Archive for July 10th, 2008

True friend

I drove a route home the other day that is a bit out of the way but I go there on purpose to pass a church that posts on their board on the lawn, a thought for the week. When I found this church is when I started keeping a notebook in my car with a pen so I could write down things that came to me when I was driving and often, signs like this that inspire me. Or sometimes make me mad. Or sad. Or grateful.

Recently the sign said “A true friend never gets in your way unless you happen to be going down.”

Although I haven’t stepped foot in a church, any church, in years, nor have I ever figured out my way to pray, I feel a sort of spiritual comfort in reading these signs because they usually provoke some emotion or memory.

My mind went to Pieter, who died around 1989 or 90. And I promise you, I feel horror that I don’t remember the date. But I remember everything about him and the friend he was to me for those few years.

Back before email was everyday mainstream, Pieter and I wrote every week for three years after we met as “kids” during the school year. I say “kids” because he was in college when I was in high school but it didn’t keep us from looking at each other across the fire pit in the summers or lying on our backs on the island in the lake up at 12,000 feet.

The high rush in writing to him every week, checking the mailbox so ferociously every day, my mother made a rule that I was no longer able to get the mail because I was often in a near state of panic over it. When his fat letters came, usually with doodles on the envelope or a math problem, I’d slip it in my back pocket and wait for later. The temporary comfort of actually having it arrive led up to the high of actually reading it.

When my friend called me one day to tell me he had died, I will guiltily admit that I was relieved to finally know the real reason I hadn’t heard from him in the previous two months. Why he didn’t call or write back to tell me when he was arriving for a few days around Christmas. And then I shut myself down in my walk in closet with a headlamp and tore open the bundles of letters, sorted them by date and read them over and over again.

One day I came home from school and my mom had been in my room organizing and cleaning and immediately I noticed a pile of “junk” she had pulled from my closet and told me to either throw it away or find a way to get it out of her sight. My box of letters from Pieter was there and I grabbed it and disappeared into the closet again after sweeping everything else into the trash.

My parents never knew that I had lost my friend. I never told them and never talked about it. They never asked what happened to him. And that shows how disconnected they were from what was going on with their own children.

When my sister came home from college one weekend, I walked right into her room and bluntly stated “Pieter died.” And she just stopped and took me into my room and opened my drawers and pulled out the t-shirts and sweatshirts he’d sent or left with me when we saw each other each summer and set them on my bed. She pulled one out and handed it to me and I put it on and wore it for three days until my mom wrinkled her nose at me and made me put it in the laundry.

I wonder sometimes what happened to the letters I’d written him. If he kept them like I did? Or after he died, did someone find them and read them? Or if they still sit all these years later in boxes in the family’s attic. Or if they were burned in someone else’s rage, someone else who loved him and felt as mad as I did that he was gone.

I have few regrets in life, mainly because I know that the things that happen that fucking suck, make us stronger and help us with future negotiations with ourselves. I regret that years and years later, when I stood in fear of losing myself to a life of control and anger, manipulation and fighting, I sat in front of my mother’s fireplace one Christmas and burned every letter.

I hadn’t read them in a while and my anger built over time because I hadn’t had a friend like Pieter, someone who sorted things out for me just by writing every week and someone I could freely tell when I’d had the shit beat out of me by my first boyfriend. I never had the chance to write to him some years later about how I was with someone else who raised his hand to me. Over and over again. Pieter made where I was feel okay because he was knowing and loving me. And then he was gone.

I still think about him. For a few years he came into my thoughts daily. And then the times disintegrated as I grew further away from the solid assurance I once had from a friend. The lack of dependence I feel on others is sometimes a good thing and an ironic gift that my parents gave me, to feel I can’t depend on anyone but myself to survive… because I can walk away easily and take care of my own shit. I am learning that we all need “many someones”, to fill in the gaps of the needs we can’t fulfill for ourselves. And opening myself up to that, the possibility, is like receiving mail in my mailbox every day.

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