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The year of friends lost and found

I’m plenty old enough to know that my talent for predicting the future is roughly equivalent to my flair for Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics. Yet I persist in thinking of my life as a story I can shape—every year with a theme and a tidy resolution. I imagine myself as the author. Fact is, I’m an uppity character with delusions of control.

This time last year, I thought I knew the biggest change 2008 would bring. We were cashing out of our penthouse condo to channel our younger, more bohemian selves in an endearingly edgy loft. We were giving up the 24-hour concierge, the walk-in closets, the custom-built wall units and a great swath of expensive stuff, from a silver evening skirt to a pair of swiveling tangerine counter stools, that we once thought we needed (and that nobody wanted to buy). What could be more momentous than that?

Knee deep in boxes and overstuffed garbage bags, I looked to the year ahead as a life-changing drama of relinquishment and rediscovery. I wasn’t altogether wrong about that. I just didn’t foresee that the year’s hardest loss would be two of my friends, both struck down by cancer in their vivacious prime—or that the year’s greatest gift would be new friends who walked into my world at unlikely moments and with luck will be staying for a good while yet.

Perhaps I should have seen the tough part coming. My best friend, stricken with a brain tumour, never actually told me she was dying (knowing her, she didn’t want to upset me). Yet in her fleeting bursts of strength she would e-mail me reflections on mortality, punctuated by a poem or two. Rereading those messages, I see what I refused to see then: my friend preparing me, with the utmost gentleness, to let her go.

She died in February. We moved in April. I had chosen to give up the airy rooms where I had written and mused and simmered wine-drenched stews for guests. I did not choose to give up my friend, or the room in her heart that was mine alone. It seemed the height of unjustice that as I mourned her loss, another friend was entering the final phase of her illness.

We hung our paintings in the loft, which had neither a concierge nor walk-in closets. We admired the serendipitous harmony between the our furniture, purchased for our former home, and the bold palette chosen for the walls by the previous owners, a gay couple in their 30s. Guests marveled at how deftly we’d put our stamp on the place (thank you, Mark and Scott). I’ve never had a home I didn’t love, and this latest one had the highest ceilings yet, just shy of 11 feet.

Day by day, I put down roots in my new neighbourhood. I found the closest post office, the most welcoming nail salon, the most trustworthy dry cleaner, the best purveyors of lemon tarts and freshly roasted coffee beans. I discovered a church that gives a free organ concert every Tuesday afternoon. Physically speaking, I rebuilt my world. I didn’t even think of rebuilding the emotional neighbourhood my friends represent. After all, it had just been torched. To replace a friend would be to deny her specialness. For the first time in decades, I remembered a song I used to sing as a reluctant and mostly badgeless Brownie: “Make new friends but keep the old/ One is silver and the other gold.”

Here’s what I overlooked. Unless I make meaningful connections with other women, I don’t feel like myself. The time had come to reach out and I couldn’t stop myself, any more than a plant can turn away from the sun. A reader sent me an e-mail that crackled with warmth and off-the-wall humour; I suggested we meet for a drink (which morphed into dinner, we had so much to share). A chance encounter at the gym quickly blossomed into a friendship (and a tip that led to a speaking gig). A long-lost friend began to follow this site; we’ve picked up where we left off 15 years ago and danced in the aisles together at a Bob Dylan concert. I don’t compare these new or reborn friendships to the ones that were wrenched away. I’d rather concentrate on the distinctive gifts that each one brings.

When I was a growing up in a small New Hampshire town where husbands drove to work in fedoras and wives traded recipes at Tupperware parties, my literary mother used to mourn the loss of the astute, funny friends she had known in graduate school. The whole group had scattered, following their men to jobs hither and yon. “The people one meets as married women have already made so many commitments and shut so many doors that you never do know them wholly,” my mother wrote to one faraway confidante from what she called her “magic years.”

In all the years I lived under her roof, I never saw my mother head out for the evening with a friend to laugh and dream and revel in the study of human nature (which less enlightened folks call “gossip”).  Such things weren’t done when a woman became a wife. My generation claimed them as a right, one no less empowering than reliable birth control and rewarding work. So here’s to my friends—old, new and yet to be. I wish I could keep you all with me forever, till Niagara Falls.

Click here to read “When my best friend died.”


Posted by Rona

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