Make Time

Let me preface the main message about how I make time with a couple of notes:

  1. It’s easy to look “derelict” or collapsable in Louisiana because the mildew/mold embraces even the least embraceable of us.
  2. My house isn’t falling down. It’s solid.

A few days ago, a friend was giving me advice, and folded into it was a comment that might have insulted or angered some folks. I don’t remember the exact words, but they entered the advice something like:

. . . because your house is falling down anyway . . .

I think the reason I don’t remember her exact words is because I was not angry or insulted. Besides, I had experienced a similar comment from a stranger. “Derelict” was the word he had used. One good pressure wash sent that mold and mildew into space (or maybe to a neighbor’s house), and a friend (not the falling down friend, but a different tidy, appointed-house friend) exclaims “your house looks so great, so fresh.”

My house is solid.

I Make Time

Back to my friend who has this idea that my house is crumbling: it’s not true, but her perception is not without cause. It’s about time. My house and my projects need some attention, that is, they need my time.

A day or two before the falling down conversation, the same friend and I were talking about the bead run for our Mardi Gras Krewe.

“Let me know which days you have time to go and we’ll plan a run.”
“I don’t have time. I make time.”

I never imagined that, empty nest, I’d be battling time. But I do. Surprised? No. My dad stands, sword unsheathed, furiously battling the minutes of each day every time I visit. I don’t think we were born time warriors, but the work ethic, the (over)commitment, the creative yearnings, the desire to do, these traits and habits shape us, until one day, midlife, no young children to blame for time challenges, we find ourselves atop a mountain of obligations, endeavors, and relations, battling to make time for them all.

Lately, mostly due to work obligations, the most honest response to most requests begin with “I don’t have time.”Make time

  • I don’t have time to go.
  • I don’t have time to visit.
  • I don’t have time to attend the ball.
  • I don’t have time to Mardi Gras.
  • I don’t have time to write this blog.

I don’t like the don’ts, and they bring me to what I told my friend.

I don’t have time, but I make time.

This is how I do battle atop my mountain. I make time for people and tasks that matter most.

I don’t always make time to take a shower. But I’ll make time for a friend who drops by. I probably won’t make time to dust or mop unless I’m having a get together. But I make time to visit my parents every month. I may not make time to tidy my office. But I’ll steal those extra minutes I save to write a story, post a blog, or tinker with jpegs. I don’t make time to organize that spare bedroom. But I’ll always make time to help you lift a brick off your chest or to join you for a laugh or a jig.

If I do anything that isn’t work, I made time.

I admire people who keep well-appointed homes. I have friends who do. My mom does. I’m not like them.Make time

They make time to appoint their rooms. Those moments in between work and friendship, when my friends might dust shelves and vacuum rugs, I’m writing or making something. Maybe you’ll come to my house and think “It’s falling down.” But I started a novel. Maybe you’ll notice that I didn’t finish moving the ponds, but I finished a screenplay. Maybe you’ll see the dust and birdseed on my end table, but I’m so happy that you’re wearing the earrings that I made. And did you see my garden?

Time and Choices

We all make choices about how we spend our time. Judge me if you will about what I don’t do in mine. I don’t judge you if you do, and I don’t judge you for choosing to chase the dust. I mainly hope I have time to finish Elle’s story so you can read about what happens to her when she lands in 2019 from 3014 after a time hiccup. Sweet Ophera also needs my attention. She’s anxious to reconcile with the grandmother she ditched on a restaurant patio.

Make timeI have a couple dozen personal projects that wait patiently mid-dream for me to make time. Dust collects on the furniture. It will always collect, and no matter how often I pull it away, it will always return. I’d rather make time to till my words, dig my stories, write my garden, fire enamel, and photoshop my friends, the ones who come visit me in my falling down dusty home and the ones who fall from my foggy head into that shimmering computer screen.

I’m not yet a celebrated novelist or screenwriter, but I take comfort in stories about folk such as JK Rowling, who explains how living in squalor is the answer, and other creative humans, who sequester themselves to concentrate on creative endeavors. They confirm for me that squalor and sequestering pave the path. I took my time getting here, and now I’ll make time to follow this path.

My friend’s falling down comment didn’t upset me. But it gave me pause to ponder my choices. Falling down is my validation. This is my path. and, like my house, it’s solid.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2018.

Knee deep in weeds with friends

Have you ever gone into the woods or walked through the weeds with friends?

weeds and friendsI arranged for a weekend at my home in the hollow with three of my friends. My “country house” sits next to a water hollow, down the hill and through a meadow from my parents’ home. The weather apps told us to expect a combination of thunderstorms and sunshine. The weekend didn’t go off without a hitch or two, but it was lovely. Lovelier even than meadows, water hollows, thunderstorms, and sunshine.

weeds and wings

Walking through weeds with friends

I arranged for this weekend not only because we were overdue for some fun girlfriend time but also because I thought these friends really needed it. They’ve had losses, health scares, work upheavals, and challenges I hope I never have to navigate. Meadows, water hollows, thunderstorms, and sunshine. I thought the weekend was for them, but as I packed to leave and return home, I realized, I was the one who needed it.

My friends

weeds and berry promiesesWe’re knee deep with each other in thorny weeds, simple treasures, corny (sometime crass) jokes, coloring books, tears, Spanish ham, salads, cheese, wine, and whiskey. But the fun isn’t the important thing. The important thing is the net we create for each other. That friendly net is possibly one of the greatest gifts of middle-aged friendships. As parental walls crumble and safety nets of family collapse, that net of friendship is there to catch us when we fall, embrace us when we feel loss, and lift us when we sink down.

I didn’t take photos of the best moments of this past weekend. The photos I took don’t hold a candle to that phone call to the friend who wasn’t there yet, the meals with my parents, playing with colors, spinning wool, belly laughing. Most of the weekend was rainy, but we managed one nice walk, through the meadow, up the hill, in the weeds. These photos are from that friendly walk.wends and fences

Friendship nets form when we let ourselves get knee deep in the weeds with each other. We’ll rarely catch the best of those moments on any kind of camera, because the magic of making the net is better.

 

 

 

 

 

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2017

Penny Nichols: Why We’re Connected

Penny Nichols from Baton Rouge died yesterday.

I’m not referring to a metaphorical death. The death was real. But it wasn’t me. I’m P-e-n-n-i-e Nichols.

Penny Nichols’ heart stopped on April 12, and, although she was revived by paramedics, she slipped away on Sunday, April 18.

I’m sad. Some would say sadder than I should be. We weren’t close friends, yet I feel the loss as if we were.

We knew each other because of our names. It started when I received a phone call from New York in the era of clunky phone books with thin gray pages and 411 operators. I thought he knew me. He greeted me by name. Only after a few references to “that time together” did I realize he had the wrong Penny/Pennie. I offered to look up her number for him (after all, I already felt chummy with him). He was grateful. We laughed. I was pretty sure Penny would too.

After the second call for Penny not Pennie, I wrote Penny’s number down and pinned it in a place I could easily see. I learned things about her through the calls: her Pillsbury prize for a chicken recipe, antique linen upcycling, love of travel and wine, and more. I took to telling her friends as we would hang up, “Please tell Penny Pennie says hi!” I wanted to be her friend too.

One day she called me. This misdirection was for-Pennie-not-Penny: she had received a graduation announcement for one of my daughter’s friends. The misdirection gave us occasion to chat for the first time.

“We only live about three miles from each other!”

We laughed about the phone calls I had been receiving for fifteen years. We talked about the other two Penny Nichols in town.

“We should have a Penny/Pennie Nichols get together!”

“That would be lovely! Let’s do!”

Flash forward another five years, I was shopping at the farmer’s market. I was no longer receiving calls from Penny’s friends. 411 operators and phone books where Pennie Nichols preceded Penny Nichols entries were out of fashion. I gave a cheese vendor my debit card.

“Oh, you’re buying this for Penny?”

“What?”

“You’re buying this for Penny Nichols?”

“Sure. I’m buying it for me. Why do you ask?”

After a few awkward moments, I convinced the vendor I hadn’t stolen Penny’s debit card. She directed me to Penny’s antique linen booth, and I met Penny for the first time. I was sure I wanted to be her friend.

Although we became Facebook friends, and I felt like I knew her well, we never hung out or traveled together.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because we never had the Penny/Pennie party. Or because I never joined her for tea or wine on her patio.

Maybe I’m sadder than I should be because I’m projecting. One day there will be an obit for Pennie Nichols. Some acquaintances have already called my daughter, concerned.

The projection is not just a name thing. When something happens to a friend, I tend to imagine myself in his or her shoes. I don’t think I’m the only one. I remember, when I divorced, most of my married friends shared stories about their marriages, their fantasies about divorcing or their struggles to avoid it. My divorce opened a door to stories they hadn’t shared before. Maybe they projected my circumstance on theirs, maybe they felt connected to my story. I’m not sure, but I do know that when something happens to someone else, we tend to personalize it, connect it to our own experiences.

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be. I had been connected to Penny for over twenty years, after all, starting with that first call when I listened to her friend’s story for five minutes before I realized, I’m not that Penny. We're connected

Maybe I’m not sadder than I should be because I did lose a friend.

I didn’t die this week. But Penny did. And a little bit of Pennie and of a friendship imagined was swooped away with her.

I will miss the connection. A connection that wasn’t young, but a friendship that was just budding. Peace, Penny, for you and your family.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Open Letter to a Lost Friend: Cancer Sucks

This is one in a series of letters to a lost friend. You can also read about Mona and Sandy.

Dear Dela,

We had so many good days together. May 26, 2010, wasn’t one of them.

  • I was out when you called.
  • I didn’t hear my cell when you tried it.
  • I didn’t have a car that day.
  • You were already at ER when I returned your call.
  • Did I already mention? I didn’t have a car that day.

Every bit of alignment was off. I’m not sure that a swimmingly perfect alignment would have made a difference. Your body was weary of battling that monster. I couldn’t have saved you. But I could have been there. My absence still pains me.

Dave dropped you off! We told you all along (I feel the same now), we don’t like Dave.

You were alone in the ER. I was home without a car. But I had a phone, so I scolded damn Dave, and, desperate for a ride, I called a friend. She happened to be at the hospital!

“I can check on her, let you know how she’s doing.”

Leukemia is a sneaky monster. Your complexion, your posture, your gate, they never betrayed your illness. Your cheeks always rosy, your smile always quick. Damn leukemia.

“She was a little groggy, but she seems okay. She kept asking me if she could get me something!”

You were always the gracious hostess, Dela. Even in your last hours. I relaxed. This was good.

A midnight call: “I’m on her emergency list but I’m out of town.” Cracking in her voice. “They say she’s not going to make it. Can you go?”

My partner, home by then, hoisted me off to the ER. Running. “How can this be happening?” Long, wide, confusing white corridors. “Damn Dave!” Panic. Fear. “How does anyone get to the right place!?”

But I found you. Leukemia was no longer hiding its ugly face. Those paddles couldn’t save you, but in the effort, they had beaten you to bloody bruises. Your head was cushioned in blood-soaked hospital towels.

The doctor’s pointed question: “She’ll probably crash again. Should we keep doing this?”

Everything you feared. Everything you didn’t want. How could I respond, “Yes! Beat the bloody hell out of her again!”?

I thought perhaps you’d linger a bit longer.

“I’ll go home to get a few things and come back, sit with her until her brother arrives.”

What the hell “things” did I need? Stupid! The misalignment of thought and circumstance persisted.

In my driveway, I was poised to run into the house to grab this and that thing when the doctor called.

Dela's dragonfly

I found myself surrounded by dragonflies in my garden the day you died. Coincidentally, my daughter named her purple car Adelaide, and the day she traded her in, this guy was perched on her antenna. Were you reaching out?

You slipped away around 2 am on the 27th of one of my favorite months.

I take comfort in this: While I was still at the hospital, trying to decide where it was safe to touch you without causing pain, I found one of your hands under the bloody towels. I breathed in the story you had told me about your father, who, during his last days, seemed to fret over cemeteries with no vacancies. You told him, “It’s OK day, Dad. They have a place for you.” He passed that day. I exhaled: “It’s OK to let go. I love you. You are a mess, but you lived life beautifully.”

I spoke at your memorial service. When it was over, one friend said half-jokingly, “That was beautiful. I want you to speak at mine.” Her comment reminded me: Say it now. Let your friend know now why she or he is special to you.

Since May 27, 2010, more friends have become entangled in the cancer web. Most have found their way out. We try to understand how to be good friends to them. We tell their stories responsibly. I’m telling yours again. Next month, it will be six years. We still don’t like Dave. We still love you. This (A Beautiful Mess) was my tribute to you.

A Beautiful Mess

This is the story about me and Dela. Dela was beautiful. I’m a mess. End of story.

Actually, the “mess” is the elephant in the room and I like to kick sedentary elephants around whenever I get a chance. I often end up with a sore foot, sometimes a new perspective, but I always learn something in the process. So, for just a minute or two, I hope you’ll bear with me as I give this elephant —the mess— a kick.

Dela was a beautiful person, a beautiful friend. She was a mess of interesting things and interests. She had countless circles of friends. And for every friend in every circle, there’s a different story of Dela, a different bright moment of joy he or she remembers. I’ve been getting messages from friends of Dela, some of whom haven’t seen her for as many as 30 years. They want to tell their story of Dela. She had an untidy network of friends. She traveled through that mess of a network with grace and touched and lifted up many.

So . . . what is a “mess,” anyway? Sometimes it’s a tangle. Sometimes it’s an untidy clutter. Sometimes it’s just the noise or the pace or the plans. What is a beautiful mess? It doesn’t have to be a bad or ugly thing. It just is.

Dela was a beautiful mess, and if we focus on her home for a moment, we can get a glimpse of the breadth and depth of her mess, her life, her circles of friends, her fields of adventure.

  • A china cabinet full of dainty teapot and tea cup sets.
  • An armoire full of exquisite French linens.
  • A small kitchen bursting at the seams where she prepared ratatouille, homemade biscotti, and Tanqueray and tonics with lots and lots of lime . . . all of this on small counters crowded with fancy dishes and gadgets that didn’t quite fit in the cupboards.
  • A beautifully resurfaced wooden floor, strewn with newspapers, often turned to the sports page for baseball scores and stats.
  • Boxes and piles of amazing paper: textured, colored, handcrafted . . . all kinds of paper.
  • Shoes. Lots of shoes.
  • The dining table loaded with a flat of Ponchatoula strawberries in the winter or sweet Washington Parish watermelons in the summer.
  • Shelves and shelves and shelves of books.
  • A maze of beauty products to fight off signs of passing time.
  • and so much more . . .

Many of us close to Dela occasionally fussed at her about the different piles of mess in her life, sometimes we’d even try to tidy things up for her. But there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

Now . . . I miss her mess. But mostly, I miss her graceful way of living through, above, and in spite of any mess.

I’ve had messes in my life. On occasion, she sat down in the middle of a mess with me. She was better than I was. She never judged my mess or me for it. Dela simply brought joy into the place where we sat. She brightened the moment with her humor and acceptance. She lifted our thoughts and our emotions above the mess, whether it was physical, emotional, or spiritual.

I will treasure those moments.

When one of the biggest messes any of us might fear or dread fell into her life, Dela was, quite simply, amazing. That mess, leukemia, was a pesky, annoying mess. And although this cancerous cantankerous disease followed her around EVERYwhere she went for better than ten years, most people didn’t know it. Dela did not live IN the mess.

Dela chose to live through it, above it, and in spite of it, up until the very end. Where many of us might cringe and hole up, whine and take pity on ourselves, Dela continued to laugh, to live in the light of the moment, and to bring joy to any place she was present.dela-cancer-sucks-2

I am humbled by her grace and elegance as she endured the fears disease inspires, as she sat through hours of treatments and tests, as she thumbed through endless waiting room magazines, hospital bills, and insurance papers. I am grateful she chose, for those ten diseased years, to live her life, to laugh with her friends, and to lift us up even as she was being swallowed by a monster. I am honored to have been one of her friends, and I hope that I can be half as brave, half as beautiful, and half as elegant standing in the messes of my life. Mostly, I hope I told her often enough, when she was present and brightly alive, what a beautiful mess she was and how much I loved her.

Copyright © Pennie Nichols, 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Open letter to a lost friend: Six Dollars and a Deadly Secret

This is one in a series of open letters to lost friends.

Dear Sandy H,

When I remember you, filaments of anger are still tangled in the jagged edges of my sadness.

The first call came on a Sunday morning in October. The conversation began with your typical Southern notes of greetings and inquiries. Your turn and you responded, “Oh, I’m fine,” adding after a pause, “I need a favor.”

“Sure, Sandy, whatever you need.”

We had that “It’s been years but it’s like we’ve never been apart” grace in our amity. Months or years might slip away, but we could pick it up. It had been nearly five years since our last visit. Fit to be tied that night: your father had died, you hated your mom, and the will had wrecked your life .

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“I need to borrow six dollars.”

“Six dollars?”

“Yeah, I just need six dollars?”

The inception of our friendship was a Shakespeare lit class. You commuted to attend classes, so our friendship never extended into the evenings or weekends. I loved listening to stories about your derailed marriage. You were a non-traditional student before that was a thing and the first divorced friend I had. Even though our friendship didn’t go beyond swooning over our lit professor and sharing snorts over things people said in class, I valued the time together.

After graduation, I moved to your city for grad school. We kept up on the phone but our visits were only occasional. You continued to be that peculiar friend. You lived in elegant condos with fine furniture; my other friends and I holed up in noisy apartments or dilapidated houses. You cruised around in a sporty VW with leather seats. We sputtered to class in used cars with worn fabric seats and failing headliners.

“Well, sure. I’m happy to give you six dollars. Did they turn off your water? Your lights? You can come over if you like.”

“No, no. My car is out of gas, so if you could bring me six dollars, . . . I’ll pay you back.” This odd request was new to our relationship but it wasn’t surprising.

At the end of those two years of grad school in your city, I stopped by your condo to say good-bye before I left for a new phase of grad school in Austin. You were in a huff that day. You had always been angry with your mom, but today you were also bickering about your dad and your credit card. “They won’t let me use the damn card unless I pay $300 first!” you carped. Still creditcardless, owing a big chunk of money on a bigger chunk of debt sounded exotic to me. The icing on the cake: “And daddy wants me to pay my own car insurance now!”

Steven warned me, “This sounds very suspicious,” as I was leaving to take you six dollars. It’s okay, I explained, adding that you were a little eccentric, had probably maxed out all of your cards, had a fight with your mom, and just needed some gas or milk. What could it hurt? Six dollars?

I didn’t recognize you at first. Arms wrapped across your abdomen, as you wait for your dog to mark her territory in a patch of grass. Your hair was matted into a flat up-do, your face was swollen, your skin ruddy and blotched, and your linen clothes were torn and stained. Even from my car I knew that you were draped in a rancid cloud. You didn’t sound like this on the phone. You never sounded like this.

I did my best to collect myself as I parked the car. Handing you a $20 bill from an ATM because I didn’t have six dollars: “Keep it.”sandy-3

Your eyes brightened. “Thank you so much. I’ll pay you back. I promise. How are you?”

“No worries. I’m fine.” My desire to leave was not as strong as my desire to understand. “Do you need anything else? A ride to the gas station?”

“I need a ride to Hi Nabor?”

“Sure,” I said, realizing it wasn’t for milk or eggs.

The books and movies I enjoy revisiting most are the ones with the big “Gotcha!” twist at the end. The ending you didn’t see coming. Even as I waited for you in the car, I started revisiting all of our visits. I had missed something. How could I have missed it?

You limped to the car holding Parish. “Do you mind?” Her matted and discolored coat camouflaged her breed. Shih Tzu? Poodle? “Of course,” I responded, regretting the absence of towels to drape across the seats. You jumped agilely into your diatribe. The details, impossibly tangled in my memory now, were basically the same as our last visit: “My life is crap since dad died, I hate mom, the will was unfair.” The only saving grace in your life was this stinking (but very sweet) dog.

No idea what to do, I offered food. “While you’re in the store, I’ll grab us some lunch, and we’ll catch up, OK?”

“Please don’t leave me,” you implored, doddering out of the car. I promised I’d be back. You watched as I drove across the parking lot to the drive-through. Your fear was real.

When I returned, you were waiting, paper bags clutched to your chest, oblivious to the looks of passersby, relieved when you finally saw me.

At your house, even an “excuse the mess” hostess plea wouldn’t have prepared me. Holding the boxes of food, I turned on my heels, looking for a free surface, a place to sit in the battleground of slain fine furniture: the carved wood accent chair snapped in half, the porcelain lamp in pieces, the once-plush leather sofa gutted, springs and stuffing protruding. The condo was bulging with the smell of urine, ammonia, excrement, and rotting food. Circling, circling.

You plopped into your spot on the dead couch and pointed at an injured but standing accent chair: “Sit there.” I handed you one of the boxes, then sat carefully on the edge of the chair. Your mood had brightened, and I knew why. You had tucked the brown bags behind the cracked desk by the door. The hundreds (yes hundreds) of cheap vodka bottles (every possible size) and diet Coke cans under and on top of the coffee table were my cue to the contents of the brown bags I had enabled.sandy-2

I tried to follow the frayed threads of your stories. Your limp was from an accident that nearly killed you. “Damn doctors. They were mean to me and didn’t put the right kind of pin in my foot. Didn’t they know who my dad was!?” Your doctor dad. You needed your meds but your mom wouldn’t take you to the clinic. No, I shouldn’t take you to get gas, You hated those people at the Circle K. And could I believe that your family wanted to take away this condo your dad had left to you!? Times were bad. You even sought out free meals at churches when you had gas to get there.

I spied Parish pooping on a throw pillow close to the dining table and began to rise to take care of it.

“Oh, that’s OK. Don”t worry about it.” Could you be serious?

It had been fifteen years prior, yet it was typical of those initial years. “Isn’t it wonderful?” you had said, sweeping your arm to indicate the carpet. “I love to vacuum. It makes me feel like everything is in order. Everything will be all right.”

This was a new you, surrounded by piles of dog poo and urine stains. Parish even had poo on her bed pillows, next to piles of canned dog food that you had dumped on it.

I was feeling ill. I knew you wanted me to leave. Eyeballing your brown bags, you told me you needed a nap several times and became increasingly agitated when I didn’t take the hints. I needed to get a number, a name.

You sunk into the couch and into another tirade about your father. I could see the area of the couch responsible for your matted up-do. You beat the loose stuffing for each syllable of “I’m just so angry,” and I understood that, as frail as you seemed, you had broken your own furniture.

After acquiring a few numbers, I left you and drove home with my windows down, my tears a bitter cocktail of anger, sadness, and confusion. I was still sharing my bewilderment with Steven when you called an hour later. “I feel much better now. Thank you for coming by.”

I was prepared for your next I need a favor call. “Sandy, I won’t bring you money for alcohol. I’ll bring you food, take you to the clinic, or help with an errand, but that’s all.”

This wasn’t the first time you had heard this. Without reaction, you said you understood. I imagine, though, that you threw the phone and beat the I’m.so.angry out of the couch stuffing after we hung up.

We interacted more in the subsequent ten months than in the previous twenty years I had known you. Clinic visits, rehab lobbies, grocery runs, AA meetings, Tex-Mex lunches, resume help. I tried to sort the chronology of our twenty years of infrequent visits with that life you lived: your accident, the expensive rehab clinics, the DUIs, the move to Florida, the boyfriends. I was baffled by my ignorance of those fierce formations and events that had developed beneath the crystalline waters of our chats.

I finally met your mom. You had been forthcoming and accurate about her. She called when you had dislocated your shoulder. You couldn’t remember the tumble down the stairs of your condo. A hospital visit and arm brace later, you had no choice but to stay with your mom until you could use your arm. One night after I had brought groceries for you and your mom, you followed me to the door. “I’m going crazy,” you whispered wide-eyed. “You’ve got to get me out of here!”

When you were finally at your condo again, I started receiving phone calls from your mom. “Have you heard from Sandy?” I sometimes stopped by to check on you. Through a crack in the door, the response was always the same: “I’m okay. The damn phone broke again.” I doubt you remembered those drive-by visits.

The last call came on a September afternoon. I had never met your twin brother, and this was only the second time I spoke to him. He wasn’t crying at first. “Sandy is gone,” he explained. “I was calling to pick her up to watch a Saints game with us. When she didn’t answer, I figured she broke the phone again.”

Your brother was an alcoholic too. He was successfully recovering. I often wonder about his recovery versus your struggle. Maybe his wife and two children gave him more motivation to recover? You had Parish, but Parish didn’t even require a dish for her food. Many alcoholics have family responsibilities and still fail, but perhaps more often than not, family helps.

Your brother and your niece went to pick you up. Your door was unlocked. She found you on the floor in your kitchen, dog poo, rotting food, and an open fridge. Your brother started sobbing at this point in the story. I think he regretted sending his daughter in instead of going in himself. Your heart had given out, drowned in the violent waves of alcohol.

At your wake, a computer ran a series of photos of your fifty-five years, focusing mostly on the first thirty. Birthday parties with your twin brother, beach trips with friends, fancy dinners with your family. I wasn’t in any of the photos. I don’t think I have a single photo of the two of us. I wasn’t part of that life you had lived under the surface of the Sandy I knew. The photos of friends and family were sad reminders of the relationships that had crumbled under the burden of your disease. I realized as I left the wake that I was that acquaintance that teetered on the edge of friendship, I was the last number in your little black book. The last call for alcohol.

That little bit of anger still stuck in my craw is not about your dark secrets, not about the transparent manipulation of our last ten months, and certainly not about being last on your list. I’m angry that there’s nothing I could have done.

I thank you for the laughter of our first twenty years. I love you for the lessons of our last ten months. I hope you’re at peace.

Pennie

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.

Open letter to a lost friend: Adrift

This is one in a series of open letters to lost friends.

Dear Mona Z,

I remember our last visit. Sitting on your patio with newborns in our laps and toddler girls playing in the yard, we laughed, exchanged mommy stories, daycare plans, and anticipations for our families. The afternoon was pleasant, yet on that day I understood that our friendship had reached its natural end. friends2

When our chat turned to houses, you explained that your in-laws had recently purchased a home in the most exclusive neighborhood. My lack of awe galvanized your campaign to impress upon me the import of that move. Honestly, I was unaware of the status of that neighborhood then, and now, even in the knowing, my dearth in reaction would remain. The undulations were already tugging at our interests. One slipping over the ebb, the other rolling with the flow.

You nudged the conversation to the furniture you had recently purchased and the updates you had made to your nearly new home. I felt happy for you and a little amazed. I quietly reflected on the futon that my husband and I still sat on every evening, in a home full of hand-me-downs and holdovers from college. You had visited our home briefly just before we moved the furniture in, exclaiming as you opened doors and peeked around jambs: “Oh. They didn’t paint the closets.” They hadn’t. Eight-months pregnant and still working, I wasn’t gonna. Even knowing the merits of freshly painted walls, the tenor of my tastes never drew me into a closet, not even my own, to inspect the paint.

friends3We were adrift.

As you described and recommended your maid, I floated further away, aware already that house cleaning would always plummet off my priority list in favor of other endeavors. I drifted back as you explained: “. . . except the toilets. I prefer to clean the toilets my way.” Even now, when I clean toilets, I remember and wonder, “Am I doing it right?”

As we talked about our children, the undercurrent drew me beyond the breaking waves of our conversation. Children in our sails, our courses would diverge absolutely. Soccer vs. dance, music vs. football, volleyball vs. cheerleading. In the blink of a childhood, we would be oceans apart. Our girls played happily that day. Even though they grew up less than ten miles away from each other and later graduated from the same university, that was their last play date. Washed away by their moms, with their moms?, on eddies away from the circle.

The end was natural and necessary.

We were incidental friends, drawn together by the men we dated in college. Riding the wave of their friendship, we camped on beaches and in cabins, skied on Lake Maurepas, danced into the morning at discos. When that wave melted into the shore, I moved on, but you stayed and married your college sweetheart. We chuckled about him that afternoon on the patio, how he had run out in his drawers that morning to rush the garbage cans to the street for pick up.

I had been back for almost a year, and we had clumsily picked up our friendship, scheduling play dates and lunches. Many friendships rise up with the grace of “it’s like we were never apart.” Ours didn’t. I resisted the end because you had been a good friend. You had given me one of those perfect moments that even now I remember.

The moment came an hour or two before dawn when we were riding the college wave. The guys were still outside drinking and playing cards. We were crashing, yawning comments about the day. Then you said it. Clearly. Honestly.

“You should leave him, you know.”

For a moment I thought you were in my head. How did you know?

“He’s going nowhere.”

The gnawing nowhere of my relationship with him. You spoke what I felt but needed to hear. I had been afraid to break the circle because I knew it would break many.

As simply and to the point as you had been about cleaning toilets, “He’s not right for you.”

Despite the haze from the wave of alcohol that had washed us to that moment, despite the darkness of that hour and the oceans of years between us now, that moment is still crystal, bright in my mind.friends4

The ex-boyfriend had come up from time to time in our conversations, perhaps even on our last patio day. He wasn’t an awful guy. Just not the right guy. You had helped me embrace that.

Some friends are forever. Some aren’t. I don’t dwell on the many layers of friendships, intersecting circles of friends, or levels and types of friends. I do splash around a bit to understand the gifts of the people in my life, past and present. Even for lost friends, not all is lost. I may have to dive into the cool depths to find the treasure, the shiny little something we shared. I always find it.

We said good-bye that afternoon, made promises we couldn’t keep. Internet, social media, and obituaries have kept me marginally informed. Your daughter is a beautiful young medical professional and your handsome son is pursuing a degree in film. Your dreams with your college sweetheart withered in the tedium of day-to-day. I hope the dissolution was not too painful. I hope you’re happy.

I don’t miss you, Mona. Even twenty-three years ago, I knew the friendship wasn’t sustainable. I do, however, remember you fondly. Odd little memories, the clean toilet, the “neat” burger (no condiments, no vegetables for you, just meat on a bun), the straight smile with the tiniest of curls on each end, and the honest truth. I hope your friends appreciate your frankness and know how to bring a tiny curl to your smile. You were a good friend to me. I still love you for that.

Pennie

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.