Brand building through storytelling

By phone or Facebook, an unforgettable friendship

I’d been meaning to call her for weeks, if not months. Perhaps she’d been meaning to call me, too. It had been more than 35 years since we talked on the phone every day with that craving for connection known only to teenage best friends. In those days I could tie up the family phone for hours–or until my parents finally lost patience–because nothing mattered more than consoling Anne after one more feckless youth broke her heart. If I thought my friend needed help, I could have run naked for the phone past every kid at school who’d ever laughed at me. And I knew she’d have done the same for me.

A month ago I sat down to breakfast, iPad at the ready, and found an alert about Anne on Facebook. She had just changed her status from married to single. I didn’t know of any trouble between Anne and her husband of some decades’ standing. But really, how surprising was that? We lived six hundred miles apart; she must have been confiding in some other best friend. I pictured her interviewing lawyers and searching for a new place to live. Better not to intrude on her distress too quickly. I expressed my concern by e-mail and promised to call that night. She answered on the first ring. “Hello, Toronto!” she said in Dover, New Hampshire, laughing as if my number on her call display were the most enchanting sight since the matching water buffalo sandals we once bought on a long-ago trip to Harvard Square. (So what if they were flimsy and made my feet itch? They looked like something Joan Baez might have worn on a protest march with Bob Dylan, and those two were our notion of the world’s coolest people.)

My reason for calling cracked her up. While exploring Facebook’s more obscure features, she accidentally changed her marital status. Not that she didn’t have news. She was quitting real estate, the change-of-pace career she’d taken on after decades of teaching English. Too little money, too many foreclosures, too much heartache. She’d just taken a client through a house in which the dining room was still decked out for a toddler’s birthday party. A whole family evicted, with the cake still on the table. “I can’t do this anymore,” she told me. When I asked what she planned to do instead, she didn’t hesitate: “I think I’ll read Emily Dickinson.”

Anne was the first person I knew who found a soul mate in Emily Dickinson–always “Emily” to her. My notion of a poet was a wild-haired iconoclast like Dylan Thomas or Allen Ginsberg. Emily struck me as hopelessly square, with her coy celebrations of robins and bees. What could a 19th-century recluse (and a virgin, to boot) have to do with my bold friend Anne, who drove fast and went all the way-this at a time when I hadn’t even been kissed? Anne had discovered the fierce, flinty Emily–the poet who looked death in the eye and wrote, “He put the Belt around my life–I heard the Buckle snap–“

My mother worried that Anne would corrupt me, and no wonder. I was one of those preternaturally good girls who need permission to take the smallest risk, and that’s what Anne gave me. She thought it would be fun to walk barefoot through Harvard Square (it was, although my mother would have cringed). She barrelled around the New Hampshire seacoast with me in the death seat, and brought me back in one piece. She told me how an orgasm felt. She never did get me onto the Pill, nor did she get me reading Emily Dickinson. By the time I crossed those boundaries, we’d fallen out of touch.

Our friendship blossomed again in mid-life, fertilized by Facebook and e-mail. We exchanged photos, talked books and families, planned visits that didn’t always happen. Once when I was distracted by a move and nowhere to be seen on Facebook , she worried that she’d lost me. “Just wanted to make sure that we are good,” she wrote on the fly. “I don’t have another 40 years.” We talked about phoning more than we did, and we had obligations that things short. That night a month ago, we were just getting started when Anne told me she had to go out. “To be continued…,” I said.

Less than 36 hours later, I sat down with my morning coffee and iPad. Again it was Facebook that caught my attention–this time with a message from a friend of Anne’s, a woman I’d never met. Anne had died of a heart attack the previous day.

How could she be dead when we hadn’t even finished our last conversation? Surely it was just another mixup we could laugh about someday, like her status change from married to single. For days I kept checking her Facebook wall, looking for the punch line to the joke human error had played on us. Instead I found tributes, many from former students who remembered Anne as their favourite teacher.

Ever since, I’ve been pondering the empty space that used to be Anne’s. I liked knowing she was there, down the road from the room where we sprawled on my faded satin bedspread and dreamed of moving to Greenwich Village. At first it seemed the only scrap of comfort in her passing was that death had put the belt around her life so fast, she never heard the buckle snap. Then I thought of something else. She died knowing that we were “still good,” to use her expression. Our friendship could have ended in silence, but we got a lucky break–that glitch on Facebook that moved me to reach for the phone.

Click here to read another post about Anne and me. For insights into Emily Dickinson as a revolutionary poet, read Adrienne Rich’s magnificent essay “Vesuvius at Home,” in her essay collection On Lies, Secrets and Silence.

Posted by Rona

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