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A Little Help From Her Friends

An "urban tribe" rallies around one of its own


Published December 1, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

After three weeks, Allison Hicks is finally learning how to sleep again. Since early November, she's had long, dreamless hours of drug-induced unconsciousness, but it's not the same thing. Then again, it's only been 24 hours since she was disentangled from the thicket of tubes, catheters, ventilators and blood pumps that kept her alive and sedated after three surgeries to treat an aggressive form of cervical cancer. But Hicks is out of the woods now and her sense of humor is making an amazingly speedy recovery.

"On my first night here, I looked at the clock and it was between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. for, like, four days," Hicks says weakly from her hospital bed in Fletcher Allen Health Care. "It was like Groundhog Day."

Hicks, who is 29, doesn't mind people knowing about her condition. "I'm not a big boundaries person," she says. "Yesterday, it hit me that I have cervical cancer. I almost passed out and threw up in the hallway. I was like, 'Who the fuck is that? That's not me.'"

Neither is she accustomed to lying still, exhausted and unable to care for herself. Ordinarily, Hicks, who lives in Burlington, is a dynamo: working as a water-aerobics instructor at the YMCA, making clothing and organizing crafts fairs in and around Burlington, including the Rose Street Holiday Market and the Women's Crafts Fair. But her primary passion over the last four years has been, as she puts it, "my little people." Hicks is a labor and postpartum doula -- a professional caregiver for new mothers and their babies. She cooks their meals, runs their errands, gives them baths and massages, and does whatever else is needed to keep a new mother and child happy, healthy and comfortable.

So when Hicks was jolted out of her familiar role as "mother hen" and entered the hospital, her friends went into action. Within days, they'd met to discuss her physical, emotional and financial needs for the next six to nine months and outline a plan of action.

"I'm overwhelmed," says Hicks' mother, Lone, who flew in from Denmark for the surgery. "I can feel it down my spine when I talk about them, what they have given up in time and effort and kindness. I always knew Allison had many friends. But I didn't know she had an extended..."

Lone searches for the right word, but not because her English is lacking. Her daughter's core group isn't a "family" -- at least, not in the legal or traditional sense. But calling them "friends" doesn't do them justice, either.

Perhaps the phrase she's looking for is "urban tribe." Coined by author Ethan Watters in his 2003 book, Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family? the term is emblematic of a cultural shift that's occurred among the post-baby-boom generation. Across America, millions of young people in their twenties and thirties, like Hicks, have put off marriage, child rearing and traditional family life and formed tight-knit circles of friends who live, work and play together like extended families -- or tribes.

An urban tribe's size, demographics and rules of social engagement can vary widely, though as Watters discovered, they're frequently college-educated folks who moved far from their hometowns and families. Urban tribe members often don't think of themselves as belonging to anything other than a group of very close friends -- they rarely have membership rolls and their borders are often porous. What they all have in common is that they fulfill, either temporarily or permanently, essential functions in their members' lives that were once the exclusive purview of those bound by blood or marriage.

"Tribes are adept at quickly mobilizing to come to the aid of members who are in acute distress," Watters writes. That said, he also found that what most defines an urban tribe are the "small favors and regular rituals" -- weekly poker games, potluck dinners, knitting circles, annual ski trips and so forth.

"When I first moved here, I didn't know many people at all," says Heather Cromie of Burlington, a close friend of Hicks who has been at the hospital with her nearly every day. "Allison and our close group of women friends became this little inner circle. We called each other the 'Sex in the City' girls because we were all single and spent Sunday mornings having brunch together every week."

But when a crisis occurs, an urban tribe often expands to encompass other group of people who may not even know one another. Hicks' support circle is large and includes her former doula clients, folks she knows from the Y, and fellow crafters.

Hicks herself is fairly typical of the urban tribe members Watters met while researching his book. For one, she has a good relationship with her "real" family. But because they live thousands of miles away -- her mother in Denmark, her brother in San Francisco, her sister in Phoenix -- she only gets to see them during vacations or holidays. Or when tragedy strikes.

Hicks was only expected to be in the hospital several days. But when her condition worsened, days turned into weeks. Her brother needed to fly home for some law-school exams and her sister had medical school obligations. Hicks' mother returns to Denmark this week.

Hicks' friends mobilized to fill in the gaps -- and not just by agreeing to cook lasagna once a week or raise a few hundred dollars with a bake sale. They've planned silent auctions and masquerade balls at Burlington restaurants and bars. They've set up a bank account in her name and set a goal of raising at least $15,000 to help pay her rent and bills. They've created an email list to keep her family and friends updated. They've called her clients to ensure that she'll have work to return to when she's recovered. And they've started organizing a work schedule to ensure that someone will always be at Hicks' side when she returns next month from her chemotherapy and radiation treatments in Arizona.

It helps that, as with most urban tribes, many of its members are unmarried and have no children of their own. This affords them the freedom to spend their time and money on other members of the tribe. Hicks' friends, Cromie and Stacie Sears of South Burlington, have both been at her bedside almost every day for the last three weeks. Like Hicks, Sears is 29, single and childless. Cromie is 32 and has no children, either. As Hicks' medical situation worsened, Sears and Cromie acted as liaisons between the hospital staff and Hicks' mother, helping her to understand the medical terminology and interpreting the subtle nuances surrounding her daughter's course of treatment.

But the women also have full-time jobs: Sears is a fundraiser for Middlebury College, Cromie a rehab specialist. Not surprisingly, their employers understand their "tribal" commitments less than if Hicks were a parent, spouse or child.

"It's definitely been a test of my ability to balance what my heart wants to do and what society demands of me," says Sears. "But for me, it's all about Allison... Being a doula is not like being an attorney. It takes a lot of personal spirit and energy and character. And so, in some ways, this is our opportunity to reward Allison and say, 'All your hard work is not for naught. You don't have to feel like you're alone.'"

The same can be said for Jordan Silverman. The 28-year-old, Burlington-based photographer is also unmarried and has no children. But he works a busy schedule with irregular hours. Still, he's fulfilling a fairly crucial role in their urban tribe -- that of "events coordinator" or "social organizer." He's devoted considerable time and energy to organizing meetings, updating the email list, calling media outlets and donating his studio space for fundraisers.

"I feel like I've answered about 50 emails a day just from people emailing me about Allison," Silverman says. "We're all stressed in different ways, but we're finding a way to make it work for her."

Throughout her ordeal, Hicks was largely oblivious of the efforts underway on her behalf. And now that she's learning about it, finding herself on the receiving end of all this care and attention is a new experience. "I don't want to be the one who needs it. I still want to have a love affair with my friends," she says. "I don't want them to be a slave to a situation that they feel guilty about."

Hicks, who isn't married or in a committed relationship, knows she's embarking on a whole new level of intimacy with her tribe. "Ugh! It's breathtaking how intense the attention is," she says. "I'm preparing for the best relationship of my life."

Hicks doesn't have the energy to talk for long. While she rests, Lone sits by a window down the hall. In the last three weeks, she's spent hours sitting on this windowsill, watching the sky change over Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks. Her eyes are tired, her face creased from lack of sleep, her fingers red from wringing her hands as her daughter's condition crested and dipped. Throughout the ordeal, Sears, Cromie, Silverman and others have been there for Lone -- driving her to the hospital every morning and picking her up at night, getting her meals, making sure she checks her blood sugar and takes her insulin shots. Three weeks ago, these people were strangers to her. Not anymore.

"In Europe, there are so many things they say about Americans, and a lot of it is negative," she says. "But I don't think they know how kind Americans really are. It's been tremendous."

And while this "bad dream" may be almost over, Lone knows that her daughter still faces some tough times ahead. Hicks has eight weeks of chemotherapy and radiation to get through. After that, she'll have to come to grips with not being able to bear a child of her own.

Full recovery will take a while. But tonight, anyway, Hicks' tribe is doing whatever it can to help her sleep like a baby.