Friday, February 19, 2010

Two friends I love and miss

Now that 2010 is well underway--two months nearly gone--I can feel a bit of distance on the events of 2009, specifically the events connected to two friends. Recent events have brought them back into my life, in little ways.

I think I've mentioned that last year, in 2009, four women I've known very well for a long time died, between January and October. One of those four was a woman who had been a very good friend of mine for about eight years, really a best friend, but when she died I hadn't seen her or spoken with her outside email for about three years. This month, one of the libraries at My U bought a book for their collection in her name, a rare book of songs for pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostelo. It is a book my friend would have enjoyed seeing, even owning, and perfect for her legacy as a teacher and scholar.

My friend was a complicated person. At her memorial service--the real one, the first one--her students showed up to talk about her as a teacher or to play music in her memory. That is such a nice legacy for a life-long teacher. It matters less what administrators or even colleagues say, in the end, because the association wiht them is about bureaucracy and policy, not the mentoring or delivery of information but also life lessons and the ability to enlarge one's mental, emotional, and physical life by asking questions. It was truly lovely to hear what her former students had to say about her toughness, her persistence, her rigor, and her laughter.

She was intellectually bright, and I am certain musically talented--although I never heard her play the piano. She was one of the funniest people I'd ever met. We used to laugh a lot, and we shared certain interests: teaching, history, music and theatre, books, cooking, and above all Paris.

Here's the other side, probably the legacy of a painful upbringing where she was a misfit in her family, a divorce, and life in a town she didn't like much. She was distrustful, maybe unable to trust even friends. She was distanced from her family. She was angry, and constantly complained, argued, ranted against policies, people, and colleagues although she never worked actively to change things. I think she felt powerless a lot of the time, without control over the events around her.

Twice, at big moments of my life, she wasn't present, although we were good friends. When I was denied tenure, she didn't get involved on any level. Other colleagues and friends stepped up during that month, helping me prepare a file, talking me up, and writing support material. She did nothing, although she was tenured and knew everyone in the school and the university. Again, when my book was published, she said she was going to throw me a publication party but never managed to make it happen. After four months of excuses and postponements, another colleague simply gave the party.

When she died last year, her office and apartment were left in a mess. There was no will, no file, no plan of any kind prepared for her belongings or her inheritance, even though she had known she was very, very sick. One of her long-time friends stepped in and took over the role of executor; fortunately, this person is organized and dedicated.

The worst thing was that there was no evidence of the book she'd been talking about for a decade.

I stopped being her friend three years before. It had simply become too difficult: every phone call was angry, and while it was administrators or colleagues or students she was ranting against, she often turned it on me, accusing me of not listening, of being part of it, whatever. We talked about planning a class together, one on popular performance culture in Paris in the late 19th century, but it fell apart when we never completed one outline or description for administrators, when she accused me of working behind her back to teach the class solo, when she became "too busy" on other projects. She had become intrusive, planning shopping trips or events and becoming angry when I couldn't participate because of other commitments or cash flow. I asked her not to come to the hospital when I had surgery. I told her that I would call her after returning home the following day--however, she did not respect my wishes and showed up, "worried": a small thing, but telling. She followed up her visit with several calls, angrily informing me about her concern and my rudeness in not addressing it. Since I had throat surgery and was sleeping about 20 hours daily, this was... confusing. Especially in that she herself refused to share information about her own health, discuss it, or allow friends to help her by driving her to the doctor or by taking her to the hospital.

Such a complex, difficult person. Frightened, controlling, isolated. Funny, witty, intelligent, curious, angry, private, giving, distrustful. before she passed, she did mend fences with her nieces and her great-nephews--which gave her so much pleasure.

I expect to see her every day in the halls, not as a ghost but just herself. I miss her, but I had already moved on from our friendship, which leaves me with a small, lingering trace of guilt--because I wasn't there when she died, because we never made it up, because it was easy to let go of her as a friend. Because she made it easy to let go of her. I know she is at peace now, and I hope happier.

My second tale just resolved, sort of, this week. And it is sort of the same situation, with twists. This friend I've been close to all my life--since we were 10--but haven't seen or talked to her for a year. Again, me, not her. Her mother died a year ago, after a few months of illness: that was the first of the four women who passed on. I'd also known her mother all my life. This friend is attractive, intelligent, funny, capable, responsible, and works at a place she hates, complains about all the time, and cannot get away from. For the last two years prior to her mother's death she was interviewing and applying, but while she is an incredible person, she couldn't make the move. Fifteen years ago she made a similar change, moving from her first area of focus to one slightly out of that narrow range, this job, and now she wants to make a similar leap.

She is single and it has been some time since she had a relationship; bad experiences left her, I think, uninterested in trying again. She wanted to make a change by adopting a baby: I got notice this week that it has happened, that she has indeed adopted a boy. I am very happy for her, so happy, but one reason I have stepped away from her is the anger, frustration, drama, and lack of control in her life. "Lack of control" meaning her participation in the ongoing problems in her workplace and family. I love this friend, she is such a good person and deserves happiness, but she is stuck in her drama. Same problem, same players--or even new players in same roles.

I am working my own drama, of course, like my friends, but the cycle of complaint, of frustrated anger, of seeing self as victim, with no sign of solution or change, became hard to participate in. Rather than get stuck--and I see where I have been stuck in the past, financially, emotionally, intellectually--I want to actively work to move on, to change, to affect my own life for the better. It is easy to feel stuck, to "give in" to others' abuse or demands because I'm tired and they are so very unwilling to negotiate/discuss/share (what I call Republican tactics, part of our culture now thanks to W and Karl Rove).

Life is a process, not a product. I tell my kids this about theatre and art, but it is true, true, true. I am trying to understand and affect my ongoing process. I hope to connect with these friends again, now or in a future life, but until I get my drama under control...



  1. Other people's drama can be draining. It's good to be a caring listener, but with some people that devolves into feeling like an enabling audience. Not good. I'm so sorry that your friend died without reconnecting with you; one of the only "good" things about a long final illness is that there is plenty of time to mend fences/build bridges/make amends. But not everyone takes that time, or recognizes it for the gift it is.

    Sounds like you are doing what's mentally healthy for you. As we all should. I wish you the best with that process!

  2. thank you. so wonderfully communicated.


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