Rest in Peace, My Friend

Last week one of my good friends died suddenly. At first I was told it was an overdose, which was a shock to me, because she’d seemed fine when I saw her two weeks ago. She’d invited me to her crabfest party coming up, but instead I’ll be going to her funeral.

I’d been looking forward to meeting Michelle’s extended family at the party. I remember thinking how nice it was that I was getting closer to my friends, that I’d get a chance to meet her close-knit extended family. She was one of the few friends I bonded with over the past few years in my new sober life – I’ve made a lot of friends, but only a few that I’ve really connected with. And that has me thinking about my relationships and the ways in which I stay closed off from potential friends.

The last time I spent alone with Michelle was about a month ago to hang out with her while she did my nails because I couldn’t afford to get professional manicures anymore. That’s the kind of friend she was. She brought out her manicure supplies and the infrared light she’d gotten to save money to do her own gel nails, and she gave me a manicure. She’d told me that her 11-year-old daughter really took to me, which surprised me, because I hadn’t picked up on that. I’d stayed the night at her house one night last winter when I got stuck at work in the snow, and together the three of us shoveled snow from around our cars in the parking lot. Afterwards Michelle went inside while I stayed with her daughter outside to build a snowman that turned into a snow mountain. It rips my heart out that Michelle’s daughter has lost her mother. This was her first week of school, sixth grade.

A few months ago I’d gone to Michelle’s birthday party where I was surprised to see that I was her only sober friend there; everyone else was part of her old group of friends who drink normally: high school friends and the parents of her daughter’s friends. Michelle lived in a small community that she never left. That was just her life. It’s strange to me because all I’d ever wanted to do was move away from my hometown, and I had gotten close to only one of my high school friends. I burned bridges. When I left college I didn’t tell anyone I was moving and I never looked back.

I met Michelle over a year ago when she got sober. She had a tattoo on the base of her neck and the inside of her wrists, which seemed to me a bit gangster, slightly scary, and just generally badass to me. And that’s just the way that she was. She had a tough attitude that I found intimidating at first, so I ignored her, thinking I had nothing to offer, nothing in common with her, because I am not that tough, no matter how much I want to be. I can’t remember what made me decide to reach out to her, or if she was the one who’d reached out to me. I wish I could remember. But soon after we started talking, meeting for coffee, meeting at the gym, hanging out at her house. When I thought I was going to have to move into my mom’s house, I cried for hours, and she was there for me. My friends helped me, but not in the way she did. They helped me in the way I’d helped them: they showed up and helped me move for a few hours and then they went home. But she was there for me throughout the entire event, emotionally and physically. She not only helped me move, she rounded up some guys and orchestrated the entire event from start to finish like a drill sergeant. And then she texted and called me later to check on me. She treated me the way a real friend should, the way that I should treat my friends.

She’d almost died over a year ago, which was what brought her to sobriety again. I didn’t think she’d make it at first, having seen so many people relapse repeatedly over the years. But over time I came to believe she’d made it this time, as if sobriety is not a daily reprieve but something one eventually catches, and keeps. I thought that after nearly dying she’d stay sober for good, and maybe she would have had she lived. The thing is, we don’t know yet how she died. I find it hard to believe that she did it on purpose; I feel certain that it was a mistake. I’d be surprised to learn that she’d decided to use again, or that she’d committed suicide. She valued her life, her sobriety, and her family – especially her daughter – too much. Not that those who commit suicide don’t value their families, because depression is an isolating disease that blinds people, and I’ve sunken into those depths before myself. And I could be wrong because we can’t know what’s really going on with those who want to hide, but I believe that Michelle was not in that space at that point in her life.

Two weeks ago I saw her at a sober music festival where she’d volunteered to grill burgers. She’d just gotten a job after not having worked for several years due to what I believe involved tremendous fear and anxiety. For her to have gone back to work must’ve taken so much courage, but she did it. “We need the money,” she’d said. As I was walking away I remember thinking that the next time I saw her, I should ask her how she’s really doing. I didn’t think there wouldn’t be a next time.

All of this makes me think about what’s really important in life. What is really important? This moment is all we have, right now. What will we do with it? Will I love fully, with an open heart? Or will I be in a hurry to do the next thing? Will I embrace change, or will I continue to choose the same patterns out of a sense of comfortable familiarity? Will I do what I’m afraid to do because I know it’s the right thing to do, or will I run and hide in fear?

I feel so distracted right now. Unable to focus or concentrate. I just feel like I’m in a state of shock. I feel afraid that everyone close to me will die, and I’m especially scared that my boyfriend will die, because I love him so dearly. I’m afraid for what it will be like when my sisters and my mom die. How will I be able to handle that? I cannot imagine, and luckily at this moment I don’t have to imagine or live through that.

What I do have to learn to do is cope with the loss of my friend. I’m learning a lot about the ways people react. The first thing I’d heard was that she’d had an overdose, and everyone talked about how we never really know what someone’s going though when they want to hide it. People talked about how good at hiding things alcoholics/addicts can be, how this disease kills. Most people don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. That’s how I used to be. Inside my head I’m screaming: I just told you my friend died. How can anyone think about anything else right now?  I especially keep thinking about the way in which I was told, bluntly, by one of our mutual acquaintances, who seemed to have forgotten that she and I were friends. We may not have been best friends, but she was a good friend to me. She seemed to have a lot more friends than I do, so I don’t know where I fell on her list, but she was high on my list. For this mutual acquaintance of ours to tell me so casually and then change the subject really made me angry. I’m even angrier at how I tried to match his behavior and attitude rather than saying, with the strong emotion I felt, How can you walk in here and tell me that and then just change the subject like it’s nothing?  I did say, “I’m sorry but I’m having a hard time concentrating right now.” But I’m not sorry for that and shouldn’t have said so, nor will I again if a similar situation comes up again. But the truth is that no one knows what they’ll do when someone close to them dies, and none of us know what to say or how to tell others. There’s no manual on how to deal with it, and our culture doesn’t support grief. I learned to deal with sadness by pretending it’s not there, and that is just bullshit.

The obvious truth that strikes me about her death is that she is not replaceable. Sure, I’ve had other friends and I will make new friends in the future. But I don’t make friends easily, and it takes a long time for me to form a bond with someone. And no one will ever be like Michelle. She truly was a beautiful person, inside and out.

My chosen interpretation of this song is that it’s about having courage and perseverance in the face of hardships; it represents for me what Michelle will always represent: strength, courage, perseverance. I think Michelle would’ve liked this song, in spite of the quote from George Bush (“Regrettably, we now believe that only force will make him leave.”) The quote from George Bernard Shaw via Robert F. Kennedy is one I especially like, and I believe Michelle would’ve liked it, too: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”

Here’s another video with the same song that I’m sharing because this dancer is amazing, and I know that Michelle would appreciate it. I’m amazed at what he’s done with the mirror, and how he looks into the camera via the mirror. Michelle was an artist; she appreciated beauty and I know she’d like this.

Rest in peace, Michelle. Your memory lives on.

Love

I found this website and so far I like this quote:

it erupts from the soul, then subsides. that’s when you make the decision. work it out and stay in it til the end because it’s inconceivable, just the thought of being apart. it’s not necessarily the breathlessness, or the excitement, nor the sex involved. it’s not laying awake at night, imagining how those kisses felt. it’s all those things, plus the hope, that deep down feeling burned into you after that initial rush. its that weird thing people fall into when the find someone with a weirdness compatible to theirs. they call that love. it’s what you and i have. it’s not something measurable. but instead something inconceivable and you can’t even imagine not having it even when you’re fighting. as some say “Love is the irresistible desire to be desired.” others claim its a friendship set on fire. There are so many definitions, you kind of have to figure it out yourself. but the one thing I can tell you for sure is when it happens, you’ll know.

It’s true what they say, all the clichés that I thought were lies, like the one about knowing when it happens. I’m almost 40 years old and never felt as intensely as I do now for the man who came into my life almost three months ago. I thought I felt this for my ex-husband when I first met him, but I now realize it was part lust and part mania from leaving my first husband and going out on my own. While I considered him a good friend and a good person, I realize now that the love I felt for him didn’t hold the spiritual connection I have with Steven.

When I was a child my mother told me that love was conditional, in spite of how we want to say that it’s not. She told me these words – she had learned them from her therapist. You do what I want you to do, then I’m happy (and I love you). You don’t do something else that I want you to do, then I am disappointed and I’m unable to find happiness, and I will eventually leave you because you’re not giving me what I think I need. That definition of love was confusing to me then, and remained confusing for years. To this day I’m not sure if I misinterpreted what my mother said, or if she misunderstood her therapist, or if her therapist was just bat-shit crazy. If I were to ask my mother about this today, I doubt she’d remember or agree that this is an accurate definition of love.

Because the problem with that broken idea is that there is no God in it. It’s limiting and full of expectations. It places dependence upon another person for one’s own happiness. The real meaning of love is the opposite of all of those things.

I got a lot of old ideas about love from my mother, my grandmother, and the rest of my family that people will not love you if you don’t do what they want you to do and be who they want you to be. That people will talk about you behind your back if you don’t help with the dishes when you go to visit them, forget their birthday, don’t make up your bed, drop out of school, don’t get a good job, go to jail, get diagnosed with mental illness.

Looking at my mother today, it’s a different story. She’s married to a wonderful man she complains about sometimes yet loves and is committed to. She talks about what a good man he is, and how he’s always trying to help others though it’s sometimes inconvenient. She showers her grandchildren with affection, her time, and gifts. She loves her community, where she does volunteer work for the poor, the sick, and the aging. It took her a long time to grow up, just as it’s taking me a long time to grow up.

My grandmother still loves my grandfather, who died decades ago, and she never remarried or dated any other man after his death. She talked about him like he was a saint, and she kept the secret that he’d gotten another woman pregnant while he was in the war, and had married the other woman while he was writing letters to my grandma professing his love for her, which she kept to this day, over 70 years later.

True love, to me, is less about a “desire to be desired” and more about loving the other person without expectation of getting anything in return. It’s knowing that no matter what happens, even if that person leaves, that now I have the knowledge that my heart was true and open, and that I was given a gift from God to have an ability to open my heart and allow someone else in.

We all want to be loved. But for some of us it’s harder to love than to be loved. Maybe my perception is incorrect, maybe I really do have such a deep desire to feel loved and accepted for who I am, and maybe there’s this old wound that feels unloveable, and is so afraid to be rejected for not being the person I think the rest of the world – especially the object of my desire, or affection – wants me to be. Now that I am writing these words I’m seeing how this is true.

The old belief that I’m unloveable is what causes me to have difficulty in loving another person. In the past, if I felt hurt or rejected, I closed my heart and withdrew. That kept me from getting close to people. For years, for most of my life.

In order for love to grow, one cannot allow fear to take place, or to be the cause of my actions. My actions must be based in love, faith, and honesty. I have faith that no matter what happens, if he dies or leaves me, I’ll be okay because God is taking care of me. If I cling to the fear that I’ll lose what I have, I’ll miss out on what I have today, in this moment, because I’m too worried about a future that may never happen. If I cling to a fear that things won’t turn out exactly the way I want them to, again I am not focused on the present moment, nor am I appreciative of all the gifts this time brings. The biggest gift for me is to love someone else with a pure and true heart. To accept them for who they are, flaws and all. To turn those thoughts inward and see that I am loveable too, in spite of my flaws, or perhaps because of them. To be able to forgive them for their mistakes, and to also be able to forgive others for their mistakes, and to forgive myself for my mistakes. Because harboring grudges does not serve me, or anyone else. I’m thinking of my friends who I haven’t talked to in a while – my best friend specifically, who I think of as a soul sister – and who I hope to reconcile our differences with. I don’t know if she’s ready to accept me back into her life, and I have to be willing to accept that. More on that later. The point is, I have so much gratitude for this moment in my life, and I have learned so much, all because I fell in love.

Here’s a song that’s been in my head for a couple of weeks now, which speaks to me about loving someone through tough times.

Rest in Peace, Pedro

One of my co-workers didn’t show up for work two days in a row, without calling, which was unlike him. So my boss and his boss went to his apartment to see if he was okay, and when he didn’t answer the door, they got the maintenance guy to let them in. They stepped inside to find Pedro slumped over, dead in his living room chair.

At first no one knew what happened to Pedro. He’d been at work two days before, cheerful and energetic as always, but later we learned that it was a heart attack. He was 63, but looked younger, and seemed to be in good health. The speculation is that an untreated abscessed tooth lead to his heart attack. The only reason he didn’t get his tooth treated is because he could not afford it.

He lived alone. He was single with no kids. He’d been working at the grocery store for 11 years, since the store opened. I knew him from before I started working there, when I was a regular customer, stopping in after work to grab dinner from the hot bar before heading home.

A week ago I’d become impatient with him. He didn’t know that I was off the clock, and he didn’t know how to do a catering order so he had the new guy page me to help. The customer was rude, and I could’ve been kinder and more helpful. I did help, but begrudgingly, and I told him to page a manager next time. He said to me, “Ella, I did not know you were off the clock,” in such an earnest way, and I did back off a little and I said, “I know — it’s okay,” and I hope I was nicer than I felt. All I cared about was getting to my boyfriend’s house. I hope Pedro forgave me.

Most of my co-workers are such good examples of patience, kindness, and love, and Pedro was the best example of all. Pedro was always a cheerful, kind-hearted man, full of life. He was always helpful to me. He had a flamboyant attitude. He was a dancer, and did Zumba regularly, and sometimes danced at work. He had a heavy Spanish accent, and spoke so quickly I couldn’t understand him, but he just laughed and kept talking. He didn’t cry about his lot in life, he didn’t complain that he made no money. He was always in a good mood.

Pedro, you will be missed. The store will not be the same without you. May you rest in peace.

This song reminds me of Pedro.

Friends and Honesty and GLOW and Other Thoughts

Next week I’m visiting my mom in North Carolina, and my best friend from high school lives about an hour from my mom, so usually I visit her too. This time I’m not sure if I want to see my friend, who I’ll call Kim. The last few times I talked to Kim I opened up to tell her I felt judged when she told me her opinion about my latest career change idea. Her opinion usually was that she didn’t feel like whatever I chose was really “me.” She liked my idea to become a nutritionist, but had said that she didn’t believe I felt passionate enough about it, not as passionate as she felt about her career change to become an acupuncturist. After I told her I felt judged, she said that I shouldn’t be friends with her if I felt that way, and I responded that I had no intention of cutting out, that I’m committed to this friendship, because my past experience has always been to leave, and I can’t keep friends that way. She came back and told me again that I shouldn’t be friends with her if her honesty was that devastating to me. So at that time I thought, Fine. Have it your way. You don’t want to be my friend, then don’t. Her repeated suggestion to call it off, as she’s done at least twice before in the past 22 years of our friendship, seems to me like her own desire to abandon the friendship. And to that I say, You want to leave? Then fucking leave.

Kim is my oldest friend. She was the first true friend I had after two years of spending time with girls who drank and drugged the way I did, who were impossible to have a real conversation with. We dressed in black, wore dark lipstick and eyeliner, stared straight ahead when walking because God forbid we make eye contact and connect with another human being. But Kim was different. Not different in the way that she wasn’t bitchy to the world, because it was the 90s and a surly attitude was just the teenage way, but she believed in connecting with her friends. She was the editor of the high school literary magazine, and I was in her creative writing class, and she loved my writing. It meant the world to me, and she was shocked that I cared because I carried an armor of apathy to shield me from the other high school students who really terrified me. I’d already nearly gotten my ass kicked in seventh grade by the leader of the trailer park GLOW girls, whose sidekick looked like Matilda the Hun, and so I spent the rest of my teenage years with what’s now known as “resting bitch face,” an expression whose owners claim is just their natural look, but I can assure you that it’s possible to put a pleasant expression on your face.

When I think of how I haven’t told Kim about my new love or my latest plan to return to school, my thoughts are followed by, You don’t get to know about my life anymore. I wonder if I want to call her and let her know I’m visiting, then I decide that no, she can fuck off.

What bothers me is that now she’s friends with my sister, who she’ll never be able to form a relationship as codependent with as she wants to, but it annoys me because I imagine the two of them judging me because I choose AA for my solution while they can stay sober without it. I suspect they think I judge them for not going to AA, or that Kim thinks I judge her for not going to AA, but I don’t think my sister does. I feel that for me, my recovery needs some kind of solution, and that solution can’t be just what I alone think is the right thing, because I’m not a higher power and I don’t know without help from a higher power which I find not just through prayer but also through other people. But not everyone needs AA, bottom line.

When I look back, our friendship has thrived when I was in a position to lean too heavily on her, which has been most of the time. When things are going “well” for me, she breaks up with me. When I went to London, she left me, saying I was a terrible friend because I’d bragged about going there on my own. When I got married to my first husband – and I hesitate to say that was a good time in my life – she left me, saying I wasn’t being true to myself, which was true.

Recently when I told her I’d enrolled in an online MBA program, back when I thought that was what I would do, she took a different tack and said, “As long as you’re happy,” and I know she meant it this time. She didn’t judge or criticize, although she did mention several times that I’d made a huge decision, and my translation, which may be untrue, is that she’d noticed I’d made a big life decision without confiding in her about it during or afterwards. She may have been hurt, which is not my intention, but what can she expect when, in the past she thought it necessary to tell me what she thinks I ought to do with my life?

Clearly my resentment is still present and in need of dissolving. Writing about it here is part of my way of doing that.

When a friend tells me she wants to make a change, I believe that my job as a friend is to support her and to tell her that, and that I believe she should do what she feels is right, even if I think it’s a dumb idea. Unless her plan is one that could be a danger to her or anyone else, I support my friend. I don’t compare my own similar life change and talk about how my own plan is better than hers. I don’t tell her I’m more passionate about my own career change. I don’t tell her that all of her ideas reflect that she’s not true to herself. I don’t tell her she ought to do something else. I don’t tell her she’s really a wonderful person but she just doesn’t know it herself. Because when someone tells me that, although I know it’s not true, it sounds to me like they’re saying I’m (permanently) incapable of reaching my true potential. It’s not a solution.

Maybe the lesson in this is that I need to learn forgiveness, but I’m not ready for that one.

What I’d like to know is just how honest does a friend need to be? Kim’s belief is that it’s her duty to be brutally honest, including informing me of her judgments and criticisms about my actions, thoughts, and feelings. My belief is that my friends live their own lives and make their own mistakes, and my opinion on that is none of their business. For example, one of my friends cheated on her husband just for sex because her husband didn’t want to have sex with her (and of course there are other problems). Is that my business? No. Is it my job to tell her I think that’s wrong and what she should do about it? No, especially if she doesn’t ask me. I can gently ask if they’ve considered counseling, or offer my experience with infidelity (because I happen to have had exactly that same experience), and that’s all a friend should do. Contributing to someone’s feelings of rejection, shame, and guilt is not something I want to do as a friend, or even as an enemy, because there’s no growth in that for anyone.

Maybe I’m not honest enough with my friends. Maybe I’m too passive. I just don’t know, because I’m used to keeping my feelings and opinions to myself. I have spent my life hiding when sometimes I just want to say, Get real! And maybe that’s one lesson for me to learn here.

As for the other lessons, I’m sure that more will be revealed.

In the meantime, enjoy this clip from a documentary about one of my favorite childhood television shows featuring role models for fifth grade girls everywhere – or at least in the Georgia town where I grew up during the late 80s. It goes without saying we also idolized all other big-boobed, scantily-clad sex symbols, including Barbie, Daisy Duke, Wonder Woman, and Dolly Parton, to name a few.