You know how when you’re a kid you think everything lasts forever? You have no sense of termination. It was forever until Christmas, a day without your best friend lasted forever, and if you got grounded for a weekend (as I frequently did), it was the end of the world because a weekend was forever.
It worked the other way, too. There was no sense of anyone you loved going away. Your parents, grandparents, your family–they would all be around forever. In an eight-year-old mind, no one dies, no one goes away, and everyone stays friends forever. That’s what all that “best friends forever” stuff meant.
I want to be eight again. Or ten. Ten was a really, really good year. Just because I work with people who have aged less years than there are between me and ten years old doesn’t matter, I remember being ten.
Ten was way before boys and cars and anything like that. Oh, there were boys, but they were mostly something to be giggled over instead of fought over. Ten was a pretty good age to sit around and play games and ride our bikes and have sleepovers and stay up late. I think by the time I was ten I had met all the girl friends I would stay in touch with over the years.
I’m not so much for girl friends. After I discovered boys it seems like all my girl-girl relationships grew increasingly bogged down by jealousies, competition, and who had the biggest chest. I turned my focus to boys and squeezed my girl friends in between crushes and boyfriends.
Those of you who know me well, truly well, know that I don’t have a good history with girls. In fact, most of the women I was close to in high school and college I want nothing to do with. I had eight friends in high school that I talked to every day, ate lunch with, slept over at their houses, cried over teenage tragedies with, and grew up with. Some of them have gone way too far upriver (I mean Colonel Kurtz kind of stuff) and some have just fallen away. After a series of hideous falling outs I decided that women were just evil and I was better off without them.
A few years ago I met Shelly and cautiously–very cautiously–we became friends. I figured that since she was gay it wasn’t technically like having a girl friend. Which is about the stupidest thing you can think, because Shelly’s actually better at being a girl friend than most women I’ve met, straight or gay. She is, in fact, such I good friend that I start to hang out with her and, on occasion, her friends and her girlfriend.
Since I judge people instantly (I’m not proud, just honest) I assumed they were… well, let’s just say I assumed they were the sort of people they most assuredly are not. I spent a few years on the fringes, but the more I got to know them the more I really, really liked them.
And the more time I spend with them the more I can’t believe that there are girls like this in the world. First off, you must know this: Shelly has the most beautiful friends. Leah, Stacey, Maria and Amanda look exactly like the girls at the cool table in high school and they dress like Sex in the City. They’ve all known each other since, apparently, infancy. They’re warm, genuine, funny women and I feel honored that they so readily include me.
I’d pretty much given up on the whole girlfriend thing, too, but spending time with them made me miss people I’d written off and it got me thinking about that word, forever. People I thought would be around forever when I was a kid… aren’t. People I love die. People I love get old. In the past year I’ve watched people die that, even as an adult, I assumed would be around if not forever, well, then, for a good long while.
Let me tell you about my friend Dee. I met Dee when I was nine and we were going into 5th grade at Belleair Elementary. No, dinosaurs did NOT roam the earth back then, but electricity was still pretty new. Anyway, I digress… Dee lived with her mom and her sister, but no dad. Dee’s dad was so long ago out of the picture that Dee didn’t remember him. She didn’t know where her dad was. Her mom never dated, never–to my knowledge–even looked at other men.
When Dee grew up she hired a private investigator to find her dad, which I believe her mom was not at all happy about. Dee and her dad started talking and eventually her dad came to visit. Dee’s mother was less happy about this.
Here’s where it gets really interesting: The moment Dee’s mom and dad saw each other–the very INSTANT–it was like nothing had ever happened. From all I’ve heard it was love at first sight all over again. To make a long story short, they remarried and lived happily ever after.
But “ever after” isn’t the same as forever after. After a lifetime apart and a scant ten years together, Dee’s dad died this year. I can’t even comprehend what it would be like to not grow up with a dad or to lose your love and then find them again only to have him taken away after such a short time.
I can, however, imagine losing people I love.
When I turned 30 my future former sister-in-law told me that women spent their twenties focusing on men and their thirties focusing on themselves. I agree with her but she left something out: the older I get the more I need my girl friends. It’s a wholly selfish need.
I have a friend from the “forever days” that I had a falling out with about ten years ago. She wronged me and, god help me, it must be genetic, I have hung onto that for near a decade, like it was a badge or excuse for everything that followed. I was the injured party, I was the one hurt, I was the one who deserved some sort of reparations.
The problem was that I missed her so damn much. Things would happen and I’d want to pick up the phone and then I’d remember that I didn’t know where she was and, oh, yeah, that’s because I’d cut her out of my life.
Except I hadn’t. There are people you can cut out of your life and it doesn’t matter. Trust me; I am by now an expert. But there are people–usually from those “forever days”–that you can’t slice out of your life so easily. You’ve grown up together, you’ve made mistakes together, you’ve been stupid and smart and fat and thin and married and divorced and whatever together, and sometimes you have people so enmeshed in your life that when things happen to you, they affect them, too, and when things happen to them, they impact you just as much.
So when she called me last year I did not, as I often swore I would, hang up. I listened and she talked and she listened and I talked and after we hung up I went over to Shelly’s house. Without naming names I told her about the falling out and the phone call. And Shelly didn’t tell me what to do, not even a little bit, but she did, gently, suggest that it wasn’t a horrible thing to forgive somebody. She offered that it cost more to hold onto things than it did to let them go.
Gradually this friend and I started to talk again and I still held on to a little bit of the past. No harm in remembering, right? All along, I’m still a little bit wronged, a little bit the one hurt, a little bit hanging on.
My aunt was supposed to be around forever. She died a few years ago, way, way too young.
Tom Merrifield died just a few months ago. He wasn’t even 60.
Dee’s dad was gone for years and years and he came back and they had him for ten years, but he died this year.
So I think about the people I’ve cut out of my life and picture hearing that they’d died and by and large I’ve made the right decisions. But this one friend–this friend from the “forever days,” I can’t see it. The idea of just getting a phone call when she dies, of not knowing her, not being her friend–I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it.
In the face of forever, I don’t care if I’m right or she is or who did what to who. I really, really don’t. Because as I get older I start to realize what matters isn’t being right, it’s being happy. I say that a lot; it’s a quote I love: I’d rather be happy than right any day. I could die tomorrow, or she could, or anyone I love could be gone, and then what? There will always be time to regret what I could have done. I most certainly will regret things in my life; I already regret a whole host of things. But I refuse to regret this.
I do not wish to remarry and I do not want children of my own. I have no brothers or sisters. Men are nice–don’t get me wrong, men are very nice, quite lovely–but there is something irreplaceable about a girl friend.
A group of us celebrated my birthday last night, and I looked around the table and it was just… nice.
Laura. Dee. Sandi. Amanda. Shelly. Maricris. Leah. Stacey. There’s no competition anymore. As you hover around 40, no one wants to have the biggest chest, because really, that’s just a liability. Jealousy? Of what? We’ve all carved out the lives we want. No one wants my life but me, and I don’t want any of their lives, but that doesn’t mean we’re not happy for each other.
Have we hurt each other? I’m sure almost everyone at that table last night has hurt someone else at that table in some way, but I think everyone there understands that having and being a friend is like riding a bike: you might fall, you might get hurt, but you keep at it because at the end what matters isn’t that you fell but that you had a wonderful ride.