When my best friend died
Every October for at least a quarter-century, my friend Val and I would book dinner for two to celebrate our birthdays---hers on the seventeenth, mine on the twentieth. We invited no one else to join the party, where we drank to the milestones in our lives. Through the births of her kids and the deaths of our parents, through homes bought and sold, through crazy-making jobs that enthralled us until the next challenge came along, we never missed our annual outing to the restaurant of the moment.
Our first spot, long gone, was a 70s-style pleasure palace, all tropical greenery and vaulted glass. Our last one featured exposed beams and a martini bar lined with twitchy-looking hipsters young enough to be our children. All the laughter in the place came from one table: ours. Val studied my face with the intent curiosity I had treasured since we first became friends in our 20s. Then she asked, "Why do women obsess about getting older? Look at how good life is for both of us. We love our work, we love our families. We're full of life. We're beautiful."
She had just turned 56 while I, at 57, had undeniably reached my late 50s. We were old enough to know who we were and what we valued. Each of us had watched the other come into her own. We dressed like ourselves, not like vacant-eyed models. That night Val had chosen a filmy scarf in her customary leaves-and-branches palette, and a long unstructured dress that would be just as becoming on her eightieth birthday, which of course we would celebrate together.
She was the constant in my family of choice. Every woman has such a family, a network of friends who can be more replenishing than kin, and whose presence in her life attests to years of devotion. You don't just make friends; you keep them, one guess-what phone call or soul-baring confidence at a time. Yet the reality is that you can't keep a friend forever. Unless you're Thelma and Louise, barreling over a cliff together, every longstanding friendship ends in sorrow. One of you will die and the other will mourn, a life-changing but invisible journey that casts you adrift from the woman you were with your friend.
I learned this the hard way, as every woman does. Until recently, I never noticed that card shops brim with specialized condolence messages for every close bond except friendship. I didn't question the presumed hierarchy of grief, in which friends rank last. When people in my circle lost parents, I sent hand-written notes. When they lost friends, I said, "I'm sorry." I didn't understand that "sorry" doesn't cut it. The few who do understand are those who have been there. As one woman recently told me, "I got more sympathy when my cat died than I did for the death of my friend."
Last October, Val and I did not go to dinner. Just as I was wondering where to book our table, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. I trusted that she'd have a remission, and then another after that (isn't cancer a chronic illness these days?). I thought of all the friends who showered her with support-who ran errands, cooked dinner and sent enough notes to fill a stationery shop. If love could sustain her, she would live. She died in four months.
When I found the e-mail breaking the news, I wanted to beat my fists bloody against the locked iron door of our friendship. How could it be that spiteful, treacherous people were still going about their business while Val, who had countless friends and not one enemy, was cut down in her prime? What about her husband and children, the youngest still in high school? What about the trip to Paris she'd been planning? And the book she'd just barely completed, working with one hand because the tumour had disabled the other? What about me? Facedown on the floor, I sobbed for my friend and for the part of myself that had died with her.
I thought I knew what it meant to face the death of a loved one. By the time I turned 40, I had already buried both my parents-my mother, at 67, being the more dismaying loss. It seemed outrageous that the world should go on without her in it, the steadfast guide to every passage in my life. From my first sanitary belt to my first sleepless night with a colicky newborn, my mother showed me what to do. When her own mother died, she showed me by example how a good daughter grieves: plan the funeral, empty the house, gather the family photos. By cruel coincidence, my mother died of a brain tumour, five months after diagnosis. A freakish way to go, I figured. Surely I had seen the worst that death could do to me.
For 18 years, I felt immune to the kind of grief that empties the mind of everything except longing. I wept for three friends who died too young, and whom I still miss, but none of them had doubled as my personal historian. That role belonged to Val.
When we met as fledgling journalists with more ambition than polish, I flirted with the notion of starting a fiction magazine. Then I looked at the risks and forgot the whole thing. Val remembered, and spoke of it often. A dream that I'd dismissed as laughably naïve was in her eyes endearing just because it had been mine.
Now she was gone. At my corner grocery, the usual crowd heaped their baskets with asparagus and California strawberries as if nothing had changed. They asked the usual question: how's it going? When the truth burst out of me, they said, "I'm sorry."
A few days after Val died, I went looking for the white cashmere sweater that I'd worn at our last birthday dinner, when she exclaimed at our beauty. It wasn't in its customary spot, or anywhere else I might have stashed it. I phoned two cafes where I might have left the sweater draped over a chair. I kept digging through the same drawers, as if the sweater---and Val---might reappear.
I eventually gave up on the sweater, but not on Val. I phoned her old number at work, hungry for her lilting voice on the recorded announcement. How many times had I dialed that number to set up a lunch date, knowing she'd likely break it because of some last-minute crisis commitment or other? "What do you mean, you can't grab a fast lunch?" I would ask. "You're over 50 and you need to get your boss's permission?" I replayed those conversations in my head as the phone rang and rang. At last a canned female voice informed me, "The person at this extension is not available to take your call."
Not available. It sounded so implausibly cold, as if my vibrant, funny friend had never existed. Even harder to believe was the fact that I, a rational grownup who scorned the very notion of an afterlife, had just placed a call to Eternity. I didn't actually say, "I miss you." Still, I hoped that Val could hear my thoughts. Good God, was I losing my mind?
I posed the question to an expert---my friend Marla, who had lost her lifetime confidante some 18 months earlier. "I still listen to her last voicemail message," Marla told me. "It's a digital thread that binds me to her."
I was not Val's best friend, although she was mine. In the past, I had sometimes felt jealous of the friend lived across the street from Val, and who power-walked with her every morning. Then I'd kick myself for being small-minded. If I'd wanted a daily conversation with Val, I could have tried phoning every day, the time-honoured girlfriends' ritual that has never suited my reserved nature. I savour friendship in deep, intense bursts, with time for reflection in between.
That was just fine with Val, who kept a special place for me in a life that overflowed with friends. Her memorial service drew hundreds of people, including dozens I'd never seen or heard of. She had Birkenstock friends, jeans-and-nose-ring friends, and friends in designer suits with important-looking jewelry. Some had bonded with her in boardrooms, others in the top-floor bedroom of her teenage years, where they used to scribble slogans on the walls. Yet we all had one thing in common: we treasured Val.
It no longer mattered who had been her best friend, if she ever thought in those terms. She had been the best friend of many, whose stricken faces told the story. I belonged to a community of grief. That night I sent a condolence note to Val's neighbour. Although I had not shared those morning walks, I knew how profoundly she would miss them.
It suddenly struck me, with a pang of regret, that I don't have a single photo of Val and me together. This is what comes of never carrying a camera. Yet I see her image everywhere. All over the city where we made and kept our friendship, I pass the haunts we shared. The outdoor café where Val told me, with mingled delight and astonishment, that had met the man she intended to marry. The nondescript office building where we had been magazine colleagues, cheering each other on when our stories were cut or our efforts derided by a grizzled old-school manager who had no use for women. The ravine where we once walked all morning on the hottest Saturday of the summer. The rest of the world had sought refuge indoors, leaving all that green glory to us. In our sweaty shorts, we felt like queens. I always thought we'd go back to the ravine. "After my vacation," I'd tell myself. Or "When Val has finished her book."
I hold fast to these moments, although they make me sad. If I could forget my friend, she would not have been the marvel that she was. Now that my memories are all I have of Val, I need to meditate on every one, to set them in my mind like heirloom stones in a necklace. Her small pivotal kindnesses, forgotten years ago, come back to me as if they happened yesterday. Once when nothing in my life was working out, a florist rang my doorbell with a gift from Val---a white orchid. Long after it withered, I kept the orchid on my desk. The sight of it gave me hope. A good ten years later, thinking of it has the same effect.
These memories ground me. They tell me that my world, while profoundly and irrevocably altered, is not broken after all. I am still the woman who was beautiful with Val that night in October. With luck, I will grow old while she, in my mental photo album, will remain forever 57 (and looking at least 10 years younger). Yet the part of me that laughed with her still listens for her voice. Sometimes I know what she'd say.
Last month, for instance, when my husband came home with a guidebook to Paris, where Val should be going right now. "Our next trip!" he said. At first I wouldn't open the book. Still numb with loss, I wanted to hide from the world---until Val gave me an imaginary talking-to: "Are you nuts? Of course you'll go! Don't lose this chance!" I'm going to Paris. And my friend will be with me.
Biographical note: Val Ross, best friend of many, was an arts reporter for the Globe and Mail and the award-winning author of many books, most recently the elegant and witty oral history Robertson Davies: a Portrait in Mosaic, which she completed against great odds just before her death. Click here for a review of the book. Click here for my earlier post "Two bowls of soup: in memory of Val Ross."
First published in More, Canadian edition, September 2008, as "LosingVal."
Posted by Rona October 02, 2008 @ 3:00 AM. File in Published elsewhere