I had the most unexpected and wonderful birthday gift arrive late on the evening of my birthday. It was almost over, strictly speaking. I am not a huge birthday person, I think it’s in my genes from my father. Anyway, I was checking my e-mails and there was one called ‘Happy Birthday’ from a name I didn’t recognise. I was intrigued but not very, having received a strange birthday e-mail earlier in the day from a hotel in the Middle East. That took me back in time but not nearly as far as this one.
The mysterious e-mail was from one of my oldest friends who I’d fallen out of contact with nearly 35 years ago. I couldn’t remember much about why this had happened except I’ve gradually fallen out of touch with most people from those days over the years.
What really moved me was that my old friend remembered my birthday after all this time! Her message was brief and to the point, and for me there was a lot of emotion in it:
‘I was thinking of you today because it is your birthday. I think of you from time to time and am wondering why we lost touch.
If you wish to write me back, it would be nice to catch up briefly.
I hope you are well.’
For me this was the best birthday gift I could ever imagine – to receive this message from someone I had been close to, from my past. I felt reconnected, I felt somehow that I still existed, all over again; that this person should have remembered my birthday after such a long gap! My response was all about me.
I have had those feelings myself about others – ‘wondering why we lost touch’. Sometimes because it was a difficult situation, it was easier to ‘lose touch’ than discuss the difficulties. Other times just carelessness or…what? Losing touch means we never have a chance to say goodbye to what was, if it is goodbye, or carry on with what now is. I dislike that phrase ‘people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime’ – it’s too pat and simplistic, and also very dismissive, as another friend and I were discussing only recently.
When I thought about my old friend, I remembered things, they flooded back in images. I remembered listening to Carol King, James Taylor and Carly Simon in her bedroom when I went to visit. Her family was better off than mine and she lived in a nice house in a nicer neighbourhood. I remembered her father who everybody loved, he was such a kind man, a rabbi. I remembered the rest of her family too, as I got to know them quite well. Her mother quite evidently came from a wealthy background and, although well-intentioned and gracious, I found her stern good manners intimidating.
Specifically I remembered my friend’s handwriting which was large and loopy, quite flamboyant and exuberant. We wrote each other long letters nearly every day during the summer holidays. I remembered the much older man she was in love with, it was all very complicated, and I remembered when she went to see him on the other side of the country surreptitiously. I also remembered her writing in my yearbook something about us having grown apart but still always being friends. I just vaguely remembered some distance developing between us, we were moving in different directions.
She wrote me some words in her next e-mail about what she remembered – the name of the son of an old family friend, music, school, where I lived. I suggested that we expand on these words and memories as they were overlapping but different and it would be interesting to compare; to explore what we chose to remember consciously and what we unconsciously chose to forget.
She wrote back that she remembered our letters too (how could we forget our epic efforts?), mutual friends, our respective loves, and the name of a madrigal: ‘April is in my Mistress’ Face’.
Then she wrote:
‘I recall that you and I lost touch and you suddenly did not reply to my letters…at least that’s my memory. I had a feeling it was quite intentional, and have wondered all these years what precipitated it. I know we were not as close later on but I have fond memories of the years that we were and all of our antics and shared passions… I remember your laugh, your handwriting, all the talks about your weekend in Palm Springs …and so many other things, including, obviously, your birthday.
‘I would love to know if you had a reason for cutting off our communication because truly, it has befuddled me these many years later and was at the time very painful for me to be shunned. I figured I must have done something unknowingly upsetting to you.’
I was quite horrified to read this – the perfect gift had a sting in its tail.
The language stung me – ‘it was quite intentional’, ‘very painful to be shunned’.
I read her words and thought first and I still think: There was no reason. Or if there was, it wasn’t important enough for me to remember. Or I’ve blocked it because it made me uncomfortable. The truth is that I don’t know what it was that I did or why I did it, but I know I must have done something. I remember vaguely just feeling the connection wasn’t there anymore. And I reflect that this is a pattern, something I can see has happened more than twice, and also that others might recognise it. If a connection subsides, I just move on. I let myself be carried away.
I know I’m not the only person to ‘manage change’ in this way.
You might even recognise this pattern in yourself.
However, the utter selfishness of this behaviour struck me in the face as I read this e-mail from someone who had mattered so much in my long-ago past. What commitment or compassion did I show this friend to whom I was so close for a time, and with whom I shared so much?
My friend still felt some painful effect, after 35 years, and enough to have wanted to contact me to find out and solve the mystery. Was she aware that her birthday greetings had an unpleasant underside for me? I felt the overriding need of her wanting to heal her wound, a wound that I had thoughtlessly caused and long since forgotten.
I feel ashamed – but not devastated.
This sting in the tail might have a silver lining. It’s a lesson in karma – ‘what you sow so shall you reap’. Timing is everything and in a way I’m pleased to have been given this ‘gift’ of uncomfortable feedback, maybe taking some of my own medicine. With this friend at least, I have a chance to change the situation, leaving it resolved differently and/or transforming it into something else. And with others?
The pattern of moving on when it suits, remains tempting. It always will – it’s an escape route, a relatively painless exit strategy. Yet we all make our choices, and I won’t do it again.