Love still lingers with some failed friendships

Today is the birthday of a once-dear friend. It might have passed unnoticed had she not shared a birthday with another friend and had the occasion honoring them both not been marked on my calendar from the beginning of the year.

Then, she was still a treasured companion, though if I were to be honest, our ties were already beginning to wear thin, the fabric of six years of sharing our lives and our hearts pulling apart at a seam I stubbornly, and just as lovingly, refused to acknowledge.

It began, I think, with her falling-out with a close mutual friend, an ending that came so unexpectedly and amid such a torrent of unfounded accusations that their own attempts to repair the damage had been a fitful dance now exhausted and abandoned.

It was difficult, in that aftermath, to reconcile the woman I’d believed I’d known to the one who would strike out so carelessly from a dark and wounded place. We did talk about what had transpired, as much as we could without either of us revealing our knowledge of just how virulent her behavior had been, but the tear in the fabric was there. And with yet another burned friendship behind her, this with a woman she’d known long before I met her, I could sense a shift in our interactions, a shrinking presence, a slow retraction I convinced myself wasn’t happening because we genuinely loved each other, in a way that was fierce and tender and playful.

Every time we laughed together, every time we revealed more of ourselves through our vulnerabilities and struggles, our hopes and joys, I was warmed by our friendship.

So though we saw each other less frequently, save my monthly involvement in a group to which she also belonged, and connecting with her by phone was sometimes a challenge, I never believed I would one day have enough — enough of what, after a while, began to feel like a feeble display of a once-flourishing affection.

But I’d never walked away from a friendship. Two had ended in betrayal, forcing a severing of ties, and one, in college, had dissolved, after an initial rupture and brief attempt at preservation, without too much clamor or regret on either end.

Yet here, without any upheaval or egregious wrongdoing to separate us, I had no reason to leave. The reasons I had for staying, however, evaporated once Lou, my mom’s longtime companion and a father figure to my brother and me, died earlier this year.

Perhaps it was too much to expect that this friend would be among my greatest sources of solace, considering it had been months since we’d seen each other socially and I, in truth, had been growing weary of the chaos she would invite into her life, the baffling choices, the way she continually sabotaged any good that could potentially liberate her from the burden of her past.

But she had been there through so many pivotal moments over the years, to celebrate with me and to cry with me, to help soothe my fears, encourage me beyond my limits and to simply see me in a way that few could, with an intuitive knowing that cut through to whatever bubbled beneath the surface of the face I presented, the emotional maze that I walked.

So when the news of Lou’s death was greeted with silence on her end, followed by a card two weeks later, and then more silence, I was hurt and bewildered. Though I told myself death can make strange companions of our loved ones, even, and sometimes especially, if they have already suffered such a loss, like she had with her own father years before.

Though I knew she was busy planning a family wedding, juggling jobs, keeping a lid on an ever-simmering stew of stories that she told to define who she was.

It was those stories, and the way she served them up as a litany of excuses for her growing absenteeism in our friendship when we finally did talk, that snapped our ties for good. Yes, she was sorry she hadn’t called or come to the funeral or stopped by. Yes, she acknowledged, I had every right to be disappointed. But when her apologies, however heartfelt, veered toward martyrdom and a case history of why she could never be a good friend — despite my own evidence of all the ways in which she’d been just that and more — I felt myself giving up.

That had never been my intention. I even resisted when she offered to “release” me from our friendship. Surely, we could persevere beyond this point, allow the anguish we both were feeling to forge an even deeper bond. But the more she splayed out her unworthiness before me, the more exhausted and frustrated I became.

Suddenly, I saw how I had spent so much of our relationship trying to build her up, to assure her she was lovable, bright, funny, beautiful, talented — all things I truly did see, but that she would never let herself believe.

As much as her own longing to do so must have pained her, I, too, ached for her to seize a life that was bigger than what she allowed herself. I wanted her to feel appreciated and adored and deserving of it all.

But if she wasn’t willing or able to do what it took to create that life, then we were both only spinning our wheels. That she was so focused on her own feelings and faults in the face of my grief made me see that this could very well always be our pattern, and I suddenly didn’t have the energy or the space for it anymore. I also no longer needed to champion another’s good to earn their approval or to divert attention from examining my own life, past behaviors with which I was all too familiar.

So I accepted both her apology and her release. We have not talked since. Sometimes, I am surprised I do not miss her more, that I haven’t felt the urge to pick up the phone or send an email. When I think of reaching out, I ask myself “What would change?” and “What do I deserve?”

Confronted with what I judge to be decades of damaging self-denial and feelings of inadequacy, I choose peace of mind, knowing, too, that I deserve to be supported by relationships that nurture and inspire and grow, even in their challenges, with a sense of trust and ease.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about this old friend on her birthday, sending her love, remembering the many good times with gratitude and casting this hope that, one day, she’ll be free to follow her heart’s longing while owning the precious weight of her worth.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times