By Hilary Schaper
I didn’t attend your memorial service. I was sick. I wouldn’t have gone anyway. I did watch it online though. The last image of you in the photo gallery still haunts me. I want to turn away. Instead, I return to it over and over, searching for you. Against the glare of a late afternoon sky, you stand in front of the sports arena, in the shadow of the massive bronze statue of Magic Johnson. The hoopster’s jersey and shorts ripple under his powerful musculature. Your shrunken body seems to vanish under the weight of your jeans and sweater. Your head is shorn, the familiar frizz gone. You grimace slightly. Had I passed you there, then, I wouldn’t have recognized you.
You were my first friend. Born only nine days apart, we spent much of our early lives together. Our parents lived in the same apartment building, and our mothers were best friends. (When we were infants, they’d placed our tiny bodies side by side on a blanket on the floor. I learned to roll over sooner than you.) Around the time that we started elementary school, our families bought houses near one another.
For the first eight years of my life, you were the closest thing I had to a brother. Our relationship was easy and fun. We knew each other’s parents, grandparents, siblings, houses, schools. We were confirmed in the same Sunday school class. We attended each others’ weddings.
As a child, you were big and awkward, with soft gray eyes, uncommonly long eyelashes, large jug-like ears, a huge goofy smile, and often an expression of complete bewilderment. At other times, you sparkled with mischief as when you’d turn your eyelids inside out, pretend to be a monster, and chase my terrified sister through the house. I remember sitting at your kitchen table many evenings, our dinner plates smeared with the bright orange canned spaghetti we both loved. On snowy days, we dragged our dented flying saucers out of the garage, and sledded down the steep hill in front of your house.
And later, when we were 15 years old, I remember you standing in the hallway outside your bedroom, holding your father’s cane, soon after he died. His purple Oldsmobile became your prize possession. You drove it everywhere, often stopping by to visit me. Then, you’d stride into the house, head straight for the refrigerator, throw open the door, pull out a loaf of bread and a package of roast beef, and make yourself a gigantic sandwich. On summer evenings, you’d pick me up along with our friend, “Brent,” and drive to the newest fast food restaurant where we’d sit at a sticky, plastic table under a large neon sign.
In college, I visited you at the commune in upstate New York, where you lived with a girl, whose name I no longer remember. There, disorder ruled. A bong was always going. People wandered in and out. I never could figure out who lived in the house, and who was just flopping for a few hours, a night, a couple of days.
It’s been five years since you died—and even longer since we were last together. I still can’t let you go. I still can’t figure out why our relationship derailed, why we didn’t see each other in the last years of your life, and why I never got to say goodbye. I realize that I’ll never know. You’ve taken the answers with you. My mind knits hypotheses, unravels them, picks up dropped stitches, and re-knits, in the hope that I might puzzle out what happened. I long to crawl into your head, wriggle into your brain, look out through your eyes—all to see as you saw. You’d no doubt consider this exercise ridiculous. “Why go back?” you’d ask—a question, which reminds me that when I once inquired about the name of that college girlfriend from twenty years before, you replied, “My wife and I don’t talk about the past.” But for me, revisiting what went before is the only way I know to plumb the mystery of you, and of our friendship.
I think back to the April day almost a dozen years ago. To celebrate our birthdays, and in keeping with our longstanding tradition, we met for lunch alone (no husband, no wife). We hadn’t seen each other for at least six months. A couple of weeks before Christmas, I’d written to ask you and your wife to join us for dinner over the holidays. You’d chastised me for not giving you enough notice, though it was two weeks before the date. Your response seemed odd, but I chalked it up to your lack of spontaneity. Then, you wrote, “I’m sick.” “Do you need anything?” “No,” you replied. “Okay. Call when you feel better.” But, before we signed off, the words, “I’ve lost a lung,” appeared on my screen. What? What do you mean? “I’m so sorry.” And, again, “Do you need anything? Can I help in any way?” “No!” Your response, adamant and absolute, barred any further discussion—or so I believed.
Over the next four months, there was radio silence —as you would have said. I struggled with what to do, knowing that respecting your highly (hyper) pronounced need for privacy was essential. After all, despite our decades of friendship, you never told me of your drinking problem, or of your marital troubles with your first wife, until after you’d divorced. Fearful that you would consider any questions about your illness an incursion, a trespass, I trod softly, not wanting to upend our relationship.
My silence wasn’t typical of my behavior with friends during hard times. Then, I check in regularly by text, or email. But with you, I touched down on different terrain, a kind of badland of impenetrability, where my foothold was ever precarious. I never knew when I would misstep, stumble on loose gravel, and plunge down a rocky chasm.
I’d been excited about seeing you, but, as I approached the restaurant through the bare concrete courtyard, my energy lagged. The cavernous restaurant was nearly deserted. (I was surprised that you’d chosen this place—you, who were always so attuned to your physical surroundings, and took such pride in the modern house you designed with the famous architect.) After we settled into our booth, I asked how you were doing with only one lung. You looked shocked, confused. “What?” “At the end of the year, you told me you’d lost a lung.” “I was just kidding. You know how I joke. You know my sense of humor.” True, you did have a strange idea of what was funny, but this was no joke. I burst into tears, furious and—at the same time— relieved. “How could you have done that? I’ve been so worried about you.” It was the first, and last, time I got angry with you. You continued to laugh and jest, as though my reaction was incomprehensible, as though I’d somehow missed the tenor of your email. Still sobbing, I left the table to wash my face in the bathroom. When I returned, we finished our meals without speaking, and parted. Neither of us ever contacted the other again.
Your wife later told me that you hadn’t lost a lung. In fact, your lie coincided with your lymphoma diagnosis. I’ve been trying to crack the riddle of why you pretended good health, why you substituted one diagnosis for another, and why you cut me off completely after that.
Our bond was unique. Our shared history allowed us to communicate in shorthand, without needing to introduce and re-introduce ourselves to one another. Constants in each other’s life, we had an easy familiarity. And this, more than anything, makes our rift unfathomable. Perhaps, we became landmarks for each other—links to our childhoods, our past selves. Perhaps, this familiarity fossilized our friendship, rendering it an imprint of what it had been—and thwarting our ability to see and know one another as adults. Still, I can’t imagine concealing a serious illness from you, and even more, abandoning our friendship.
Why did you do it? Maybe, after we separated that day, you never thought about our lunch, or my reaction to your lie. On reflection, I can’t recall a single instance when we discussed how your behavior affected others. Was your self-involvement so complete that it foreclosed any thought of another? Did concentrating on your illness require all of your energy, and preclude all else? Or was there some other reason?
Though I don’t know what you shared of your diagnosis with others, I do know of other relationships you terminated abruptly: one, with Brent, who later confided that you’d been like brothers. He’d hurt your feelings when, high in the air on a Ferris wheel, you’d reached out for his young daughter, and he’d pulled her back. You never forgave him. But, did you ever consider that he might have acted reflexively to protect his child? I know, too, that you cut off your niece when she took off with a new friend, and failed to meet you as planned.
In his eulogy, your brother portrayed you as navigating the world with unflappable certainty, and moving on no matter the situation. Once when your babysitter failed to pick you up after an athletic match at another school, you—perhaps ten years old, and he, eight— insisted on walking home, rather than waiting for her, despite your brother’s protests that you didn’t know the way. Your safe arrival attests to your determination and competence. Nothing stymied you. After your death, your wife recounted that, despite your weakened state, you’d been planning a business trip a week before you died.
I think that your father’s premature death probably strengthened your resolve to plunge ahead in the face of obstacles. Perhaps from then on, when small moments threatened to propel you into despair, you responded almost automatically by turning away, trying to outswim the circling sharks. Perhaps this was the only way you knew to avoid suffering.
I’m sifting through the scant information I have, trying here to understand these interactions through your eyes, in the hope that they’ll help me to understand why you acted as you did. Would admitting that you’d miscalculated my reaction have embarrassed you, or exposed you as weak in some way? Did my refusal to play along with your charade—my insistence on confronting your words—cause you to feel vulnerable, and so exorcise me from your life? Or, maybe you just couldn’t stand being wrong.
I want to shake you, and tell you that most of us wear disguises: we create (often unconsciously) personae that promote aspects of ourselves we want others to see, or that we wish we possessed. We all try to conceal those parts of ourselves that shame or pain us. You always projected a can-do persona—strong, efficient, competent. Needing or looking to others for confidence, assurance, or support wasn’t a part of your playbook. Sharing your diagnosis with me might have destroyed this careful construction, and even challenged the way you perceived yourself.
I’m fumbling around here, groping, trying to ascertain how I could have known you all those years without truly knowing you. To divine the essence of our relationship, to discover its heart, I want to separate its myriad threads, and examine their thickness, strength, durability. The same questions arise time and again. Was our relationship as adults an illusion—a habit requiring little maintenance and slight care, but creating a myth of closeness? Was it meaningful to you?
I now realize how vast our differences were, how distinct our ways of being in the world. You were solitary, rarely sought out companionship. Though I love being alone, I’m much more social. Your wife once told me that we were your dearest friends, a comment I puzzled over: at most, we got together twice a year, though we lived near one another.
Your life was rigid, ordered, ruled by routine, Mine, more spontaneous. After your death, your wife told me that every evening, the two of you watched a conservative political television show, followed by a liberal one, and then discussed the opposing views. Each Saturday, you went to a late afternoon movie (often at the same theater), followed by an early dinner. Sunday mornings, you taped and watched all of the news programs. Your work of measuring and analyzing numbers for business was certain, and permitted little latitude, mine of exploring the unknown through words, more ambiguous.
But our dissimilarities ran deeper than these superficialities. Our sensibilities were at odds, our responses to most things, contrary. I know that not all friendships are close, and thought that I’d accepted you—and our relationship—as you were. One of my mistakes was assuming that you’d see and understand certain basic things as I did, be affected by, and react to them in the same way. If our lenses were disparate, shaped by our unique, individual genetic and psychological make-ups and our life experiences, then this expectation was unfair, and leads me to consider the nature of friendship in general—how difficult it is to meet another, to truly know how it is to live as that other, to encounter the world as she does.
We each come to the moments of our lives with an essence, a temperament, a perspective. How does one transcend these things to understand how another navigates through life? By imagining myself stepping into another’s life, and looking out through her eyes, I try—as with you— to fill in the gaps in my own awareness, to make sense of all that I haven’t confronted in my own existence but yearn to discover.
I don’t look to you alone for answers. I question my own actions and beliefs, too. Why did I hang on to you for as long as I did, and invest my time and energy and care? What part did I play in our rift? Your “joke” came as an enormous betrayal. I was furious. For a long while, I couldn’t forgive you. Even now, I’m not sure I have. Part of me was willing to let our relationship die: I did not want to see you again after your cruelty.
There was more to it than that, though. Our friendship, like most, had rules, which dictated its shape and form, boundaries and prohibitions. Only now, decades later, do I realize that a primary rule of our engagement was that we could only surf the superficial. Our friendship’s mandate—all is as it appears—prohibited diving down to the trough beneath the surface.
I know, too, that I let you define the parameters of our relationship. From our cradles, you were older, bigger, louder, and stronger than me. You led; I followed. Childhood can cast a spell on friends, creating a kind of sacrosanct communion between then. They play in a charmed sphere, a timeless, borderless space apart from all else. Their days sweep out across unfenced meadows, and reach the sky like untethered balloons. We were like this.
Then, one day, we arrived in adulthood. But, our familiar terrain couldn’t guarantee the connection we once had. We cleaved to the same course like a river flowing through the same bed, and never tried to carve a different passage. Our relationship didn’t allow for that kind of elasticity, change, or growth. I cared about our friendship, and was proud, as I think you were, of its longevity. To maintain it—or, the pretense of it—I was willing to bob and weave to hold our enormous differences at bay, to prevent them from undermining its foundation. At the same time, I wasn’t willing to cast you aside for fear of losing all that our friendship represented: belonging, a link to the past, a promise of safety. The realization—and so late—that we shared so little, except our childhood, saddens me.
Our split confirmed my hunch that you couldn’t—or didn’t want to—communicate on a deeper level. Hindered by my respect for your need for privacy through all those years, I never pushed for more closeness. And then, at that lunch, I inadvertently lost my way, veered onto restricted ground, and fell upon a landmine. It was the first time that I challenged you, the first time that I dared you, in a sense, to be real with me. It’s then that you bolted. What you couldn’t know is that I wouldn’t have invaded your privacy but instead, would have offered support, and checked in from time to time. What hurts most is that you didn’t trust me enough to be straight with me.
If you’d shared your vulnerability with me, if you’d offered me the gift of knowing you on something other than a superficial level, I would have felt privileged.
My sorrow over your turning away is immense. Had you been open, had you trusted me, had you razed whatever impediments you erected to a closer friendship, we could possibly have found our way into new, more meaningful territory. I mourn that lost opportunity. Being with you at the end of your life could have created an exceptional bond—a special kind of seal between us—who, in a sense, entered the world together.
We did share one last spark of connection before you died. Let me explain. You’d probably be surprised to learn that in the last few years, I’ve become an avid basketball fan and love going to games. A couple of months before your death, we were driving home from a game and listening to the post-game radio program. The host invited fans to call the station to discuss the game. Uncharacteristically, I called, and got on the air! Your wife told me that you, too, had been at that game, and that you, too, were listening to the same broadcast. The host asked my name and where I lived. When I answered, your wife leaned over to you, and said, “Listen, that’s Hilary. Do you hear her?” I hope you still recognized my voice. I hope that hearing it at a remove, filtered through the airwaves, allowed you to connect with me in one final, essential, and yes, private way. I hope that you held on to that ember for at least a moment.
Copyright 2020 Schaper