I loved her, but not through my actions. And when all was said and done, I had proved nothing but my ability to nurse a grudge.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an old friend who died suddenly a few years ago. We had each turned 30 the year she passed away from a misdiagnosed illness. It was all confusing, hard to believe, and tragic.
Now, I find my thoughts often returning to her—or, really, the way our friendship fell apart.
We had a falling out several years before she died. I thought at the time that she had hurt me intentionally, maliciously. And I decided then that being her friend was too hard and painful. I cut her off.
So when her boyfriend reached out to me with apologies, I scoffed at his audacity and ignored him. I told myself it was better for us all to walk our paths separately. I thought I was being mature with my cool and polite distance. And I was secretly happy that my master plan had worked, that she missed me and would never get the gratification of my easy forgiveness.
In part, I was angry that so many of our mutual friends had seemed to take her side in our squabble. She had the reputation as giving and generous, and I was seen as more contentious and difficult. At one friend’s wedding, I was put at a table with mostly strangers so that she could sit with our other friends. When I’d meet up with another of our middle school friends, she spoke defensively whenever the subject came up.
But I told myself that my former friend knew what really happened. And deep down I knew, too, that I was hurting her with my silence. Even if no one else believed my side of the story, I would nurse my righteousness and refuse her attempts at reconciliation. She could have everyone else, but she couldn’t have me.
And then she was dead.
A few months before she died, she sent me a text message to say that she had found an old poster from a play I directed in college. I loved that play and I was touched she had kept the poster for so long. My fingers itched to respond with more than the short response acknowledging the message.
In the previous year, her attempts to reestablish communication with me had grown more frequent. She had approached me at a film screening I went to see and a protest at the city center. She sent me a message expressing concern and offering to help when my finger had been broken in an assault. She commented on a thread between my sister and I on Facebook about talking more. Each time, I tried my best to ignore or avoid her.
She still owed me an apology, I thought. I’m not making it that easy. I still remember.
And I remember still, even though she’s dead. But somehow the memories have transformed into a different story. One of my own stubbornness and lack of love. I wonder now if she was reaching out to me because she needed a friend those months before she died, when her health was deteriorating. We had been friends since middle school and through college, though we had fallen apart as she became more religious just as I started to question my faith. Still, I was crabby and irreverent enough that she always felt able to be honest and open. She largely played the sweet, generous cherub in front of friends and family, but I think I gave her space to express anger, deep hurts, and regrets. I accepted them as part of her.
We had both been raised by single mothers and had siblings through our father’s sides. We both suffered childhood abuse and tended to be one of the few black girls in our high-level classes at school. And we joked easily about silly things when we were friends, singing along to old songs or just people-watching at local diners. I was the one who twisted her hair for the first time at my mom’s place; she was the first person I called when I moved to Philadelphia.
Now, I look back and wonder what would have happened if I had made different choices. Might I have gone to the hospital the day she was ill, before the doctors sent her home with the wrong diagnosis? Would I have objected to their care? Could I have done anything that might have saved her life?
I wonder, too, what I lost in all those years of not speaking to her, of trying to prove who was right and who was wrong. How much laughter would we have shared? Good advice she would have given? There were so many moments that I could’ve really used a friend so close by. If I had been honest with myself, I would’ve admitted that our separation hurt me as much as it did her. I missed her job promotions, her new apartment, her engagement, her wedding.
I missed her.
Shortly after getting that text message about the poster, I began to mark out a plan to recover our friendship. What had seemed a grown-up move to cut off an unhealthy friendship had started to seem more like an unending vendetta. I thought maybe when we both eventually had kids I would reach out. If I got married, too—when we were both in a good place, both established. Maybe I’d start with coffee early next year. It was time, I thought.
But I was wrong. There would never be time.
It’s too late, of course, to do anything about my dead friend. Her memory now is a strange mix of regret, sadness, and uncertainty. We were friends, and we were not. I loved her, but not through my actions. And when all was said and done, I had proved nothing but my ability to nurse a grudge.
Who knows? Maybe the problems with my friend would have persisted if I had reached out before she died. Maybe we never would have been close again. But my soul would be a little more free today. I wouldn’t find myself isolated with grief, cut off from all the other people who loved her. It feels, sometimes, like my feelings for her are stuck in a purgatory of sorts, a perpetual liminal space that finds it hard to delineate between the disappointment, hurt, fear, and sadness for her and for our friendship. If we had reconciled, it might be easier to let her go.
I am learning from what happened with this friend. I wish I could say I’ve discovered something deep, something insightful. But I’ve simply learned what it means to forgive. I’ve realized that if I loved and trusted myself more, I wouldn’t have looked for others to validate my pain. And I wouldn’t have drawn on that pain to drag out retribution to my friend.
I’ve learned that what people have always said is true: that forgiveness is more for the person hurt than it is for the person being forgiven. And I’ve learned that life is too short, too precious for much else besides giving and receiving love—especially in all those many moments when it seems so very hard.
Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.