We never fell in love, so why do I mourn his loss so deeply?
It should be enough that he’s no longer in pain. I continually remind myself that if we didn’t lose him, we’d be watching him slip away. He used to be a coarse presence in any room; his wit could smack you senseless. But cancer made him feeble and meek, a sullen shadow of himself. All of his will and energy were used up by the slow agony of dying.
We met in high school. All those years ago, some random sliver of prescient wisdom prevented us from becoming lovers, in spite of the fact that we each had phases of romantic desire for one another. Had either of us acted on those desires, there is no doubt in my mind that our friendship would not have lasted. If we had dated then, today he’d be a faint and distant memory, a quick “remember when” followed by a laugh or a slight cringe like all the other boyfriends I cycled through. I’m grateful that unfavorable timing and youthful insecurity worked against an impulsive teenage crush and made him a pillar in my life instead.
The boundless love and support he exuded when we were in high school became the model for what I sought in a lifetime partner. He was the first to love me through thick and thin. He was the first to see every wretched, ugly, selfish part of me and not leave my side. Our friendship spanned 25 years, and even though our paths eventually diverged, memories of him have always been my comfort.They warm me with their proof that genuine trust and kinship can exist in my often wavering, unsteady heart.
As teenagers, we laughed uncontrollably. There were hours of non-stop banter, debate over the most mundane subjects, an outlying sense of adventure. It was too close to be platonic but too sacred to deem romantic. Even now, I struggle to describe what he meant to me when I was 17. Sometimes he dwelled in the periphery of my life while I had tumultuous relationships with volatile boys and young men. Sometimes he was right at the center. We could be separated for semesters at a time while he was away at college, but when he returned, we resumed as though no time had passed. Whenever my life fell apart because of circumstance and self destruction, he was there with open arms, or an open wallet, or an open door.
If I said he was an extension of me, that would be entirely inaccurate. His vast heart and soul eclipsed every part of my self-centered existence. He was nothing like me. But my friendship with him helped carve out the beautiful parts of my identity. He became an essential piece of my being, and of course it took his terminal diagnosis to make me realize that.
We’d lived most of our adult lives apart from each other. He was at my wedding, and he smiled and joked while graciously accepting one too many hugs from my mother. After college, he would visit me about once a month and he’d invite me out with friends. Even though we didn’t live too far from each other, I rarely made an effort to see him, but I thought of him often—almost daily. I wondered what he was doing and hoped he was happy, but I rarely picked up the phone to ask. So many wonderful thing happened to him over the years: he married, he and his wife had three children, he earned another Master’s degree, he became a leader in his church, and he had so many great plans for his life.
When it became evident that his days were numbered, only then did my heart finally soften and lead me toward a desire to see him more. Our families got together more frequently. I sat and waited with his wife through one hospital procedure. I have many moments when I doubt my sincerity: Did I do this to relinquish my own guilt, or was my heart in it for him? Whenever I saw him, I was intimidated by the way cancer and chemotherapy seemed to steal the best of him. He lost his joy, his candor, his humor. He became even more of a stranger to me.
When we decided to take our families on a short vacation together, I thought, “This is my chance to really be here for him. This is when I will open up and let him know that distance and time between us mean nothing. I’ll tell him that I am here for him now in any capacity, no matter what he needs, that I care for him as much as I did when I was 17.”
But during that trip, I barely spoke to him. He was in so much pain and so tired, and I made this my excuse to delay pouring my heart out to him. I let fear dominate while I watched him wither away. Then I vowed to make sure that I spoke to him the next time we were together. I even told my sons that next time we saw him, we all needed to make more effort to talk to him and find ways to bring him moments of relief. We agreed that as a family, we would do better. We’d sit with him more and engage with him more, despite the fact that his slow demise was scaring the shit out of us. As our little vacation ended, I’d made loose plans with his wife for the following week.
But it was too late. He died three days later.
I keep telling myself he is at peace now. He’s no longer suffering in body and mind. I keep telling myself that I am glad to take on my loss in exchange for his relief. When sorrow wells up, I think of how weak and pained he looked the last time I saw him. He is at peace, and that means that I should be as well. But my peace is brief and fleeting.
This grief tricks me. It baits me into its darkness. I try to conquer the world and outsmart its trap, but it catches up, morphs me into a weak and helpless child who can’t do anything but cower under blankets and cry. My heart is riddled with guilt because we hadn’t been close in decades. Regret casts a heavy shadow, reminding me that I do not have the right to feel this bad. His wife and children grieve deeply for great, obvious reasons. I don’t have that right. For years, our friendship had been distant and strained. Before he got sick, I can’t remember the last time we exchanged words of support, fondness, or kindness.
Why didn’t I make my love and appreciation known? Why is it that I feel like my gut has been torn open by this loss when I hadn’t seen him more than 10 times in the last 10 years of his life? How dare I fall this far into grief? How dare I seek comfort over the loss of my friend when our bond faded such a long time ago?
I wade in a sea of regret and it seems I will tread this water for a long and lonely time while the memory of his voice above the din of the high school dismissal bell first soothes, then betrays me. I’ll glimpse photos of his delighted smile and start to smile back, until my heart remembers that I could have been better. I should have made sure he knew how much I loved him.
Tina Plantamura is a seamstress by trade, a writer at heart, an aspiring harpoon specialist, and a stand-up comedian in her imagination. She lives in New Jersey with her family. You can read more of her work at tinaplantamura.com.