Friends are on my mind these days, a lot. One of my kids is having severe friend problems at school, which (as mothers of daughters know) can be piercingly painful. I don't know how to solve it; there may not be a solution, except to endure it. I also seem to be losing friends. A friend of my youth died 18 months ago; she had kids the age of mine and her death came far too young. We had been friends, close friends, for 15 years or more; I don't know exactly how long, because evidently she stopped thinking of me as a friend for quite a while before I finally got the message. Other people noticed, but I brushed it off. "She's busy," I said. "It's okay. We have a history." But she died, and I never got a chance to say goodbye, or figure out what had happened, or .....there will be no final reckoning. I'll never know what happened.
More recently, another old friend--one dating from the same period of my life, about 25 years ago--stopped communicating. Well, people are busy these days; I'm not always very good at keeping in touch myself, she lives in another state....But finally I called. It was a strange, very one-sided phone call. I said, "You guys should come see us," and she said, "Well, now is not a good time...." and her voice trailed off. I found myself babbling, just to fill in the blank spaces. I have a horrible feeling I've done something awful, said something that hurt her, but I don't know what. I didn't mean to, but I've done thoughtless things before and found out about them after the damage was done. Maybe I've done it once too often.
This all sounds pretty pathetic, except that I'm doing the same thing to two other people right this very minute, thanks to the Internet and its various social media. One's a person I knew 30 years ago, and for some reason she wants to stay in touch and I just....don't. We were work friends three whole decades ago; we have nothing in common anymore that I can see--and life, as previously noted, is busy. The other is a more recent acquaintance who I liked at first and then, for some reason, the liking cooled, and that's all I can say. Friendship is unpredictable that way. You can't make somebody like you; you can't make yourself like somebody else, even if that person is a good person and deserving of friendship. There is no moral judgment here. Some friendships run their course. Some never really get off the ground.
The problem with this is the asymmetry of it--what happens when the friendship has run its course for one party but not the other. Why does this happen? Why do some friendships endure through the years and all kinds of vissicitudes and then, like Al and Tipper, just quietly die when nobody's looking? Then there's the flip side, the people in your life who seem to be fellow-travelers on the same journey--the people you can resume a conversation with even when it paused eight years previously, the people who can disappear for decades and then, somehow, come back into your life and slide into a hole in your heart that was waiting for them all along. I have two or three people like that in my life. How I deserve them I'll never know, but there they are.
But back to my daughter. A lot of life is about losing, I want to tell her. It hurts. There is no avoiding the hurt. Being middle aged, I also know that hurting beats the alternative, which is not feeling anything at all--but she's too young for this to make sense. So what I tell her is that being hurt this way stinks, but it will eventually give her a kind of strength she didn't have before: the ability to see somebody else who is being shut out, for whatever reason, and to know what that person is feeling. It will give her a kind of insight into the human condition, an entree into meeting people she never had before, and these people--some of them, anyway--might turn out to be amazing people she never would have noticed otherwise. All this the Popular Girl will never learn; all she'll know is the ever-present fear of not being popular, which will keep her from learning anything else. But not being popular is a very liberating experience, and the sooner my daughter figures that out, the better.
As for why friends come and why they go--well, I'll tell her, welcome to the mystery.