Author’s Note: The end of a long friendship is not unlike a death in the family: Suddenly, someone who was always there is gone. “When Friendship Dies” tells the story of two college classmates whose friendship survived marriage, children, geographical separation, and the death of a spouse. Then—unexpectedly but not without warning—it was over. It was my need to understand how this particular friendship was formed and what led to its demise that compelled me to write this memoir.
When Friendship Dies
SO MUCH SNOW FELL DURING THE WINTER OF 1970-71 in Lincoln, Vermont, that when I looked out the window in the morning, I often thought my car had been stolen. Or that I’d forgotten to set the emergency brake, and it had rolled back down the steep mountain road where I was living in a charming but dilapidated farmhouse with another young woman who had just graduated from Middlebury College. It was so cold during the month of January that our pipes remained frozen for weeks, and we had to haul water for flushing the toilet and brushing our teeth by chopping a hole in the ice covering the river that ran through the backyard—something we often did in the pitch dark, in parkas over flannel nightgowns, with bare feet in unlaced boots. She was a teacher in a two-room schoolhouse; I was marking time as a legal secretary between summers at The Bread Loaf School of English, where I was studying for my M.A. We hadn’t been that close in college, but we both needed a place to live and wanted to stay in Vermont. The harsh confines of that winter turned us from survivors into friends—and, by the time the ice on the river began to buckle and the faucets ran freely again, into something more like sisters.
We both married Middlebury men, had daughters eight months apart, and pursued careers that involved teaching and writing—she in upstate New York, Hawaii, and North Carolina, while I settled in southeastern Connecticut. But distance never mattered. For twenty-three summers we spent two weeks in July with our kids at her cabin in Maine. When she and her husband were living in Hawaii during the Kilauea eruptions of the early 1980s, my husband and I flew down to visit and from their deck watched the lava fountain and tumble, hissing, into the sea. During the more than three decades I lived in Mystic, Connecticut, we saw each other whenever she visited her mother in Newport, Rhode Island, where we cruised the shops on Bannister’s Wharf and drank wine in the bar at the Viking Hotel. Eventually we both gravitated back to Vermont: I bought a small cottage for weekends and vacations just over the mountain from Middlebury, while she and her husband found what would become their retirement home just north of town. Our friendship was a given. It would endure as long as we did.
“You’re not really going to East Middlebury today, are you?” my husband asked, staring out the window of our Vermont cottage, watching as rain spread a gauze of ice over the snowy street.
I hesitated before admitting why I was determined to drive to The Waybury Inn, thirteen treacherous mountain miles to the west, for lunch. “It’s taken me this long to pin her down,” I told him. “If I cancel now, I may never find out why she did it.”
“She” was the friend of forty-eight years I’ll call Jane, and “it” was not to invite me to her second wedding, which had taken place six months earlier; in fact, she never even told me she was going to remarry. After her first husband, whom I’ll call John, died in 2013, I thought she was headed for a prolonged period of mourning. To my surprise, she flung herself almost immediately into an affair with a man she’d known for years, who took full advantage of her weakened emotional—and robust financial— condition. It didn’t last long, but she shared enough—how he persuaded her to buy an expensive boat so that he could sail it, how she discovered he was still involved with another woman— to make me feel relieved it was over. Then, just as it seemed she might be ready to explore the complicated grief she had postponed—for a husband who suffered from depression and had long since ceased to make her happy, but whom she had steadfastly refused to divorce—she met another man, a New England blueblood, the kind of man her mother might have chosen for her when she was a young Newport debutante. He was well dressed, well-mannered, and a former commodore of the New York Yacht Club. We socialized with them a number of times during their two-year courtship, but I was completely blindsided by her blunt text, “We got hitched.” Who, with adult children and grandchildren to please and provide for, gets married at our age? Given the fact that he had been divorced twice, I assumed they had opted for a quiet civil ceremony.
I was wrong. When I asked for details, she admitted they’d had a church wedding in Middlebury with thirty-five guests. She sent me a few photos the next day, and I could make out the faces of several mutual acquaintances and former classmates. Why was I—the maid of honor at her first wedding and, I thought, her closest woman friend—not among them? The rejection and bewilderment I felt were visceral.
After vacillating between hurt and anger for several days, I wrote her a long and very frank email describing my reaction and asking what I had done to provoke such treatment. Had I said something to upset her? Had I excluded her from some facet of my own life? Was she afraid I would judge her for re-marrying so soon after her husband’s death or probe her motivations too deeply? Perhaps I let my anger get the best of me, because all I received was a curt reply informing me that no explanation would be forthcoming. We both fell silent after that, but six months later she invited us to her annual Christmas party as if nothing had changed. “What should I say?” I asked my husband when the invitation arrived. “Say we’re not coming” was his advice. But I couldn’t do that—not without asking her face-to-face why she hadn’t told me about her wedding until it was over.
She was already seated when I arrived at the Waybury, her arms folded tightly over a voluminous wool scarf. She didn’t move to embrace me.
As we waited for the waitress to bring our food, Jane fired questions at me about everyone in my immediate and extended family. As an only child, she’d always been interested in the lives of my four siblings and their offspring. I gave brief answers— relieved, I suppose, not to have to broach “the subject” any sooner than was absolutely necessary. But when our food arrived and the questions kept coming, I wondered if she had any idea why I’d asked to have lunch with her. “Jane,” I said, when she stopped talking long enough to blow on her soup, “I have to know why you didn’t invite me to your wedding.”
I was braced for a spirited self-defense. Instead, she declared flatly, “It’s not about you”—a common enough phrase whose full meaning I had yet to grasp. She went on to explain that her wedding had been an “extremely emotional” occasion—the implication being, I suppose, that it was too emotional to share with me. I wanted to interrupt with, But haven’t we shared dozens of ‘extremely emotional’ experiences over the years? Wasn’t I the first friend you told when your husband found out he had myelofibrosis? Weren’t you the one I called before dawn when my mother died? And didn’t you call me, weeping, from the highway when you didn’t reach your father’s bedside in time? Weren’t you still at the hospital when you called me to say your husband was gone? Haven’t we, in fact, shared almost every extremely emotional experience we’ve been through since our early twenties? I understood that a marriage ceremony is about two people, but when you have a church wedding with a few dozen guests, it would seem that you have chosen to let others share that very personal moment. Objections swirled in my head, but words deserted me.
It’s not about you—she kept falling back on this phrase as I continued my probing and her side of the conversation floundered. It was typical of Jane to hide behind an all-purpose scrap of language when a more honest response required too much introspection. Another favorite was “Of course you do”—a phrase that could easily be modified to suit almost any context. A few years earlier, when I dropped what I thought would be a bombshell—that my husband was interviewing for a job in another state—her comment was “Of course he is,” the implication being that she had foreseen this turn of events and needed no further details. She often employed such conversational drop shots, if only to mask her unwillingness to engage at any greater depth. So, at first, I assumed that It’s not about you meant “It’s not about anything you did to upset me.” But when I asked her, with some embarrassment, about one of the faces I’d glimpsed in the wedding photographs she’d sent me—a woman I knew was only a casual friend—Jane blurted out that she’d run into her at the grocery store the day before and had invited her on the spur of the moment. I couldn’t help but think, You invited someone you ran into by chance, but not a friend who has stood by you for forty-seven years? Again, I was too incredulous to say anything.
It wasn’t until we were waiting for the check that I realized “It’s not about you”—which Jane had said at least a dozen times in response to my repeated attempts to unearth her motivations— meant neither “You didn’t do anything to provoke me” nor “Stop trying to draw attention to your own hurt feelings.” She meant it quite literally: Sharing her decision to remarry—let alone inviting me to the wedding—had simply never crossed her mind. I had seen her cut people off before—most recently her stepbrother, after a dispute involving the distribution of family heirlooms. I had seen how quickly she put her forty-year marriage behind her. Did she associate our friendship with those decades she’d spent married to a man who had been a hero to both of us in our twenties but with whom she’d ended up locked in a relationship characterized by competition and conflict—a man she would never leave but who, mercifully, set her free by dying at sixty- two?
I interrupted her rambling about how happy she was in the new life on which she had embarked. “So, what you’re telling me is that you want to leave everything and everyone associated with your old life behind, and that includes me?” She hesitated for just a moment. “Yes. Basically.”
So that was it: I was part of the skin she was trying to shed.
This wasn’t the first time Jane had shut me out. The day her husband died, she called me from the hospital, sobbing. “Can you find me that poem that ends with the line about ‘your one wild and precious life’?” I immediately went to the Mary Oliver books on my shelf and copied “The Summer Day” into an email.
A couple of weeks later, as we talked on the phone about plans for a memorial service, Jane said, “I want you to write a poem.” I cringed inwardly: I’d been asked to write poems for such occasions before, and I knew how impossible the task could be. “Why don’t I read that Mary Oliver poem?” I suggested. But Jane was adamant. “I want you to write a poem about John,” she insisted, “about how much he loved his kids and our land in Vermont. And I want it to say that although he was a lawyer, all he ever wanted was to be a farmer. And don’t forget to mention how he could fix anything mechanical. And you should say something about his orchard—he was so proud of those trees.” She went on and on, while I furiously took notes. Of course, I would do it, but I had only six weeks to pull something together.
I began setting aside a couple of hours each day to work on my assignment. Periodically Jane would call, asking me how the poem was coming along but never pressing me for details. She wanted to hear it for the first time at the service. She was trusting me to do a good job.
The result was a villanelle—a nineteen-line poem whose first and third lines alternated at the end of each subsequent three- line stanza and then reappeared as a concluding couplet. By varying the two repeated lines but keeping the end-rhymes, I was able to cover everything on Jane’s list. The poem began:
He could fix what was broken, make anything grow,
was good with animals, feathered and furred,
liked churning rivers and winter’s blue snow,
could expound on a rare strain of apple or rose
while tuning an engine or tending a small herd
of cattle. The crops he’d always wanted to grow
needed land to expand on, as all farmers know,
so he left his career as a lawyer behind and adjourned
to this place of white water and snow,
where he and his life’s mate could both
have what they wanted: an orchard for him, and for her
a house that didn’t need fixing, where they could grow
older together, perhaps even old…
I tinkered and tweaked, spending more and more time on the poem as the deadline approached. When Jane called a few days before the memorial service, I told her it was done. She didn’t ask to read it but only whether I thought it should be included at the beginning or the end of the service. I told her I thought the poem would be more appropriate as a final tribute.
When I arrived at her house the day of the outdoor event, Jane didn’t mention the poem, but she must have seen the blue folder with the Middlebury College seal that I was carrying. I sat in the row behind her, holding it on my lap for almost two hours while John’s friends, their daughter, and John’s brother delivered their eulogies. I could feel tears welling and practiced some of the breathing exercises I’d learned in yoga. As a poet who was accustomed to public readings, I had perfected a number of techniques to keep my voice steady. I reminded myself that I was speaking for Jane, who was too overwhelmed by loss to speak for herself. I sat there with the folder pressed beneath my clasped hands, awaiting my turn. I felt as though I had a doorknob lodged in my throat.
Then, suddenly, it was over. The minister who was officiating invited us all to join the family for a traditional Hawaiian pig roast in the field beyond the house. My husband gave me a startled look. Had there been a mistake? I tried to catch Jane’s eye, but she was already engulfed by family and friends.
I was shocked. But I was also embarrassed, because I knew that there were times during the service when, instead of listening to the heartfelt reflections of others, I had been priming myself for my own performance. Perhaps I deserved to be ignored; after all, I’d been thinking about how my own words would be received when I should have been thinking about my friend. But that didn’t explain why it had happened.
My husband and I ate quickly and told Jane we didn’t want to drive over the mountain in the dark. I left the blue folder on her desk.
I had planned to stay in Vermont for the rest of the week while my husband returned to his job in Connecticut, assuming that Jane might need me to get through her first several days as a widow. When I didn’t hear from her, I called and invited her for dinner. We drank a great deal of wine and talked late into the night, but she never mentioned the poem. So after clearing the dishes I said, as gently as I could, “Jane, can you tell me why I wasn’t asked to read the poem?”
She blushed furiously. “It was the kids’ decision. They only wanted their dad’s friends to speak at the service, and they regard you as one of my friends.” I was unprepared for this explanation. Although I knew that the marriage had been a contentious one, I hadn’t given much thought to how Jane’s children—whom I’d known since birth—might view me and my friendship with their mother. But I quickly came to the conclusion that if those two kids, now in their thirties, viewed their parents as being so at odds with one another that even their parents’ friends were relegated to opposing camps, then Jane had more serious issues to deal with than my injured ego. I wished that she had given me a heads-up when I first arrived at the service, but she was a grieving widow and couldn’t possibly be held to normal standards of etiquette. I told her that I understood.
“Don’t worry,” she assured me. “On the anniversary of John’s death, I’m going to invite all of our Vermont friends to help scatter his ashes over the orchard and around the sugar- house. Afterward, we’ll have a huge bonfire and you can read the poem.” But when that first anniversary rolled around, Jane was in France with her new lover. She never once alluded to the significance of the date.
Four years later, however, caught off guard by the news of Jane’s wedding, this incident came back to haunt me. In some intimate negotiation she’d had with her own nature, I’d once again been the loser.
MT. CYANIDE, 2012
It was during her husband’s hospitalization for a bone marrow transplant that I first became aware of the fissures forming in our friendship. I had known that they were facing a crisis since his diagnosis seven years earlier, and I was fully prepared to support Jane in whatever way I could. I stepped up the frequency of my phone calls and emailed her almost daily. I visited her in the apartment she was renting in New York City, near Mt. Sinai Medical Center—which she misspelled so regularly in her emails that my husband began calling it Mt. Cyanide. But she didn’t seem to need the kind of one-on-one support I stood ready to provide, and I found the group emails she sent out—sprinkled with vague references to white cell counts and peripheral blasts but curiously devoid of any real information about her husband’s prognosis or her own emotional state—frustrating. They almost always ended with a request to “hold us in the light,” a Quaker commonplace although Jane was no Quaker. I suppose she meant “Keep us in your prayers,” but as a poet, my resistance to anything approaching a cliché or New Age platitude ran deep. Those emails left me feeling more like a casual friend than a close one—that I was merely part of the audience she’d assembled to witness her unfolding tragedy.
I remember a phone call with Jane, following an email indicating that John had entered a critical phase in his treatment. I wanted to know more; I wanted to understand what he was going through and what it would take to emerge at the other end of this ordeal. I did some internet research and had a list of very specific questions to ask. But all she wanted to talk about was her budding friendship with a wealthy, socially prominent New York City woman married to a Middlebury alum—an Impressionist scholar and former curator at the Met. He, too, was being treated at Mt. Sinai, but I never found out the exact nature of his disease. All I heard about was their elegant New York City apartment, at which Jane had become a regular visitor.
Was I jealous of this new friendship? Did I resent the fact that she’d spurned my attempt to show a more granular interest in her husband’s treatment? Both of these are possible, but all I felt at the time was disappointed by how easily Jane had let herself be distracted.
The common wisdom is that shared values are what holds a marriage together, and I suppose that a friendship is not all that different. But aside from our Middlebury education, Jane and I defied that wisdom. She was the only child of wealthy parents and grandparents in Rhode Island, who spent Thanksgiving at the Agawam Hunt Club and had Christmas Eve dinner at Harbour Court, the New York Yacht Club’s waterfront mansion in Newport. I was the second of five children, and holiday dinners meant my mother standing in an apron over a six-burner stove and cousins, aunts, and uncles massed around a dining room table with three extra leaves. Jane’s parents divorced when she was in boarding school, and her father never let her forget how much he’d wanted a son. She responded by grasping every opportunity to prove her own worth: After earning a Ph.D. in education, she applied to law school and was accepted, although she had no intention of actually enrolling. Her mother compensated for her ex-husband’s disparagement by treating their daughter’s every achievement as if it were a Nobel Prize. I suppose Jane was as fascinated by my childhood tales of competing for food and my parents’ attention as I was eager to accept her invitations to Harbour Court. We each longed for more of what the other had grown up taking for granted. But was this the only basis for our friendship?
My husband, who had known us both since we were in college, often asked why I put up with Jane’s treatment of me, which over the years had often been less than considerate. My stock response— “Because she’s the only woman I can be naked with”—was true. During my summer visits to Maine, we would frequently end up sharing the one small bathroom. I would step into the shower as she got out, so as not to waste the precious warmth and steam that were the only cure for a swim in the frigid cove. But there was more to our friendship, at least in the beginning, than a comforting lack of modesty.
When we lived together in that Lincoln, Vermont farmhouse after graduating from Middlebury, I came home from work one day to find Jane dragging bales of hay from the back of a pickup truck to the house, whose fieldstone foundation she had already wrapped in plastic sheeting secured with furring strips. “Insulation,” she told me when I asked what she was doing. On another occasion that same winter, I was puzzled the first time I turned on the kitchen faucet and no water came out. It was Jane who took a hairdryer down to the basement to thaw out the pipes—and, when that failed, who threw on her parka and ventured out on the frozen river with an axe and a bucket. It seemed to me that there was no situation she was not equipped to handle. I was the one who had grown up in a big family, but it was Jane who knew how to survive.
AS I DROVE BACK OVER THE MOUNTAIN following my lunch with Jane on that icy December day in 2018, I knew that our friendship was over—that, like the snow-laden barn next to the farmhouse we’d shared forty-seven winters ago, it had finally collapsed under the weight of too many slights. I passed the dirt road that led to that house and could see Jane in her Bean boots, barn jacket, and Nordic hat with tasseled earflaps, hauling those bales of hay and wrestling them in close to the foundation. I thought of the winter days when, after shoveling out her own car to get to work, she would trudge over to the shapeless mound where mine was parked and start scooping snow from the roof with her mittens. I thought of the day we went into a skid in Jane’s Volvo on a snow-covered back road and ended up with our right front fender submerged in a mountain stream. “Here, give me your hand,” she said, having already climbed out the driver’s side window and reaching back into the car to help me escape. I was so shaken that I had trouble clambering up the steep bank, but she had already flagged down a passing car that would take us home. I recalled the night in 1971 when snow sifted into her room through a window that, although closed, had plenty of gaps. She stood over my bed just before dawn, her blonde hair and the yoke of her flannel nightgown dusted with white. “Do you want to come in with me?” I asked, holding back the covers. Of course she did.
Sue Ellen Thompson is the Featured Writer for Nonfiction in the new edition of the Delmarva Review (Volume 13). Her fifth book of poems, They, was published in 2014. An instructor at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda since 2007, she has previously taught at Middlebury College, Binghamton University, University of Delaware, and Central Connecticut State University. She received a Pushcart Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, two Pulitzer Prize nominations, and an Individual Artist Award from the state of Connecticut. In 2010, she won the Maryland Author Award from the Maryland Library Association. Website: sueellenthompson.com.
Delmarva Review is an independent literary journal publishing the best of new prose and poetry selected from thousands of submissions nationwide, and beyond. It’s thirteenth annual edition, released this month, features the new work of sixty-four authors. It receives partial financial support from individual tax-deductible contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. The review is available from Amazon.com and specialty booksellers like Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford. For more information, see the website: www.DelmarvaReview.org.
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