How Do You Grieve a Friendship When You Never Wanted to Let It Die?

How Do You Grieve a Friendship When You Never Wanted to Let It Die?

On a hot August day on the campus of a small school in the hills of Santa Barbara, I met the person who would become my best friend.

We had been randomly assigned to the same cohort during freshman orientation. A couple of girls in our group—blond, tanned, and so over it—snuck out to go to the beach while the rest of us talked about dorm life, how we felt, where we came from. I couldn’t fathom such independence and defiance in the early days of college, when I was anxious about everything, grateful for any semblance of structure.

M was from Texas, although her family had moved around. She was striking—tall, tan, with dark brown hair and eyes—and immediately friendly, like a camp counselor you’d try not to be intimidated by. I was trying, hard, to cover my anxiety with a veneer of confidence those first few days of college; there was something about her that made it easier. We became friends slowly, over the course of lunches in the dining commons and dorm room visits. We took the school’s shuttle downtown and got rides from upperclassmen to the grocery store or Butterfly Beach in Montecito. She was the first person I told when I was accepted to be an RA and the first one I asked to come and meet the young women in my section. We drove to Seattle that summer and taught ourselves all the words to “Ghetto Superstar.”

The next year we settled into our dorm rooms. We were sophomores with cars and hope and wisdom, and Santa Barbara was the other character in our friendship. Our college, a small, Christian school of 1200 students, was tucked up in the hills of Montecito. You can see the ocean from campus as blue as a sapphire; from the library, the baseball diamond, the corner of the science hall’s balcony, you can see the Channel Islands rising starkly 20 miles out to sea. Now that we had cars on campus, we went for aimless drives, often in her Cabriolet, often down Cabrillo Street, which runs alongside the gentle surf of the Pacific. Late at night, we would turn the heater up and put the top down and listen to the Garden State soundtrack, and it felt electric to me, a freedom in friendship I had never experienced before. In the mornings, we would drive to a local bakery before class to get cinnamon rolls and coffee.

We had all the time in the world, buckets of it, running off of us, unfolding itself ahead of us. When you’re 19 and invincible and going to school in the most beautiful setting on earth, there is no end to your dreaming.

There was a wooden bench tucked in a garden where I would go sometimes to be alone during the constant stream of conversations that is college. Tufts of hyacinth blossomed at the bottom of the bench, and they smelled a little bit like the lilacs that grew in the backyard of my family home in Illinois. M and I met there a few times over the course of college, usually just on our way somewhere else: to eat, to check mail, to go to class. The morning before the start of senior year, M and I hadn’t talked in a month, and I went to the garden and wondered what was ahead for us. By then, our relationship had gone through fits and starts. I sat there that morning, breathing in the hyacinth, and thought about a section of The Wasteland:

You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

I left the bench and walked to my 8 a.m. life science class. It was full of freshmen who had the good sense not to have put it off until their senior year, and there was one empty seat in the room. It wasn’t until I was crossing the room that I saw M in the chair next to it. I hesitated. Was she happy to see me? Was I even happy to see her? Then she looked up at me and grinned, and I grinned back. The teacher offered a prayer before class, and she put her hand on my knee. The fit was over; this was the start. For now.

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” wrote the German mystic Meister Eckhart. I think what he meant is that in order to construct something good, you need to be able to deconstruct what came before it. This applies generally: In order to create just societies, we need to be able to dismantle injustice; in order to cook a good omelet, we need to be willing to crack a few eggs, and so on.

It also applies on the personal level. In order for me to be the person I want to be, I need to be able to deconstruct the myths I’ve written about myself. When my friendship with M ended, my myth was that I was the victim. I was hurt, nursing wounds, feeling self-righteous and angry, and so I believed that the end of our friendship had been all her fault. More than wanting to examine my own intentions, I wanted to be able to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. I wanted to write the story without ever having to erase. There was too much satisfaction in refusing to revisit the story; too much sadness to get into it all over again.

I borrowed a lot from M: Her tan Cabriolet convertible; her confidence that the world would always rise up to meet her; her sense of style. Some of it, like Patty Griffin and Wilco, I never gave back. I constructed my identity with a thousand small building blocks, like so many of us do during our college years, but I borrowed some of those from her, too. I let my sense of self show selectively, holding my heart out and hoping she would take it, hoping she would work her magic on the parts of it I was scared to show. I was anxious, and needier than I cared to admit. She was intermittently available, mercurial, a little bit unpredictable. I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more. She had exceedingly high expectations for her friends; she told me as much early on in our friendship on a walk down State Street in Santa Barbara. I didn’t think much of it at the time. What I see now is that I’m not sure I could have ever lived up to her expectations. What I also see is that I wanted more to impress her than to be her friend.

Friendship will meet different needs in each of us, but even the best friend will never heal all our wounds. I didn’t know that then. But I came to suspect it. When our friendship finally ended, it wasn’t a surprise. I hadn’t met her standards. I had always been more jealous of her than I would admit. We had talked about the future, about being in each other’s weddings and staying with each other’s families, but the friendship didn’t last past graduation. We had a big argument one night during spring break in Seattle, and I knew that would be it. I cried; she was cold. We left to meet friends at a dueling piano bar, like we said we would. We didn’t talk again for years.

Five years after we graduated, I was taking a walk on the beach with my mom in Santa Barbara. It was a foggy Friday morning in July, and we had just come from breakfast at the same bakery where M and I used to get cinnamon rolls and coffee. We reached the cliffs at the end of Butterfly Beach and turned around, coming to the steps that would take us back to the car, and there she was. Surrounded by a group of women, I knew M’s posture even from a hundred feet away. They were her bridesmaids. She was getting married the next day. I saw her sister, her high school friends, and a few women I didn’t know. I saw our mutual friend from college. Then I saw her, and she saw me, and I willed the tears gathering in my eyes to roll back into my head, to be absorbed into the place they had come from. She was sitting on the sea wall, and after a moment of looking startled, moved toward me. “I’ll give you a hug,” she said. How formal, I thought. We used to hug practically every day, on seeing each other or saying goodbye. Now she announced it, and the hug was brief; she didn’t move from her seated position.

Life changes in the instant, Joan Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking. What I had found was that it took the instant to make me realize how much life had changed. M and I hadn’t been friends for years, but I had lived every day of those years thinking that reconciliation might be just around the corner. It wasn’t that I thought about her, or about us, every day; it was that I had never really gone through the process of grieving the friendship. I hadn’t wanted to let it die.

M, in her wedding dress, saying goodbye. We make vows to our partners, but we make vows to our friends, too. We think, forever. We think, best friend. Life turns out differently, because people disappoint each other or because we aren’t honest with ourselves or because we just don’t know how to go forward, even with the best intentions. We go in with our eyes wide open and don’t realize they might open wider in five years. So I mourned the end of my friendship with M, and thought about the ways I had hurt her, and hoped I could be a better friend in the future. I still think of her when I go back to Santa Barbara, and I think of my 12-year-old self, too. There was so much to do differently. There is no more time.

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby

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