Early September 2017 I came home to a phone message from M., a friend I had not heard from in more that 14 years. She left a detailed message saying wonderful things that made me blush about my poetry book The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Just hearing her voice was enough to make me happy. I returned her call immediately and we talked the way we had before she left Asheville. Since I had a residency scheduled at Weymouth Center later in the month and she lived less than an hour’s drive from Southern Pines, I invited her to come have lunch with me there.
The writing residencies at Weymouth are sacred space for me, an opportunity to concentrate on my work without the daily distractions of laundry, meals, cats, and all the myriad ways I can be pulled away from my desk. But friendships are also sacred.
M. is a writer and a poet, a kindred soul. We met in a poetry class in the early 1990s in Asheville. I had expected that she would always be part of my life. Then she moved away from Asheville. She had good reasons for moving and I know that long distance relationships require extra effort. But I thought we would stay in touch. She was going through a rough patch in her life, some of it all too familiar to me, and some her unique struggles and demons. Throughout the years I sent cards to her last known address, tried all the phone numbers I could find for her. I asked a mutual friend who had also not heard from her in several years.
“I did you a favor. Trust me,” she said about her 14-year absence from my life. I’m sure she believed that. I was not convinced.
The summer of 2017 was a season of hard losses. Three close friends, all 72-year-old women, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Hardly had I begun to adjust to a world without the first when 20 days later the second died. I was buying toothpaste when I learned of her death. Two months later, a friend from my years in Annapolis died. Our letters and phone calls had become Christmas card notes, and I had not answered her cheery note in last year’s card.
So when M. reappeared, I greeted her with all the joy of a resurrection.
Over lunch at Sweet Basil’s, we talked about writing, about our lives, our country, and our world. We dispensed with the difficult stuff early.
“I’m a conservative,” she said. “I’m a Christian and I watch Fox News.”
“I’m a liberal and I’m a Christian. I watch CNN. Fox makes me crazy,” I said.
“As CNN does me,” she laughed. I laughed. We continued eating and talking. We laughed a lot. We didn’t raise our voices. We didn’t blame or accuse anyone. We didn’t talk about ideology or politics. We talked about our concerns and fears about the world we live in. We listened. We heard each other. We continued our conversation over a latte at a local coffee shop.
“So you’re just content to sit here while a nuclear bomb may be exploding even as we speak?” M. asked, startled that I did not share her fear of the “end times.”
“There’s nothing I can do to stop a crazy man from detonating a nuclear bomb,” I said. “If I die right now, I’ll die knowing I’m doing what gives my life meaning.”
We parted with plans to stay in touch and get together again. For a couple of weeks after I returned home we exchanged emails. Then weeks went by and eventually I sent her an email, just checking to see how her writing was going. No response. I made a few other attempts to stay in touch.
Eventually it became obvious that the friend that had been lost, then found, had once again taken herself out of my life. I was angry (why waste an entire afternoon if she was just going to disappear again?). Then I was sad (I missed our conversations and poetry talk). Finally, I realized that the afternoon we spent together was by no means “wasted.” Whatever our separate reasons, we both wanted to spend that time together. I think that I can safely say that we both enjoyed that afternoon.
Finally I realized that I was grateful for the afternoon we spent talking and laughing. I’m glad she got back in touch and stayed for even a short time. I didn’t lose anything. I gained an afternoon with a friend.
Expectations are tricky. I had expected our friendship to resume and continue. But I do not know what is going on in her life, or what her expectations were. I know so little. That’s why I write. And read. And make time for the people who are important to me, the friends and the friendless. That’s why I try to be kind and love the people I love as best I can. But, like most of us, I am deeply flawed. I am rarely successful.