One of my many regrets in life is not being a better friend to others when I was growing up. I think of people I picked on and worry about what lasting damage I did; of certain people I ditched for what I thought was better; of people I lost contact with out of lack of effort. I often feel that my current situation is a justly deserved punishment for my failures.
I tried to be better about friendship in high school. I can’t remember if I ever wrote about her, but I did have a best friend. She was loud and unruly and I found her obnoxious. Timid freshman that I was, even I was annoyed enough to turn around and tell her to shut up. Somehow we bonded over something and became close friends. While total opposites in many ways, we were nonetheless on the same intellectual level and could just be ourselves together. She was one of those super-smart kids who couldn’t act like it.
She… tended to get into trouble. I was never there for any of her escapades; she knew where I stood on certain extracurricular activities and didn’t want to involve me. I can say, to my credit, that I was never an enabler. And she knew that, and in retrospect I know she deeply appreciated that she had one friend in her life that didn’t go along with things or act like everything was great. I had no problem telling her if I thought something was wrong. How is someone a good friend if they happily assist you on your way to your own demise?
I went on to college and she did not, but we stayed in contact. I always called her on her birthday. It was in 2009, the summer between my junior and senior year, that she pulled her worst stunt yet. I was so angry that I decided not to talk to her for a couple months until her life was more settled.
Not long after, through a series of bizarre coincidences, I found out that she had passed away. No one had bothered to call me. They say it was an aneurysm, but given her lifestyle, I don’t quite believe that was the case. I wasn’t able to attend her service. And I hadn’t called her on her final birthday which was shortly before her death. I never had any closure from it and it continues to dangle around in my memory. I think I have a picture of her from the prom she talked me into attending, but I may have sent it to her parents.
At the time this occurred, I was deep into a committed relationship and never really made any close female friends after that, except for a few awkward friendships that fizzled out. I think it is partly because of my satisfaction with my relationship and partly guilt that prevented it. If I had only called! I had finally done so well as a friend, and then dropped the ball at the critical moment. And I can’t recall the exact date anymore! I know it’s early July sometime…
Throughout my life, I have attracted troubled people. When I have a missed call from the local mental hospital, I have to call around on the pretext of saying “Hi” to figure out by process of elimination who it might have been. Due to previous experiences I prefer not to discuss right now, I shy away when people make heavy emotional demands on me. But they always find me somehow. Why don’t they realize I can’t give them what they want? I can be your listening ear but, oh, please, don’t tell me I’m your only friend in the whole world or you’ll send me scurrying straight under my bed. Please don’t think I’m a selfish, uncaring monster–it’s true I’m selfish, but I do care, quite a bit, but after certain incidents (not involving anyone mentioned in this post) of emotional blackmail (“If you don’t talk to me, I’ll kill myself” sort of a thing), I get very nervous. And then the guilt of not following through with the phone call and the guilt of retreating and the guilt of other past failures kick in and I feel very unworthy and incapable of friendship. Because it’s like, there you go again, leaving people who need you in the lurch. But my chest constricts and I panic at the thought of some of the trouble I’ve gotten into.
So why am I reflecting on these things now? There’s a friend of mine in need, of course. Well, there’s a couple, but there’s one on the front burner at this particular moment.
I met her when I started working at the shithole over ten years ago. I estimate that she is older than me by around twenty years. Age or other demographics don’t pose much of an issue in the way of friendship. She worked for years in the intimate apparel department and I wound up there, too. I liked it because most people didn’t want to work in that area so no one bothered you. The customers were little old ladies that you could battle with over coupons with no repercussions because we didn’t have surveys in those days. Men rarely ventured in there, and were at a distinct disadvantage when they did, which was fine by me because I don’t like waiting on male customers.
My friend and I bonded over our cats and our work ethic. Judging by the state of department stores today, it might be hard to believe, but at that time, salespeople actually gave a damn. She was one of the top saleswomen in the store. Unfortunately, people found her to be a bit off, though she is never unkind or displays any negative characteristics besides a slight secretiveness. She moved around with a lot of nervous energy. The “Enter” key on the register was broken from her hitting it so hard.
Well, I suppose she had and has her reasons for being secretive. A few years into my tenure there, some sort of personal crisis I won’t get into occurred and she had to leave. Luckily I had her phone number and was able to maintain a tenuous contact with her over the next couple of years. However, at one point this contact was lost and I couldn’t get in touch with her for a long time, possibly a few years.
During that time, another series of life events and coincidences led to my converting to Catholicism and attending the local church attached to my childhood grammar school. It was at a daily Mass one Friday evening that I recognized her sitting in the transept of the church. I do not know what illness she suffers from and if I did, I don’t think I’d disclose it out of respect. She was with her elderly mother, who later had to go to a nursing home.
I know my friend tells her about me, and her mother tells her how lucky she is to have me as a friend, and I cringe because I’m not a very good friend. I sometimes dodge phone calls because I’m afraid of getting involved in something that I am not equipped to assist with. I know this from experience. What happens is that my heart bleeds for someone and then I get into a situation that is way out of my league to handle.
I have a terrible effect on certain types of people by which we hold hands and (not so) merrily circle down the drain together into a slough of despond that I can’t extricate myself from without help. Therefore, I now restrain myself from ruminating over my own issues with someone else. I do not place too much of a positive spin on things, because that’s dismissive, but I also don’t revel in misery, either. When she used the dreaded “B” word, “burden,” I told her that she has to get that word out of her vocabulary. In the past, I had spent many a night crying myself to sleep under the oppression of that cursed word, but I can’t commiserate about it. Instead, I have to carefully not reference how I feel while also not dismissing how she feels. It isn’t helpful to say to someone, “Oh, no you’re not,” and then move on in the conversation because it’s uncomfortable. It’s important to be sympathetic so they know they’re being heard and not left cold.
To kindly deal with someone who, let’s say, has fear of abandonment issues, is a challenge for one whose instinct is to run for cover. If you can’t tell by now that I have a built-in guilt complex, then I don’t know what else to say. I want to be there for them but at the same time I want to cower in my closet and hum very loudly to drown out my fear of blackmail.
Now, my friend is most certainly not blackmailing me. I know the difference very well–too well, perhaps, to the point of being gun shy. I remember one night when we were leaving church, that, moved by the reading of the day, she revealed something to me with tears in her eyes and I wanted to sink because I felt so inadequate. It is difficult not to be disgusted with myself. Others can rise to these occasions but I panic for the nearest exit. I want to die, die, die, because I hear the threats from my distant past and I don’t ever want to go through that again, though facts and logic tell me it isn’t the case now; rather, I am only transferring it.
And at the same time, I can’t be someone’s best friend, their savior, because I feel sorry for them. That’s not fair–who, in possession of clear thinking, would even want that? So, I don’t insult people that way. I would want a sincere friend who cares about my well-being, not one who is trying to score martyr points. Well, I never pretended not to have a martyr complex.
This afternoon, after a few missed calls, I took one. There were a few things that were as I feared–cryptic statements about things no one would understand; but there was also a story of today’s visit to the neighbor of their childhood home, and idyllic images of raspberry bushes and pear trees, old photographs, and a kindly old couple to whom I was very grateful for having shown her kindness.