My friend died–almost a month ago, now.
In a different timeline, where there are fewer social media demands and I don’t plan things for other people or get lost in the glow of screens, all kinds, I still write. I could make you cry a half-dozen ways.
But in this timeline, writing about her death, more than has been said in kind memorials, even if there is nothing salacious or unusual to relate, even to gently nudge you toward things you could do for yourself, feels like it invades private last moments. Becomes about me. About the terrible awesomeness of being made of elements of the universe, and not being able to outlast it.
So let me tell you something else I have been thinking about, and that is friendship.
I know I am not the only one who feels, at least sometimes, that friendship is hard. I definitely had periods as a child where I had friend groups, and where I felt alone. The first time I thought I had friendships of the brain was college, and I will be forever grateful for those friendships, because I think that was the first time I understood that it was possible to keep whimsy and find optimism and dream of happiness; after college, without the structure of dorms and classes, and when I mostly worked in jobs where I was alone or in groups of people much younger or older than I was, things got harder again.
Sabrina is not my first friend to die. Acquaintances have passed, and family. The first person I kissed is dead. So is a friend from college, whose outlook on the world changed mine, but whose world was too much to bear. A few other friends have had close calls. And I have had near misses myself, including some that, had they not happened when I was under a misprescribed medication regime that dulled everything, should have given me a lifetime of nightmares.
I think the reason Sabrina’s loss has hit me so hard is this: She was incredibly generous with her friendship, and she was a model of how to maintain them in a time when friendships are hard. You’re not even supposed to admit you want friendships (or relationships), at least not if you’re a woman–if you’re a man, it’s acceptable to shoot a few people to express your displeasure. I’m being sarcastic. But I note that the only universally acceptable statement is that you have to be able to be happy alone to be happy with someone else, and I’m not entirely sure that’s true, given how much humans need each other.
I don’t remember becoming friends with Sabrina, who acquired the nickname of Sabs (and if you had one Sab, that was good, so multiple Sabs must be better). She was part of a fan website I joined, but not the person assigned to welcome me, and my moderator and editor duties wouldn’t have overlapped with hers. On my first big conference planning job, she wasn’t part of my team; I suppose she must have coded the website, in part, and she might have been part of the tech and logistics crew that, when the volunteers showed up, marched into the site wearing gloves and tool belts and, with a sheet and some lengths of pipe, dropped a screen from a balcony where there was none before.
We were LiveJournal friends, even on locked groups, and I imagine that reading those entries, the last of the really great life updates, was where we did the friendship language work. That is: when you’re getting to know someone, really, you’re learning a new language. A shared language that you construct about of conversations and jokes and experiences. Sometimes your languages are cognate, or perhaps you already speak the same language, with a few differences in dialect. Sometimes your language takes a long time to telegraph, because you don’t have a translation dictionary or a repertoire of body language that works. And it’s perfectly fine to decide that learning to say a few stock phrases to someone is enough.
Sabs’s language was friendship and caring, though. She’s the kind of person who sent holiday cards (that I’d leave unopened until March, and not on purpose), holiday morning texts, birthday wishes. Cheerfully. And if you, like me, had existential dread every birthday, you didn’t mention it.
We traveled together quite a bit. I used to get so mad when I’d get the email that Sabrina had added me to this or that TripIt, and so thankful when she’d send the email with everyone’s travel information as I headed for the airport. On trips, Sabs was part of the crew who would be up for anything, ready to share weird appetizers, to keep walking to one more attraction or historical site, without complaint. It’s a wonder, you know, to have the freedom and ability to travel.
And when people arrived, for the kickoff of travels in a hotel room or volunteer retreats at someone’s house, east coaster Sabs stayed up until west coasters had not just made it, but until they were too sleepy to talk anymore. You should feel welcome.
And she was patient with other people’s foibles. One example: A group of us were exploring Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons from a base in Jenny Lake, so each day, I’d load the car up and drive us to whichever section of park we were visiting. We were in a remote northeastern part of the park when I somehow flipped a lever that prevented the driver’s door from closing, and it was a good half an hour of her not yelling while (some of) the rest of us melted down. I’m sure she was sitting in the back rolling her eyes. The sun set on us and during the long drive back to the cabin, on a dark road, I almost hit a bison that was walking toward the car on the side of the road. We can’t have missed it by more than a few centimeters, and I didn’t see it at all until it was whipping past. It was lucky that we kept getting to be friends, I think.
There is a tradition called “Shopping with Sabs.” I can’t quite define it–it’s just, maybe, that there is a designated time to shop during the days of your trip, and it is to be done with purpose and focus, and usually at the end of the day, even if (like me) you mostly window shop. You can have Shopping with Sabs even if she is not there, because it’s a feeling. The next time I go Shopping with Sabs, it will be bittersweet.
There was a year when neither my friend A nor I was able to chair a conference, and Sabs and S stepped up, and I got to mentor her instead of have her report to me as a volunteer. Sabs never liked to speak in front of others–I recommended Toastmasters to her dozens of times, because she did like to tell stories, and I think she would have easily shed her nervousness through that program–but she did develop her voice, and she used it largely for customer service. We still discussed things, because she wanted there to be rules that worked all the time, and people and situations aren’t like that. The last discussion we had was the night before she died, about a rule we’d stuck to in all cases, but that seemed too inflexible this one time, and that could be bent quietly, and I agreed with her. So many times, I was dumping something out of my brain for her to catalog, or asking her for information that I couldn’t come up with in my too-many emails, so I’m glad we had this conversation–especially because conferences and conference planning and taking care of people whose expectations may or may not be reasonable is intensely stressful and outside of most people’s comfort zones, so it was easy to bicker or snap at each other (hopefully behind the scenes). Knowing what’s happening, and why, and that it’s temporary is a help, but now–I think that I want to spend more time caring about the people I want to care about, and less time on everything else.
Sabrina had friends everywhere–those of us, far-flung, from online activities that sometimes became offline activities. She had good friends in her local area. She kept up with friends from her childhood. And she had friends seemingly everywhere. When she traveled, she’d get in touch with people and set up drinks, coffee, dinner, and people always said yes.
Of course they did.
This is not a cry for help, but: It strikes me as so radical to default to the idea that people would like to receive an invitation. To spend time with me, without there being an underlying business, a transaction of some kind. I default to the idea that people would not. I can’t wrap my head around it. Why? How? Except my head does know that’s how it should work. That’s how it works. It’s my heart that doesn’t really believe.
Sabs believed. I think that’s the secret. Believing that people do want to be connected, to spend time together. That reaching out is showing you care, not obligating others.
I hope I can believe. And I hope you will too.