Friends on a couch
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She called me today. She was tired, she said, of being alone. I knew what it took her to call and ask a favor, and of course my answer was yes, come quickly. There was soup for lunch, and then she needed a nap, and I settled her into the guest room and tucked her in as I once did my children, pulling the blanket up to her ears and tiptoeing down the hall. The silence that settled was nearly palpable as she lay tangled in dreams and I sat trying to sort this new bend in the road of our friendship. We who had shared everything from first job to first child, we who could sit on the front steps and settle the world's problems in an evening, we who agreed on nearly everything important but what made up a pizza topping and whether Jane Austen was a necessary adjunct to the well-lived life, we who'd cried in movies and laughed over lunches for years together, were moving apart. She'd embarked on a long, slow, and certain end to her life. I was square in the middle of mine.

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.

Next: The best way to comfort a friend
Sometimes, as today, comfort means hot soup and cool sheets and the pure animal pleasure of hearing someone else's footsteps in the hall, like the click and clatter of a hoof in the next stall. Sometimes it's a date for the movies, to soak a few handkerchiefs and emerge blinking, covered with popcorn, as if we were 12 again. We've been known to spend a morning trying on hats for nonexistent parties, or an afternoon running away to the next town for dessert. We are rude in hospital hallways, shoulders shaking as we make fun of indecent procedures, serious-faced doctors. Other friends are there, joining to form a raft above the waves, to sit in on appointments, take care of the practical details of life. What has happened has taught us all a kind of emotional imagination we may have lacked. We've learned to ask rather than prescribe, to honor the ordinary pleasures, to take it slow. Sometimes she'll tell us what she needs, other times we must divine it. This week I thought of how frustrating she must find it—house-proud always—to see her house take on a slightly awry look as more pressing things interfere. I'm your hands, I said, tell me what to do—a matter of shades pulled just so, chairs tugged into place, fresh water in the flowers, till the house looked itself again.

Most of all I've learned to listen. We are a pair of smarty-pants talkers, fast and furious, trading stories and what we fondly believe is wit, finishing each other's sentences—most days we still uncork. But now I know to sit quietly as her words tumble out. Fast, packing each moment full, the clock's chime in the background, marking the hours. I told her she could say anything to me and many days she does. We're like children, sprawled on the hill under the moon, roving, roving, as the stars spin. Sometimes it's teasing at an old knot, figuring out why that relationship foundered, this one flourished. Sometimes, the hardest times, we fumble our way to framing an answer to the everlasting why that flows like undertow in the current we're racing. And sometimes we're simply silent, a pause in the conversation that began years ago and will last forever.

She's called to thank me, but of course thanks is wholly beyond the point. As I seek the comfort to give, I know that what I've found in the search is comfort for myself, the consolation that comes from accompanying a friend on her journey as far as I can go, however steep the way.

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