Empty Spaces: Musings On Absent Friends.

31 10 2009

absent friends

In one of the (to my mind) unfortunate consequences of the social media revolution we are often besieged with poems and quotes from friends and acquaintances waxing rhapsodic about the place of friendship in our lives.  “Friends come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime” is a popular forward along with all sorts of instructions about how many friends to send it on to and then of course the obligatory way to count whether you have enough friends in each category.  Then there are the occasional ‘your friend sent you a friendship flower!” messages on Facebook, or the gifts of “Friends are Forever!” flair for your virtual corkboard.

It will probably come to as a surprise to some that I ignore those. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh. But in these the waning months of the 43rd year of my life I have a hard time taking that kind of stuff seriously. Friendships can not be nourished with a cheesy email or a virtual pink flower.  My friends occupy a cherished place in my life and I take the care and feeding of those relationships seriously. But every time I get another quaint forward instructing me to ‘send this to 10 amazing friends” my thoughts and my heart go to one place: the friends I am missing, the absent friends and the empty spaces they have left behind.  I don’t mean friends who live some distance away from me — things like Facebook and iChat have rendered distance all but meaningless and I often connect with them daily.  No, I’m speaking of the friends who still occupy prime real estate in my heart but not in my life: friends who have died… and friends who have left me.

The first category is of course inevitable.  Part of living is accepting that people die, even your friends. Friends like Mark, the talented dancer who used to charm me with his Janet Jackson imitations over the dining hall tables at Holy Cross, and whose versions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” will stay with me forever.  The memory of Mark, whose future seemed so bright, and who died of AIDS in the early 90s before any of us who eventually came out of the closet were even close to doing so, remains frozne in time in the photos of our college heyday.  There is Sue, the gifted and slightly nutty director who pushed me to new creative breakthroughs and who lost her battle with her demons, leaving a hole in many lives in the NH theater community.   Or Kim, whose red hair and endless legs turned every head in the room, who had the ability to encourage even the shyest, heaviest woman that she could be a powerful strong dancer in her jazzercise classes, and whose battle with a rare cancer was fought with astonishing grace and inimitable style.  And then there is Dani. Dani, who I think of every day and every time “Rubberband Man” comes on my iPod.  Dani, whose pictures populate my home and office, who encouraged me to be true to who I really was, whose sly humor and beautiful smile made every dinner party, coffee shop gathering, or impromptu get-together special. Dani taught us all the value of a life well lived and, as importantly, that there is such a thing as a good death, a peaceful passing surrounded by friends, the color purple, music, and poetry.

I grieve the loss of these friends and their place in my world. But the friends who haunt me more are those still living, still close by, still in my heart, yet parted from me because of who I am.  In college I was blessed with two amazing friends I met the first week of freshman year. We took classes together, studied together, worked on shows together, sang together, partied together. We spent time in each others homes and grew close to each others families.  While one of us moved to far off places two of us remained within an hour of each other for the next two decades.  We were maids of honor and bridesmaids, godmothers and honorary aunts.  As we grew into women with young marriages we spent time in our new apartments, took bike rides and beach trips, drank gallons of wine and planned our futures.  We went through each others pregnancies together, pushed our babies through shopping malls on hot summer days just for the free air conditioning, commiserated over tantrums and potty training and the outrageous proliferation of shiny plastic toys in our house.   When we were fortunate enough for all three of us to be together we’d gather for wine or coffee while our kids played and reminisce about all that we had gone through together. They were the sisters of my heart and we joked about how while two of us together was wonderful, the three of us together always felt complete.

Then my marriage ended and I came out of the closet. (That very cut and dried declarative sentence hints at a story best told in stages perhaps at another time) Telling people about this change in my life was terrifying and as any gay person knows you don’t come out just once you come out over and over again. The prospect of having that conversation with my closest friends was daunting but I remained confident they would love me unconditionally even though they may not understand. For the most part that is what happened, my friends listened, they hugged, they asked questions, and in the end I like to think our friendships were stronger. For the most part.

I had haltingly, fumblingly tried to tell one of my friends what I was struggling with in that last painful year of my marriage. One night I opened an email from her that pulled the rug out from under me.  She told me in no uncertain terms she could never “approve” of this “lifestyle” I had “chosen” that she had even struggled with the fact that some of our best friends had already made that journey out of the closet and wondered what that said about her that she had ‘all these gay friends.’  She concluded by saying everything would be fine as long as I didn’t talk about it anymore and didn’t go “waving any rainbow flags in her face.”  This was six years ago and writing those words now still makes me cry.   How could she not see I was who I had always been? How could she not see I was finally trying to be all that I was supposed to be?  How could she say these things? She eventually apologized – but only for ‘drinking wine and writing emails late at night.’  A few months later,  we tried to get together again with our girls as we had for so many years but something had changed.  Conversation didn’t flow freely, I couldn’t talk to her about anything real anymore.  We watched the kids play at the children’s museum and parted awkwardly.  I haven’t seen her since.  She lives twenty minutes away from me, has a daughter the exact age as mine, writes beautifully, and shares a past with me that I treasure, but now lives a life I can no longer share.  We exchanged Christmas cards for a while but even those stopped eventually.  Briefly, after the loss of her father (oh how I adored her parents) and my mom, sympathies and platitudes were exchanged.  But for all purposes she is gone.   My other friend, the third part of this trio never opened the door for these conversations.  I tried a few times to talk over email about my new life, about Kelly, about how happy I am.  I tried to talk about how much I missed our other friend.  To do so guaranteed there would be no return email.  She briefly appeared on Facebook where so many of our college crew enjoy near daily exchanges and a few ‘real life’ reunions.  I let myself get my hopes up that this would bring her back to us.  It didn’t. She just as quickly disappeared.

I live a life so full, so rich, so blessed with friends from all corners of the globe that I tell myself this shouldn’t matter anymore.  That six years later I should be used to a life without them.  But the truth is that as much as I grieve the loss of my friends who died too young I grieve the loss of these sisters of my heart who left me.   I miss them. I wonder if they’ll read this and see themselves in it.  I wonder if they’ll ever come back to me.

So you see why cutesy cyber flowers and balloons irritate me, for they are easy ways out of truly nourishing the friendships that feed our lives. If there are friends in your life you’ve let slip away, go now and find them.   If there are wounds that need to heal, if there are rifts that need to mend, go now and fix them.   And if you have a friend in need, a friend in pain, a friend who needs help that maybe you can’t understand, go now and listen to them.  If you’re too far to connect, write them – an email, a letter, send a card – but please no forwards and no flair.   Let them know they matter.  I wish I could.

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7 responses

31 10 2009
GiGi

Katie, you always just lay it all out there and leave me choked up and in awe of you. Thank you for sharing your heart. Hugs.

31 10 2009
Beth

I cannot fathom how people make those decisions/choices. Especially when it comes to a person who’s been such a big part of your life. How do you not accept them for who/what they are, whether it’s Catholic or tall or vegetarian or Swedish or gay? The narrow-mindedness of people continues to baffle me, and probably always will. I’m sorry for your lost friends, both gone and disappeared. A gorgeous post, Katie.

31 10 2009
motherofalltrips

It’s funny since I’ve never met you in person but I can attest that you are one of the warmest most interesting people I’ve come across. Your capacity for friendship shines even in your electronic relationships. So even if you don’t send or receive flowers or flair, you transmit so much of yourself in other ways.

I’ll never get over people’s capacity for small-mindedness. You write about this so beautifully and generously that it convinces me all the more that the loss is theirs not yours.

31 10 2009
Lisa

… my friend. Ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to say Katie is my friend. I am a little too choked up to say much more, (Dani and Kim were my friends too), but I will always be happy to say Katie (and Kelly) are my very good friends. Precious. Thank you Kate.

31 10 2009
Emily

Scott’s grandmother was a firm believer in sending letters, cards, something, anything by mail. We would be surprised every so often by a card with sometimes nothing more than ‘thinking of you’ in it. Before she died, I asked her about those cards, letters and told her how they never failed to make me smile. Her response was “by putting a stamp on a letter and taking time to mail it, you say I loved you today”. I’ve never forgotten that, and try hard to love every person who bubbles to top of mind with a card, an email, some reach…some touch. And I love you Katie, my dear, dear friend.

1 11 2009
katiegoodman

Emily, during Lent each year my mother would write every day to someone who was not expecting to hear from her. I always thought that was lovely

love you too sweetheart..

1 11 2009
Round Peg

Katie:

As is often the case, you put, beautifully, into words what I simply have felt for the longest time, that somehow the finality of death gives closure. In the decade when my father and I weren’t speaking, I would just tell people he was dead in order to avoid explaining that my father, who was still married to my mother and very much alive, simply didn’t love me. I love your mother’s idea of writing to someone who doesn’t expect it every year, as it gives the chance to open doors that have shut due to time and distance.

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