Dear Young Dumb Self,
Often, when I’m questioning how well I’ve conducted myself or how often I’ve (knowingly or not) endangered a treasured friendship through neglect or misdeed, I remember Sarah Fodey.
Let’s revisit that together, shall we? In three acts, each based on a death.*
[*I’m not imposing this macabre structure; it simply appeared as I began writing about the two of us. I realize the squeamishness of using other people’s tragedies as plot points in my own story, but isn’t that what we all do? Major tectonic events in another’s life become signposts in our own, convenient ways of measuring time and distinguishing one year from the next. So yeah, I feel kind of squeamish about it... but only kind of.]
1. THE DEATH OF HER MOTHER.
Two years out of school, I joined a lady-squad of video producers working from an office the size of a ping-pong table. Later, we’d move to a spacious hangar across the street, but in those early days we were stacked three-deep, spending all day writing project proposals, hacking away at scripts for government training videos, or visiting the warren of editing suites at the back of the building, as if our fretful maternal hovering could make the post-production team work faster.
Sarah, the company’s co-owner, oversaw daily activities from a shallow office hole-punched in the wall near our desks. From the very beginning, I felt for Sarah what certain evangelicals feel for their god: reverential fear, anxious devotion. She was older than me by a decade and a thousand percent bolder, funnier, wiser, cooler. From blatant eavesdropping and a few timid questions, I learned that she’d been divorced from a man but also had some kind of romantic history with women, and as a result possessed a kind of experienced self-assurance and sexual ambiguity that I wished I could study without anyone noticing. Most of all, she appeared to love being alive. Her laugh was ten miles high and as wide as a canyon, and I fell into it head-first a thousand times a day, grinning hard at my laptop while some office shenanigan unspooled behind me.
In that cramped office, there was no room for cool detachment. You heard every suppressed belch, could sense every barometric shift in mood. But it wasn’t just the limited floor space that drew us together. We were all following Sarah’s example of radical exposure, I think. She was never one for concealing things. She once spat into an envelope and mailed away for a large canvas print of her DNA profile, which she hung on her office wall like a watercolour. Nothing was sacred, nothing was off-limits. Few emotions were curbed for the sake of equanimity. I saw what happened when you disappointed her and what happened when you made an exquisitely well-timed joke: both outcomes pinned you to the wall, one excruciating and the other illuminated with triumph.
Then her mother died. Fran. That happened not long after I was hired. I went to the wake with my colleagues, even though I’d known Sarah barely a month and hadn’t quite found the courage for a single shaky conversation. I knew enough to understand the magnitude of loss she was experiencing, though.
She was always telling stories about Fran. There was one that got recounted over and over, about the time Sarah’s childhood dog was pancaked in a hit-and-run near the Fodey farm. Fran went up and down their rural road, banging on doors, ordering witnesses forward. She wanted justice. Stories like this built a composite of Sarah’s mom: both sweet and fierce, both afflicted by old age and invigorated by it. Sarah disappeared from life for a while after Fran died, unable wake up in the morning and greet a world without her in it.
At the wake, she stood in a row of other Fodeys, her eyes pink, her shoulders sagging. She looked chastened, as if she’d believed something about life—or about Fran—that she now understood to be false. I twitched in the long line of sympathizers, wondering what would happen when I finally stood before her. Would she afford me a tight, detached smile? Would she turn away? Would she even recognize me from inside her phantasmagoria of grief? [All of this fretting was a harbinger of the pattern I’d follow for years afterwards: even in the midst of another’s cataclysm, I’d fret about how I came across. Me, me, me.]
As it turned out, Sarah did more than recognize me. She seized me, as if I were the one in need. And that was the moment, I think: that firm, all-in embrace, held for many beats longer than I would have expected. My attachment to her was a possibility before and a certainty afterwards—but the moment when we stepped into each other’s hug is exactly when the alchemy took place.
After that, after losing Fran, Sarah’s rational capacity skidded sideways and she became temporarily invested in a smooth-talking medium who promised communion with the dearly departed. The rest of us, her friends and colleagues, went along to the séances, intensely skeptical but reluctant to strip her of this one small comfort she’d found: the belief that somewhere, somehow, Fran was wriggling through a crack between the next life and this one, whispering in the ear of a failed Calvin Klein model with a Tim Hortons cup welded to his hand. Sarah’s need to believe this was touching, and sad, and completely understandable.
Throughout that period, I often remembered the story of the dog and the hit-and-run and Fran marching from house to house. As I watched Sarah struggle to digest the terrible reality of losing a parent, I felt an urgent request rising in my chest, clobbering me every time I saw her scrape tears from her face with the back of her hand. That story of the dog was about more than a lost pet. It was about love and loyalty, and most of all about what it means to have someone who cares enough to get outraged on your behalf. I had only just met her, really, and was too self-conscious to say what I wanted to say. But if I’d had more courage, if I’d known myself a little better, I would have said: Let’s be that person for each other.
2. THE DEATH OF HER (OTHER) DOG.
We were closer after all that, but it still didn’t feel like we were friends. I wanted to be, and I pursued it by pirouetting between slavish employee and anxious, supercool supporter of anything she showed the least shred of enthusiasm for. But I could never quite convince myself that I had succeeded.
Through it all she was wonderful to me, and likely considered us friends based on the fact that we shared a lot of laughs and bailed each other out from time to time—you know, the same criteria that most reasonable people use to count someone as a friend. In fact, as I write this, I’m sipping tea from a mug she gave me for my birthday during one of those early years. The mug has a picture of a typewriter on it, and issuing from the typewriter is a piece of paper that says, “BY MEGAN FINDLAY.” I was astounded when she presented it to me. That gift gave me a momentary glimpse of the chasm between what I perceived and what was actually happening. I thought I had to contort myself in all kinds of ways to earn her; meanwhile, she was showing me that she valued me exactly as I was.
Unfortunately, that glimpse was fleeting. I continued to obsess about my rank in her social circle, and to alternate wildly between playing it cool and attaching myself to her like a barnacle. I was constantly swarmed by insecurities: Does Sarah like me? Does she think I’m cool and funny? Does she feel closer to the other girls than to me? Will she like this script I’m writing? Is my gaping, endless need too obvious?
Yes. Yes, it was too obvious. I occasionally wonder if I’m embellishing the worshipful quality of my relationship too much. Was it really so bad? But then I discover unambiguous evidence, so mortifying that I have to look at it through my fingers, like the climactic scene in a splatter film. Here’s one example. It’s from an email sent by Derek, my then-boyfriend, in the summer of 2012:
A few minutes later, my breathless reply:
The pleading tone! The desperate scorekeeping! The lack of sentence case! I remember that feeling perfectly, the way your most protracted embarrassments from childhood can still make your stomach cramp. There’s one picture of us posing at an office Christmas party with two others from our workplace posse, and depending on my mood it will make me feel expansive about everyone’s private struggles (what are the others concealing behind their wide smiles?) or mortified about my own (I remember seeing that photo and thinking, She’s gripping my arm! What does it mean that she’s gripping my arm??).
And this journal entry, one of a billion which show how the world felt drained of colour when Sarah wasn’t around, and how I needed to express this to myself:
I played to her, tried to charm her, volunteered to help her move, inserted myself when I saw an opportunity to offer the comfort of a generous pour of Jameson, her favourite. But there was one realm in which my motivations were pure and uncalculating, and that realm belonged to her bulldog, Freddie.
Freddie came to our office almost every day. Everything about him was square-shaped: his chest, his head, his spectacular under-bite. When he stood up from a nap, he left damp splotches on the floor. His boners were magnificent and his farts caused routine evacuations of Sarah’s office. He was a swaying, jowly visual manifestation of gravity and time. I loved him. We all did, Sarah most of all. He rode shotgun in her Jeep, followed her everywhere, and displayed unlikely physical agility—a kind of galumphing, puppyish choreography of joy—each time she reappeared after an absence, however brief.
When Freddie started collapsing from old age and impaired genetics, we all recognized the significance of what was coming. His mobility got worse and worse until he couldn’t really stand at all. We saw less of Sarah as she began working from home to spare Fred from the stress of relocating, or of being without her. Then one morning she picked me up (Me! Even in the midst of this poignant drama, a little cheerleader inside my heart was waving her pom-poms) and we drove out to her vet in the country.
By then, Freddie wasn’t walking. We slung him between us on a blanket and shuffled him into the clinic. The news wasn’t good. With a level of sophisticated tenderness that made me understand why Sarah drove half an hour out of her way to visit this particular clinic, the vet introduced her to the unpleasant facts. Fred had a few weeks left—maybe.
What do you say to someone in that situation? And not just someone, but a person whose moods and needs and expectations you’ve been carefully mapping in your head for years? You say nothing. You clear your schedule, you make yourself available, you spend hours on the floor of a Centretown condo, trying to coax rolls of slimy sandwich meat through the jaws of a senior bulldog labouring towards death.
And that, I think, was the first time I felt myself extending and stretching for Sarah without an agenda, without tallying a score in my head and searching for advantages. We spent a weekend heaving Freddie out to her balcony so he could pee, then heaving him back to his cushion where he breathed in a damp, clenching way that scared us both. People dropped off food. Friends of Sarah’s (and Freddie’s) came by to kneel next to him and tell stories from his short life. The signature Sarah Fodey mirth—that massive, contagious laugh—pushed through the curtain of misery and relieved us all. Freddie’s abbreviated tail-stump wriggled when he heard that laugh, even in his final hours.
On Sunday night, we phoned around until we found a local vet who’d make a house call.
A few people, Freddie enthusiasts, joined us. We sat around him with our hands in his brindle fur, watching the vet prepare two injections. The first relaxed him. Sarah seemed to deflate too, to lose not only tension but definition, like a puppet in slow-motion collapse. The second injection stopped his breathing. I lifted one hand from his warm body and put it on Sarah. You cannot think about friendship in a moment like that, about whether or not you have it, or whether or not it’s as fierce as you want it to be; you can only feel it, firm and present around you, an unassailable fact.
I helped the vet wrap Freddie in a plastic bag and carry him to her car. We laid him on her backseat next to a chocolate cake inside a Tupperware container. She'd been on her way to her father-in-law’s birthday celebration when we called, apparently. She made a small joke: Better not take the wrong package inside when I get there! Ha, ha!
This was the kind of absurd detail that I knew would win a laugh from Sarah, and it did. I told her moments later, as those of us who had attended the death stood in her too-empty, Freddie-less condo and raised our glasses. I didn’t compose the anecdote in my head first, didn’t test it for degrees of lameness, didn’t weigh whether or not it’d come out right. It was maybe the first natural, unselfconscious thing I ever said to her. Such a dumb thing, too: The dead dog, the chocolate cake, better be careful, ha ha. A stupid joke, but perhaps an important pivot for me: I was no longer the pursuer, the tag-along, the not-quite-enough. In my own mind, which was the only place where this competition took place, I’d finally won. I’d convinced myself. We were friends, full stop, and I could relax.
…Until I fucked it all up!
3. THE DEATH OF OUR FRIEND’S FATHER.
The fact was, we were friends, yes—but she was also still my boss. And I was getting restless. All of us were working our tails off, but I could sense that others were committed in a way that I wasn’t. They were in that job because they wanted to make movies and TV shows; I was in that job because it had been offered to me. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I was in the kind of relationship with that company that many people find themselves in with a partner: it was comfortable and familiar, and leaving felt risky, so I shushed my inner voice and I stayed.
Then I got a fiction-writing grant. A puny one, but it made me puff up with legitimacy and go knocking on Sarah’s door, waving the letter around. I had all kinds of ideas. Maybe I’d work four days a week and spend the fifth day writing. Or maybe I’d take a couple of months off and disappear, unpaid, then come back and continue working while my efforts circulated among top agents and editors. It never occurred to me that these scenarios wouldn’t fly with my devotional, 24hr-workday colleagues, who saw the company less as a means for making a living and more as an all-consuming lifestyle. I wanted what? To withdraw? To scale back? It was difficult for them, and difficult for me; my colleagues and I were confronting the fact that I wasn’t all in, which to me scanned as healthy personal balance but to them was unforgivable duplicity.
There were a few “meetings.” I was trying to decide if I could afford to throw down an ultimatum. It’s hard to remember Sarah and I as friends during that period; all I can recall is the narrative of us as boss-employee, playing out in the shadow of my ballooning self-righteousness. Things got tense. Tense enough that, during one of our final conversations about the grant and my salary and my future at the company, I decided to activate my phone’s voice recorder.
At the end of the conversation, which did not satisfy any of us, I forgot all about the clandestine recording. I scooped up my phone to check for messages. Sarah, sitting next to me, saw the telltale spectrograph. She turned on me, furious. All of the rock-solid brashness with which I’d been approaching these negotiations turned to powder in a second. I was instantly thrown back to those early days when I’d considered myself clumsy and unworthy of her admiration, only this time I had miserable proof. That secret recording was a statement. I don’t trust you, it said. I’m only looking out for myself. I’m trying to trap you.
She didn’t slam her office door, but she closed it firmly, meaningfully. I willed myself to knock. To beg her forgiveness. To have her watch me as I deleted the recording in some kind of dramatic mea culpa. I’m not sure if I knocked, in the end—to be honest, the rest of the memory is unclear, which must be a trick of self-preservation. I went to the local college that night to talk about how great it was to work at a place like mine. I reviewed students’ portfolios with my heart in a turmoil of regret and pain and fear. I had fucked everything up. Not just the trust of my boss, but the trust of my friend. It was all over.
Well, not quite.
Sarah and I found our way back to being friends, sort of—a probationary friendship now freighted with history in a way it hadn’t been before, at least not outside of my own head. A few months later I got another job, and I left. We became distant. Maybe I was aware, on some subterranean level, of my dramatic flip-flop: the besotted gratitude with which I’d arrived at the company (and into Sarah’s life), and the arrogance with which I sashayed out three years later. Maybe that contradiction mortified me.
Or maybe it was simply the business of life that helped us slide apart. New dramas and pursuits spackling over the old ones. I had a friend in her condo building, and any time I went to visit him I’d pass near her door apprehensively, half hoping she’d appear but half afraid, too. She never did. Months passed, and then a year. Maybe we'd never see each other again. Maybe we’d never really talk. Maybe the whole thing had run its course. That thought, when it occurred to me, felt so unbearably sad. Is that really how life was going to happen? Someone could consume you one minute, and be entirely absent the next?
Then Amanda, one of our former colleagues, lost her father. I went to the visitation feeling at least as much concern for myself as sympathy for the grieving family. I was nervous about seeing the old crowd again, most of whom still worked there, still had the same old bonds—stronger bonds by then, I could only presume, bonds that would have sealed over to keep me on the outside.
And then there they were, standing in the breezeway of the funeral home, all of them, my old gang. Affectionately harassing each other with a sectarian lexicon I’d once known by heart but had nearly forgotten. All the old jokes, all the old shorthand. And there, at their centre, was Sarah.
We hugged. It was a throw-back hug: we were strangers again, embracing again, just like we had all those years earlier at her mother’s wake. Only this time, instead of initiating something new, that hug roused something lost. I didn’t think of past mortifications or slights or betrayals of trust. I only thought: God, I missed you. It’s about time.
That was nearly two and a half years ago, that resurrecting hug. We went for drinks that night, after the wake, along with a couple of others. Sitting across from Sarah in a cozy wine bar, the relief of hearing that enormous laugh again—only this time, I was free from any anxious, over-analyzed context, detached from my own fear that I wouldn’t be included in that laugh. It felt wonderful.
Since then we’ve had many more drinks and many more adventures together. When I tell her about some personal calamity in my life, some emotional bruise I’ve sustained or setback I’ve endured, it’s my favourite thing in the world to watch her rear back and spew insults at a universe that would allow such injustices to happen to one such as me. In those moments, I see the fulfilment of a wish I made years ago, right at the beginning of my Sarah Fodey saga, when she told me about her mother stalking up and down the road, banging on doors. That’s when I'd silently said: Let me be that person for you. What I hadn’t anticipated, what I don’t think I would have ever believed was possible back then, was that she would one day be that person for me.
So, Young Dumb Self, what’s the point here? What are these 4,000 flabby words about a specific friendship meant to teach you about friendship in general?
I think you’ve invested much in the idea that friendship, like marriage, takes work. And that’s because friendship, like marriage, is a long-term contract burdened by preachy injunctions. Be prepared for how much work it is! Work at it every day! Work, work work!
And yeah, sure, you do have to work. You have to show up. Commit. Prioritize. Communicate. Compromise. But this fact can so often curdle into an oppressive sense of never working hard enough. You should be calling more often, sending more emails, showing up more reliably, behaving like a smarter, more sympathetic, more up-to-date supporter for your friends. Most of all, you should be constantly earning. Earning trust, earning a place at the table, earning affection. That’s the work that’s required. Isn’t it?
No. It’s time to be more patient with yourself. When you met Sarah, you thought you should do this or be like that. You thought that the friendship could only exist on those terms, swamped with “shoulds”. But, look! It stuttered, it deepened, it blew to smithereens, and now it’s back in a shape more beautiful than any you could have sculpted on your own. Its present form, its best form, came to be without much hand-wringing or scorekeeping or effort. It just sort of… happened.
That’s the lesson here.
Trust in the work you’re doing for your friendships, yes. Most of all, though, trust in the work that’s being done without you. Cosmically, invisibly. The friendships that are meant to be will simply be. And the beautiful thing is that there’s not much you can—or should—do about it.
Old Wise Self