A few years ago I tried to look up an old college friend, AK, searched online and came upon her husband’s obituary. She lost him to cancer, she and their four children about the ages of our four. I had spoken to her only a few times and exchanged a few letters since their wedding a year after ours, and then, flash! So much living and then his death, and life still goes on. What must that be like, to lose one’s partner and have to raise children alone. Though she has a loving and large family around to lean on.
The obituary was posted as a closing piece on his blog. It was correct and appropriate, befitting his role as Anglican priest, but did not remind me of the young man I’d known. But who was he, really, and who am I to say the “real” JW was just that laughing, fun-loving curly-headed housemate that kept the heat too high in his basement bedroom and came up for food and laughter now and then. He was highly intelligent, Oxford classics scholar material for sure, but I was surprised when I heard he was going for the priesthood. The college we attended had full high Anglican chapel services several times a day, complete with fat priest who spoke with an imitation English accent while waving the incense thingamajig solemnly. JW had a beautiful, deep speaking and singing voice, though I know he would never use it to put on airs. Even when intoning on a serious subject, with us it always seemed to be a prelude to a crackup or digression into a Monty Python skit. He’d double up his spider-thin body and shake helplessly with laughter when we got going on this or that imitation or parody. Being goofy was such an important part of stress relief during exams and through that long, dark, slushy winter. For some reason we got into sound plays, which I’d record on cassette, complete with sound effects and voices. I found a recording which I plan to send to the family, featuring both JW and me doing a skit, and AK and me interviewing late night party lingerers about life, the universe, and not much of anything. We lit a fire in the fireplace of our gigantic Victorian living room, which had so little furniture, served peanuts in the shell, allowing the guests to throw the husks on the floor to add crunch to our movements.
AK, proper and devout, the oldest of five and by all accounts the responsible one, with a love of honest engagement, deep conversations, the occasional glass of wine, a commitment to seek God and follow Jesus, and a willingness to dance up a storm with me when the weekend came. She was ever kind and patient with me, accepting of my lack of orthodoxy, always finding something valuable in my attempts to articulate meaning, laughing at my jokes, praying for me a good deal more for me than she let on, I’m sure, as I stumbled through relationships and tried to stay on track with my studies and life. I strayed a lot, and she became a kind of shepherdess to me, by coming into my pastures instead of trying to hook me into hers. She was a true friend to me. We kept in touch after graduating, visited few times, and she was maid of honor at my wedding. I soon got the invitation to her wedding, and it’s a mark of my relational near sightedness that I hadn’t seen the match coming between her and JW, though I knew there was something there at times between them. I guess I didn’t listen very well, just wrote him off as the funnest kind of friend but not the marrying kind. Which worked out well for all of us anyway. JW and I made goofy tape recordings, he being the natural comic and I goading him on and doing sound effects, and during the other hours she and he were falling in love.
We drove over the mountains with our baby son to attend the wedding. I knew it would be a busy day, and I do hate to be in the way, so I didn’t get in touch with AK or her family. It was a lovely wedding–everyone was radiant and the flowers and homily and setting were superb, lots of guests from the upper echelon, her three lovely sisters as bridesmaids and brother ans groomsman, and was that the youngest sister with the buzz cut? Afterward we went the few blocks to the hall where the invitation-only reception was to take place–such an elegant room of well appointed tables, each with shining tableware and printed name cards. We went along the first edge reading these, and suddenly I was filled with self doubt and anticipated humiliation as I pictured not finding our names anywhere and having to slink away. Meanwhile was thinking I’m not dressed nice enough, and I don’t belong here, and I got a lump in my throat and dragged my husband out protesting and told him I didn’t think we were even invited–it was invitation only and I didn’t have one with me, and let’s get out of here, and let’s just go to the evening get together at the family’s house. None of his protests would budge me, nor his offer to go scouting for our names.
This is a hard memory for me, as is the memory of our conversation with AK that evening as she greeted us with tears of welcome, wondering where we had been. I explained my confusion, and saw that it upset her–she said how could I think we weren’t invited–I was one of her most honored guests. I was so embarrassed, and my husband was saying I told you so, and AK had been planning to say a few words about our friendship.
I don’t know why, but I get the wrong idea lots of times about my role in others’ lives, sometimes feeling so much an outsider, other times not noticing I am being welcomed in. So I err on the side of staying out of the way, assuming I’m not wanted or important, and would only be in the way. A holdover from really being in the way as a middle child, my mother always caring for younger ones and older ones doing their own things, my father being mobbed by everyone when he got home and just wanting to have a quite read or at least visit with one at a time.
In academics, topical discussions, or my profession, it’s different—I go boldly and feel confident, knowing my role and prerequisite skills, forgiving myself when I mess up, and feeling I have a reasonably balanced sense of ego. In friendships it’s different, and it takes me a long time to feel secure, and I find it difficult to do the work I need to do to maintain friendships from my end. So you see why all of my true friends have a lot of patience, and don’t assume that because I haven’t said anything to them in months that I do not value them. I really have to work on this fear of rejection or marginalization. Comes out most in informal group settings, when I really don’t know who I want to be in relation to, well, so many unique individuals, and why might what I’d say to one be appropriate for another? I’m not much good an breaking ice or small talk either, and tend to get impatient when no one broaches anything complex or debatable or asks sincere questions about things they’d like to learn. If most of my local family had any taste for alcohol and I enjoyed the occasional social drink, I suppose I’d still be using alcohol on occasion to help me with my social inhibitions, as I did in my first few years of college. Then I rededicated my life to God, and it became preferable to “get drunk on the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit may be empowering, but doesn’t make up for a lack of social graces.
I tried again to reach her this moth, after the death of my husband, and as I waited to see if she’d get the email I sent to what seemed to still be her place of work, I reflected on the similarity of our places in life–both of us teachers, both with fours children grown or almost grown, having lost husbands to cancer. My mind wandered into the prospect of going to visit her in Alberta next summer and taking a trip together, and making our conversation sin to a podcast. Because along with the similar experiences, I was sure that there would be some very different points of view to discuss. I had given up efforts to be religious, while I was sure she had not. What would she think of that?
About a week later she replied, with comfort and sweetness, and a religious take on how I could best orient myself in the grieving process. I did not relate, though the words were very familiar. Jesus, well acquainted with grief. But his grief,I think wasn’t about loved ones dying to much as powerful people blocking others’ path to God. I guess we’d talk about that in the podcast.
But we’d start with our childhoods—a study in certain similarities and other contrast. Then college, same there. Then marrying and raising children, teaching, and having our husbands die. I think it could be an interesting show, and I might just propose it.