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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Friendships Like These

"What was the grave like?" she asked me.

I sat there, dumbfounded, fingering the edge of the clear glass coffee mug that sat on the table in front of me.

"Um... I... I don't know."

That was all I could say, or wanted to say. I was afraid of giving too much detail, of saying the wrong thing. Of making her cry. After all, she watched us bury him, from a very far distance, she watched us. I saw her, as I jabbed my shovel into the huge dirt pile, I lifted my head up to clear some sweat from my brow, and I saw her, standing right next to her mother. They were both wearing white shirts and lime green headscarves, and they stood there, in front of all the other women, watching us bury her younger brother.

"Yeah, my mom and I had a big fight about it this morning," she said about her clothes. She had walked into the room this morning dressed in black.

"You can't wear that to the funeral," her mother said to her. This prompted an email that all of us received at 9:00 this morning:

Subject: "Clothes for Today"

Message: "anyone who is coming today please try to wear something white. sorry I didn't tell you this earlier, my mom just told me and now I have nothing to wear."

I, of course, had been dressed in my black suit since 6:30, but had time to run home and change into a white and blue seersucker suit, which had stains on it. Of course, it didn't matter. Nobody was going to be looking at my stains, or me. It was a funeral, for Christ's sake, not a fashion show. And my poor friend, who had a clothing fight with her mom on the day of her brother's funeral, showed up in a plain white t-shirt, with a huge brown stain. What did it matter anyway?

We get hung up on these things, I suppose, because the minutae is easier. It distracts us, it's something else to get involved in besides the tremendous, unbearable pain of losing someone so young, so talented, so intelligent, so genuine. The clothes, the rituals, the food, the driving directions. Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu. Whatever. A loss is a loss, and we are all diminshed.

I did not know him well at all-- I cannot remember the last time I saw him-- maybe at his mother's marriage to his step-father, maybe one time after that. I don't know. I went for his sister, because she has been my friend since 3rd grade. They lived four doors down from my parents' house and we shared a bus stop, back in the days when she would steal my glasses and we would chase each other around the neighborhood. We played in her house and searched in vain for her four escaped hamsters-- all were found when they moved, all were quite dead. I remember playing with her brother, too, the brother I helped bury today. Many many years ago, I borrowed a plastic police constable's helmet from him and it never found its way back to him. I wore it for Halloween a couple years ago when my wife and I went as police constable and prostitute, and were handcuffed together.

His sister and I stayed friends even though she went to a different high school, and we wrote letters to each other when she lived in Abu Dhabi for a little while, back when people wrote letters to each other. It wasn't the closest friendship, and it got less close after she moved to the west coast. It's the kind of friendship where, when she calls me, I pretty much know it's bad news. So, I should have known that, on Sunday afternoon when her name showed up on my cellphone that it was bad news. We had company over, so I didn't pick it up, and she didn't leave a voicemail. Twenty minutes later, she called again, and I knew. I quietly excused myself and texted her from the upstairs bathroom.

"Hey, I can't really talk right now. Are you okay?"

A minute or so went by.

"Yeah im ok. I just wanted to let you know my brother died yesterday. The funeral will be in philly this wk so i can let you know the details if you want to come."

There are friendships like these, and I am just as grateful for her friendship as I am for any other one that I have, because it's just as real and just as important. I don't like going to funerals, and I like actually burying people even less, but this is what it is to love someone and to share a past, and to be the one who's chosen to hold the pocketbook while she goes and hugs distant relatives. The phrase "the guy holding the bag" is often said in a derogatory way, but it can be an honor sometimes, too.

I'm glad today's over. I just wish I'd picked up the phone the first time on Sunday.

"Was it just a big hole?"

"Um, yes," I said, "and there was a wooden frame around it, inside."


  1. Can I just say that you're a beautiful writer?

    You probably hear it all the time but..well...I'm saying it anyway.

  2. Lily-- I certainly don't hear it all the time, and your compliment means a great deal. Thank you for reading.


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