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
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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