There must be something we can do, I'd thought, when she first told me. I've always been the kind of person with bookshelves of directories, an Internet-site list that doesn't quit, and little pieces of paper that shower from my diary with scribbled phone numbers of therapists, doctors. Have you tried this? What about that? I asked her, and stuffed envelopes with clippings and dropped books on her doorstep. And she nodded and smiled, and I'd find them unread in the hall when I arrived with a casserole and a bottle of wine. She'd laugh at my offerings—bath salts, when she was a shower person, the book of encouraging verse, when we'd once howled at sentiment. I wanted to fix it. When I couldn't, I fixed cookies.
As the weeks went on, I was all bustle and she was silent. We were reticent where once we were fluent. She knew things I didn't know, I was afraid of intruding; the easy assumptions of friends' shared space had vanished. Never before had I felt the force of the expression "in rude health"—my own sturdy self seemed to me like an affront to her. Would I say the wrong thing? Better to say nothing at all, I thought and subsided, reduced to answering-machine messages and cheery cards in the mail, and so the silence grew. A week went by, then another, till the phone call came. Where are you? I miss you, she said, and I admired the grace in the act, the hand across the widening gap. I climbed on the bus, holding the flower that had seemed irresistible at the corner, just one, a rose that spoke of summer. I was up against it—what did I have to offer if I couldn't offer a cure? I waited at her door, twirling my flower, tongue-tied again. But she was there, and she was smiling. Come keep me company, she said. I've missed you.
And so, in fits and starts, we began to make a different friendship, this one based on bedrock. For when you can't mend what is broken at the center of a friend's life—whether it's the marriage that's gone forever or the lost child or the vanished job—you learn a deeper truth, how to accept the unacceptable and, however slowly, move along together. In the end, all I have to offer is, perhaps, a little comfort as the waters rise.
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