On Soul To Soul Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voice growls “You can’t change it / You can’t rearrange it” on a song aptly titled “Change It,” written by Doyle Bramhall. The song describes a relationship that has suffered through its share of mistakes, “painful memories,” and “back-door moves.” The song invokes the concept of forgiveness for past mistakes and the idea that if only one could rearrange history, or perhaps have an opportunity for redemption, there might be a chance for the relationship to survive. We all make choices every day of our lives, such as what we eat, where we go, what we do, but we also make choices that impact our friends and family. There are times I have made choices to protect myself, both physically and emotionally, and there are times I have made choices I thought would bring joy and happiness to someone and found the reverse to be true. If I could change or rearrange a moment in time when I made a friend of over thirty years so angry with me that we are no longer speaking, would I? No, and I will tell you why.
As a child and a teenager, I hurt people for my own selfish reasons. Equally, people hurt me along the way. We all seemed to survive, heartbreak withstanding, and we learned something valuable. At least I did. As I grew older, I tried to be more thoughtful, compassionate, and empathetic. However, there were times when I did none of these things well, and my inner-brat reared its ugly head; I was not kind to people who really needed my kindness. I could have been a better friend, daughter, granddaughter, cousin, neighbor, mother, and wife. I made mistakes, and I figure I will make lots of other mistakes before I die. When I screw up, typically on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, my joke is that I have made a mistake this year (yeah, it’s only March), so I should be done for another 365 days. Fat chance.
Friendships as relationships seem to have their own special place in our history, our psyche; they serve as a mirror of the kind of person we wish to be. I am not suggesting we seek out people exactly like us, but rather that we seek people who share some rudimentary notion of life that we do and who still like us after we have done something completely idiotic.
Some friendships fade as geography, jobs, family, and life move us into different spaces. Sometimes a person’s actions break the bonds of kinship. Years ago, someone I really liked gave me used deodorant as a Christmas gift. She said it made her “pits break out,” and she thought I could use the deodorant. Seriously. If we had been children on opposite ends of a seesaw, I would have jumped off my end to hear her butt smack the ground and laugh when she screamed with pain. I threw the deodorant in the trash.
Some friendships intensify as fate deals out its cards and you find yourself at your lowest point. There’s an old Jimmy Cox song that Eric Clapton covered on his Unplugged album, and the narrator explains “then I began to fall so low / lost all my good friends / had nowhere to go… / nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” So true. I remember discovering this when my daughter Nicole died. People avoided me in public or said completely asinine things to me. One day at a grocery store, a couple my husband and I knew quite well, spotted us, and basically sprinted out of the store to avoid us. We never heard from them again. It was as if we had been given a Scarlet letter, perhaps a “G” for grief, something that many people cannot quite negotiate. On the day of my daughter’s funeral, a woman from the church leaned toward me and said tersely: “You should have prayed harder. I prayed for all three of my children.” I really would have liked to bounce her ass off of a seesaw, but the heavy weight of the “G” on my black dress prevented me from making any sudden moves.
This phenomenon of avoidance while someone is clearly “down and out” happened again when I learned I had a brain tumor. Having an SBT (stupid brain tumor) is not a subject many people can easily talk about. In fact, it can be a real conversation stopper. At first I didn’t want anyone to know I had one, and then I shifted into telling complete strangers as if by declaration I could own it and defeat it. Now, once again, I don’t like to tell anyone: I just want people to think I’m weird. It’s easy to flip the letter: M for Melissa to W for weird. Problem solved.
I thought I was figuring things out and learning how I would spend the rest of my life with SBT forever and ever stuck in my head. Negotiating what the medication and SBT were doing to my head and body, I seemed to be coming into a fairly good space. I had finally learned what I could and could not do physically. I started writing and reading again. I could remember stories I read. I could remember that my husband told me what was for dinner ten times in a three-hour period. I believed I was funny again. I started playing my guitar and singing the raunchy songs I knew and loved, most of them written by me or my band mates.
Then the sequence of events that slipped me into the “down and out” phase began: I pissed off one of my best friends; my seventeen-year-old dog died; my father died. I started wearing the letter “G” again as I stumbled through my days. My family put up with me, but drew the line at my sudden outbursts of songs I made up on the spot, typically involving their names in the chorus. My friends, but not the one I had pissed off, called me, showed up, texted me, emailed me, brought me chocolate chip cookies and beer, and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. But let me backtrack for a moment.
I spent the months of April and May last year dealing with my father’s illness, his subsequent move to a nursing home, and the additional task of emptying out his apartment. My dog’s health also started to decline. Three of my dear friends decided to come to my house for a few days to cheer me up and go visit my father at his nursing home. We got the bright idea to visit another friend, the one I would deeply piss off. We had all known each other for years. Although my soon-to-be-ex-friend seemed out of sorts with me that day, I didn’t think too much about it. No one else seemed to notice anything. Several days later, I called her to invite her to dinner with some mutual friends. She gave me a verbal smack down I will never forget. If we had been on a seesaw, my ass would have hit the ground with a sonic boom. I started crying as she continued telling me everything that was wrong with me. I guess I prefer small doses of being berated and reminded of my faults. My husband, fully aware of whom I was speaking to, watched me carefully. The crickets in my head, a condition SBT is teaching me to live with, started chirping, and I could no longer hear what she was shouting at me. I said to her: “I can’t understand what you are saying, and I have to hang up.” I did. The next day, I received two emails from her itemizing everything I had done wrong within a three-day period. Several weeks after the initial emails, I received a very long email deconstructing my faults. I wondered why she hadn’t included the past thirty years, since I was fairly certain I had screwed up at least a gazillion times in the past.
She needed her “space,” and she felt as if I had her “under surveillance” even though she lived miles and miles away from me, and I had been dealing with my father’s issues in a different town over eighty miles from my home. Apparently she thought I had one hell of pair of binoculars in my possession, or perhaps she thought I had a drone hovering over her house. She also accused me of not saying the right things, which I agree I am darn good at. Even before I discovered SBT, I had a habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. My mother would have called it “foot-in-mouth disease.” As my list of sins grew longer, I became more and more flummoxed. Flim-flammed. Flabbergasted.
In addition to my grief over the loss of my father even before he was dead, I knew it was only a matter of time before my dog would die. I admit I was a walking nightmare during these months with death knocking at my door. My SBT also decided to rear its ugly head and create balance issues for me. The only thing that kept me going forward and not climbing into the back of a hearse for my own ride to freedom was the mercy my family and friends showed me. Mercy. Oh, and a lesson I was about to learn.
In one of my ex-friend’s emails to me, she explained that she had certain friends she did certain things with. I did not find any categories in which I comfortably fit. The thought of category friends deeply interested me. I considered my running friends. We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, and helped each other out a moment’s notice. What about my teaching friends? We also travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, or helped each other out at a moment’s notice. What about high school friends? We travelled together, drank beer, shopped together, oh, you get the drift. It seemed tedious to me to think I had to categorize my friends, but what was more upsetting to me was to realize my ex-friend had excluded any categories in which I could fit unless I had some sort of extreme makeover. Why was I just now finding out I was no longer good enough for her or her friendship?
It’s awkward now. People who assume we are still friends ask about her. When I answer, I feel as if I am in high school, and I have to explain why my boyfriend broke up with me. “Well, you know, he liked someone better than me.” Typically, I just say my ex-friend is busy, and I haven’t seen her for a while. The lie slips easily off my tongue.
I wish I could ask my father for advice. He was more of the “to-hell-with-them” kind of guy if someone didn’t like what he had done. My mother’s response would have been more nuanced. She would have told me to “kill [my friend] with kindness.” Was she really suggesting mercy? How do I show my friend/ex-friend mercy? How do I show her kindness when all I can feel inside myself is a year filled with so much loss and grieving? I know now I could never be myself around her again, because I would always be afraid of screwing up the friendship. I would fall out of some imaginary category I fit into. I must have misunderstood the friendship all of these years.
On one beautiful spring day last year, I walked into her house with several other women intending to embrace friendship and accomplishment, when, instead, I ignited a slow-burning fire that must have been waiting to ignite with just the right amount of kindling. If there is regret on my part, I shall focus on not seeing the warning signs in the decline of our friendship. As for mercy, I do not ask for mercy from her; rather, I seek mercy to forgive myself. The poet Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Sometimes we are so busy in life seeking forgiveness from others, that we forget to forgive ourselves for being human. I continue to be a work-in-progress, understanding that my next mistake is just around the corner where I might just find myself on the wrong end of the seesaw.