“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” — Henri Nouwen
I lost a friend this week. My oldest friend, in fact – although we’d been in touch with decreasing frequency over the past few years. Time often does that. And there’s always tomorrow. Until there isn’t. But she was always more than a friend – she was, in a very real way, family. Sadly, we tend to take family for granted.
She’d lost her mother when she was 9, and lived in a very large house (old mansion, in fact) with her fairly distant, mildly alcoholic, father (who didn’t really understand girls), and her two much older brothers. And six cats and two dogs. Plus the pet mice that had gotten loose (but they may have succumbed to the cats – who knew?).
We met early in my freshman year in high school. It was her second go round at 9th grade – I had a few friends that got caught in that temptation just not to bother going to school that first year – so she was nearly 6 months older (those half years still matter at 14). I think we met in chorus. We bonded a couple of months into the school year over a guy. A much older guy with a Corvette. He was an ass. But he was her boyfriend. And he ditched her at a CYO dance & gave me a ride home. It was just a ride, he lied about why she stayed at the dance & it didn’t occur to me to check because I wanted to go home & and 14 year olds don’t think. The following Monday she, quite rightfully, yelled at me & somehow we ended up close friends and she ditched the guy (true story – we ran into him in a bar a few years later and he was still single, still had the Stingray, still fancied himself a ‘player’, and still an ass).
When a family crisis led to my family having nowhere to go, I (and my cat) moved in with hers for the summer when I was 15. My mother and brother moved in a few weeks later, and we stayed until the new year. That was the summer we found the park, an entirely different set of (mostly older) friends, and acceptance of a sort – it was the early ’70’s and so yes, there was also peace, love, guitars, pot, and assorted other questionable things that I’m very glad I’ve avoided with my own children. That year cemented our bond, and also bound our families. Except for my brother, everyone from that extended family unit is now gone. It’s a strange feeling to realize that.
In hindsight I think we bonded so quickly because we never quite fit in anywhere even though we each had our own friends, and activities, apart from each other. We were certainly more different than alike, but at a fundamental level, we’d both had our worlds implode at around the same age (for very different reasons), and came into adolescence with burdens that no one really saw. (And I realized much later that my childhood ‘normal’ was probably more traditionally normal than hers had been). We were probably good for each other (but possibly also not so good at times). We came of age together. We navigated drugs and alcohol, love and loss, and simply becoming adults, mostly intact. As we grew, and aged, it was clear that we had different goals, and needs, and we each made different sacrifices at different times to meet those needs.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but she she was always looking for ‘normal’. She was engaged twice before she met her first husband. That relationship, with someone who wasn’t really ready for marriage and family, gave her both. I was impressed with her as a parent. Awed in fact. And quietly relieved when that marriage finally ended. And happy when she found her second husband, who was her soul-mate and with whom she spent the past 23 years. She had finally found her normal. I met my own soul-mate through her (he was a friend & neighbor of her second fiancé, and we all lived in the same apartment building for a time – until that engagement ended). She was the only one of my friends who seemed to understand when I told her that Bill and I were going to sell everything and travel outside the country for a year or so – she said she knew it was what I’d always wanted to do).
We managed to stay friends as our paths diverged, but first I moved farther away which made visiting difficult, and eventually she moved even father away, and it got even harder. And, as it often happens, even talking on the phone became less frequent (because there’s always time…).
I don’t believe in an afterlife, but she did. If I’m wrong, I hope that hers is a happy one.
“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
― Lemony Snicket, “Horseradish“