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Robbed Of A Next Time: Lessons Learned From Loss

The author's friend, Elizabeth "Mopsy" Matthews, looks out over the rooftops of Rome in 1969. (Courtesy)
The author's friend, Elizabeth "Mopsy" Matthews, looks out over the rooftops of Rome in 1969. (Courtesy)
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On a bluff overlooking Nantucket Sound, I’m standing in the company of others to say goodbye to my friend, a goodbye to last the ages. From girlhood into our 20-something lives, a thread cross-stitched her life and mine. When we were older, quick tight hugs at class reunions communicated faith that we’d always have a next time.

Then, one day I discovered that we won’t.

Sudden cardiac arrest at the age of 64, and my friend is gone. Hearing of her death I felt the regret of a friendship unrealized, of an outline with spaces yet to color in. This feeling of sadness at opportunities not seized is one I’m having more often now that I’m in my mid-60s and losses of friends are stinging me with unwelcome regularity. My parents are gone, my younger brother, too. Now as I lose friends more holes open up, ones I know I’ll never fill. What cemented those friendships can never be built. New ones form but they lack hardened memory.

quick tight hugs at class reunions communicated faith that we’d always have a next time. Then, one day I discovered that we won’t.

Pushing back against the pain of my current loss, in my mind’s eye I travel through long-ago, crystal-clear images as I try to adjust to this new permanency of us being apart. I see my friend, young, carefree and barefoot, oars in hand, traveling in a pack of sisters and cousins on pebbly streets of our Cape Cod town. Each of our grandmothers had homes here, so she and I came in summers to be with family.

Next, I see her in Rome, Italy as odd serendipity of our parents’ overseas assignments found us together again as seniors at an American high school in a class of 40 students. On ancient cobblestone roads, she’s imbibing the past and present life of this wondrous city we called home. Then, she’s walking along grassy paths weaving through Wellesley College, a home we shared until the day that our commencement speaker, Shirley Chisholm, a gutsy candidate for president a year earlier, commanded us to take active roles in the social movements of our day, civil rights and women’s rights. In our own way, each of us did.

(Jean Gerber/Unsplash)
(Jean Gerber/Unsplash)

In our late 20s, we visited in her Upper West Side apartment. That evening turned out to knot the stitch to end what had been our continuous thread of connection. Soon after, she finished her medical residency and moved to New Mexico where as a pediatrician she treated children on an Indian reservation and with her husband raised two children.

As too often happens, our lives rushed by and we didn’t bridge our distance to hold on as friends. Every-so-often brief updates in class notes provided thin threads. Not nearly enough as I belatedly came to understand when I heard her lifelong friends and family share stories on that bluff. Why didn’t I know that she climbed the Pantheon’s coffered dome and peered down its oculus? I wish I’d been with her on that adventure. I envied those with whom she’d corresponded by letter as her life, magnificently lived, spilled out in poignant detail and invited contemplation. Oh, how I would have loved such letters to arrive!

I refuse any longer to let time rush by so fast that friendships fall away to be rekindled only when an obituary appears.

I’m growing accustomed to feelings of wonderment and envy in these goodbye gatherings. Afterwards, I always know things I didn’t know about my friend’s life, and often I learn something about my own in recalling our friendship. These revelations become beacons in my life as I refuse any longer to let time rush by so fast that friendships fall away to be rekindled only when an obituary appears.

A West Coast friend calls; she’s 40 minutes from my home and wants to visit. I go. Over lunch, I discover much I didn’t know when she lived near me in Boston. A university invites me to speak, and I call long-distance friends before deciding if I will go. When my friend says he’ll drive me several hours to and from this event, I say “yes.” I hand write letters. I call, rather than text. A person’s voice is important to hear.

Perhaps this desire to draw close to friends happens as we age. But if I can pass a message back to those younger than I am, it would be this: In lives more overwhelmed by 24/7 pressures than ours were and with technology primed to avoid human contact, nurture friendships. Live as though they matter because they do.

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Melissa Ludtke Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Melissa Ludtke is producing the transmedia storytelling project "Touching Home in China: in search of missing girlhoods." As a reporter for Sports Illustrated, she won equal access for women sportswriters when she took Major League Baseball to federal court in the 1978 case Ludtke v. Kuhn.

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