of an immortal being. That’s how she glows.

IMG_4904And a week later, she mails the photos, the ones of me in my ersatz Kentucky Derby hat, my husband looking like Colonel Sanders in his short-sleeved white shirt, black tie and straw hat, and this one of me and my incandescent friend. What a beauty she is. How beautiful and carefree and valuable she makes the rest of us feel, despite what awaits her tomorrow.

What a gift she brings.