April 18, 2009

What Do You Say?

The phone call ended a bit strangely: "I'm still short, I wear about a size 12, I am kinda blond now, and I'll be wearing a white Nationals shirt and a blue jacket."

This is strange because it was uttered by a friend I had known all my life. There was just the matter of the intervening nineteen years since I last saw her.

The nexus of the Facebook era and a trip to my family home brought about this strange interaction. Making it all the stranger was that our appointed meeting place was a subway platform. Oh, and one other thing. I was confronting one of my greatest personal shortcomings.

This past spring I rediscovered Facebook. I had been a member for quite a while, but my contact list remained very short. Someone cajoled me into poking around with it again, and in one short week, I had rediscovered dozens of childhood friends. My plans for a spring trip were certain to include a number of reunions. I arrived in town with a fistful of email addresses and phone numbers of people I hadn't seen in ten or twenty or even thirty years.

And so it was with my friend with whom I would be reunited for the first time in nineteen years. When I arrived in town, I dialed my friend's phone number. As I was dialing, my mind was flooded with thoughts of my friend's mother. Her name was repeated over and over in my head. When my friend answered the phone, we exchanged the usual pleasantries, but immediately following that, my friend gave me the news: her mother had passed away a few weeks before. That I had been thinking of her mother as I dialed the phone was a very strange feeling. I would have called it coincidence, except that a very similar thing happened to me once before in my life; the first time even more spectacularly than this one.

We made plans to get together for lunch, but we changed them. We decided to go to the baseball game together. I would take the Metro down to her stop, and wait for her on the platform. As much as I was looking forward to our reunion, I was dreading it, too. I have no idea what to say to someone who has lost her mother. There are some things I don't do particularly well. There are some things that I don't do at all. This was one of them.

Back when I lived in the Washington, DC area, I played hockey on a men's team. One of my teammates was a good friend - not only did we play hockey together, but I also hunted and fished with him and his father, and his mother was one of the people in my season ticket group for the Washington Capitals.

Shortly after I moved to Alaska, my hockey buddy's father passed away. As I remember it now, it was very sudden and unexpected, and it happened during the holidays. I happened to return to Washington to visit my family for Christmas, and my parents told me of my friend's loss. My mother suggested I call.

I was paralyzed. I had no idea what to say. I thought about what I would say. I thought about how awkward it would be. I wasn't ready. I put it off for a day... and then two. Maybe tomorrow I will have some inspiration. Or courage.

Inspiration and courage never came, and I returned back to Alaska having abdicated my responsibility. I never called my hockey buddy. It wasn't that I couldn't have called from Alaska, either.  I let weeks become months, and months become years.

Essentially, I lost a friend because I was... a coward.

There was no turning back here. Not that I would want to; the benefit of twenty years of life experience is that you gain some maturity and coping skills. I knew I wasn't going to be the utter idiot I had been with my hockey buddy... but the skill set hadn't been tested in quite a while.

The day of the game, there was a bit of phone tag played. My insecurities about the situation played games with me as we traded voice mails. I imagined my friend finding the idea of going out so soon after her mother's passing to be too much, and that I would get a message telling me that she was going to cancel. If she had, I would have totally understood. If I had been thinking, I would have known that this was the last thing she would do. Once she made a commitment to do something, there was little that one could do to distract her from that commitment.

She's just weird that way.

Having a reunion and hugging someone that you haven't seen in nineteen years - on a subway platform - isn't nearly as strange as I imagined it to be. I think there are some friends that you just know so well and have such an affinity for that allows the years to melt away as if it had been nineteen days or even nineteen hours. We were so caught up in catching up that we actually got on the wrong train. We were going the right direction, but took the scenic route. It hardly mattered, and in fact, I had to make a concerted effort to pay attention to exactly where we were so we didn't miss our stop.

We talked about everyone and everything we'd ever done. We laughed a lot. I was amazed at the details I remembered from way back. One Fourth of July she and I went to the National Mall to watch the fireworks. It was a pretty spectacular evening - there had been thunderstorms earlier, and we were soaked to the skin. As it started to get dark, the skies were filled with spectacular lightning, which brought cheers from the crowd as if it were part of the fireworks show. Finally the skies cleared and the fireworks started. They were spectacular, as they always are, and of course, the backdrop of our national monuments makes the celebration all the more amazing.

After the fireworks, we wandered back to the Metro, where thousands of us boarded the trains to head home. Every free inch of space on those cars was packed with people. Everyone was nose-to-nose with their friends and butt-to-butt with strangers. Nobody cared, it was just a part of the annual July Fourth ritual.

At the baseball game we talked about everything. As the night wore on, my friend's voice got squeakier and more hoarse. As difficult as it was to hear her it was strangely familiar. I hadn't remembered it at first, but it seems that whenever she and I did one of these outings, whether to a ballgame, or the fireworks, or the Preakness, she would lose her voice. I hadn't remembered that detail until we were walking back to the Metro after the game.

As we walked down Half street there were some awkward pauses. I told her, we should get together again when I come to town in September. She said she's really like that, and she'd like to get together with my parents, too. I told her they'd really like that.

We filed into the subway station, only to find ourselves on the wrong side of a temporary barrier. Our college-years sensibilities came to us as swimming comes to fish: we moved them and walked to the side of the platform we were supposed to be on. Moments after we did that, I heard one of the station police chastising others for doing the same thing.

Our train came, and the crowd poured onto the car. Every inch was occupied. Friends were nose-to-nose, and strangers were butt-to-butt. I said to her, "I've seen this movie before." She laughed. We only had two stops on the train before she'd change trains and head off towards her home, and I would head back to Maryland and my parent's place.

We didn't say much during those few minutes on the train. She was looking off at nothing in particular. I looked at her face, and she had that look that you see right before someone starts to cry.

The train pulled into the station. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. She said, "I'll see you soon, sweetie" and walked off the train.

I said nothing.

What do you say?

One comment on “What Do You Say?”

  1. I think that perhaps you did the best thing you could for that day. You gave her a reprieve from her grief and offered a shoulder if she should need one. Not to say that you SHOULDN'T bring it up sometime soon, if only to just say, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I will miss your mom too." You are a good friend to people. One of your best traits is that you truly LISTEN to what people say... and as I have not met you IRL yet, I would only assume that you are pretty good with watching body language. So, maybe if you get to see her again in September, you will (and SHE will) be more able to talk about it.

    I think you did a good thing. You were there. You gave her a gift of a really wonderful day. And if you give her the opening, maybe she will want to talk about it, maybe she won't. But you were there. And that is what counts.


Copyright © Wigi Tozzi, 2023
Proudly designed with Oxygen, the world's best visual website design software
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram