January 17, 2014

All caps: What is "knowing" someone?

I am in mourning this week. My dear friend, Charlotte, died Monday.

I have wept, and sobbed, and simply leaked for long periods of time - so that I have lost awareness when my face is wet any more. My eye sockets ache. My face hurts. My throat is raw. I feel bruised in every joint. There is an illusion of indentation on my chest - I keep checking - and a few times a day I quite literally have to remember to breathe. My movements are slowed and often clumsy. When I tried to put on my tap shoes and dance, just to see if I was alive myself, I was knocked to the floor and onto my back. All this is only my body's response to losing Charlotte.

My emotions are slowed as well, but they've also lurched and heaved and even soared, and - especially by the end of the day - slackened into numb exhaustion. I function mechanically, ticking boxes of responsibilities she left me. Strangely, I sleep well, something I've rarely done in the past month as I have lived in a state of dread anticipation: hoping for a word, agonized by her anguish, bled pale from stubborn hope, preyed on by existential walls closing in on her behalf.

"How long have you known her?" is a fair question. What do you mean by "known?"

I have met Charlotte only twice.

I am not alone. Several of Charlotte's friends, true friends, have not even been in the same room. We  have said the same things to one another this week: we wonder how to explain to those outside Charlotte's circle exactly what we mean by "knowing" Charlotte. We feel awkward in our grieving, as if it is unearned to care so deeply and feel such a loss. We all keep apologizing: "we never really met" and "I only met her a few times."

What does knowing someone mean? For years Charlotte and I have been in almost daily real-time contact, we share friends and jokes and experiences, and I felt heard by her in all my moods and times of day. We have been angry together, sullenly unkind together, and giddy with pure fun. I woke up and had coffee with her in my robe (well, tea and wrapper for her). She would respond within seconds to a request to talk, was often impatient for me to wake up. She ordered me around, knew  exactly what tone to use when I messed up, and could handle a genuine argument without cutting me off. She knew my kids, my work, my fears, where I keep my orphaned socks. She let me sit up with her through the night at the bedside of her mother's last day. She has watched my son use power tools.  She was friends with my daughter, which was precious to me. She laughed, often and loudly, at the same foibles my family and onsite friends do. We were colleagues in an unpaid portfolio of activism. We wrote a book together, managed work projects together, took care of mutual friends, and even planned a memorial project together: for her.

We need to stop apologizing, my friends, for relationships that aren't always in the same room. It is time to stop looking at friendships on that artificial value curve. I'm closer, genuinely closer, to several people that I see far less (sometimes never) than people in my town and family. I get more done, even make genuine change, with people in other time zones than I do at "home." I trust and argue with and rely on people in other time zones as much as I do my own. We are no longer limited by geography.

Now, some of this is a Charlotte thing. She wasn't just an extraordinary friend she was unlike any other human being for her willingness and ability to be involved with people's lives, including mine. Where I would flinch at getting too involved Charlotte would bustle forward: calling at all hours, inviting people to her home, arranging meetings for people 10 time zones away and remembering every name. I'd smolder and she'd bark. I'd counsel caution and she'd snort with impatience and get stuff done. She loved me for what I really am, not some image I might want to project. I loved her for all her qualities, charming and otherwise.

I do not have, nor do I expect to have, a relationship like this with anyone else. It may have been facilitated by Skype and FaceTime and Facebook and email and other electronic means but it wasn't an electronic relationship. The internet may have allowed me to maintain my relationship with Charlotte but it has not limited it. I only got four years with her, but they were rich years.

Of the gifts I cherish: one of her always funny cards,
an antique veiled hat from her mother's collection, and a set of
drawers. When C was facing one of her rounds of chemo and worried
it would kill her, she and I and another friend mused over what one
does to prepare for death. On my list was emptying
my junk drawers. She sent me home with this set. They're empty.
Also to her credit, several of us count her as a best friend and yet we know it to be a shared honor. She had school friends, FEAST friends, neighbor friends, family friends, and friends over a single issue. She literally saved lives of strangers and strangers they no longer were, ever. These were genuine relationships, all. I've never known someone to have so many relationships and not necessarily interconnected. She had no ego about it, needing to show off who she knew or count their numbers. She never dropped names: she put people together. I delight in continuing to find her friends. She delighted in knowing we all would have and keep one another. She would be so glad, if a bit embarrassed, at the relationships renewed and strengthened this week as the word spread.

I have consciously devoted the past six months to working with and for Charlotte. As frightened as I was it has been the greatest gift she could give me. Writing with her and coping with her and creating the Charlotte's Helix in her name and preparing for this week have been a great honor but also an enormous learning and growing experience. I have horrible survivor's guilt - why should I live and not her, I ask you - but also my marching orders. Charlotte helped all of us, her friends, to accept this day and our instructions. Support the girls and HWISO and brothers and other friends. Keep fighting for what it is important. "Keep going."

"YOU CAN DO THIS WITHOUT ME" is the first and only time I remember her using all caps to me. She would not say "good-bye" but this she shouted.

When I stayed with her in July I padded down the hall to her room wearing one of her wrappers and I tucked her in. She laughed, as I was the guest and adults don't need tucking, but we knew one another that well. "Sweet dreams" I said.

Sweet dreams.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you for giving voice to this. How do I know her/someone. And thank you for easing that awkward feeling. That feeling was especially piqued reading tributes that would end with " I only met her twice" or "I never met her" as somehow making their tributes less heartfelt. I think ultimately they are not. I think that long ago people poured their hearts out in writing, in letter form and maintained and established connections with their hearts through their prose. So no big surprise that the digital age has given even more meaning and embellishment to that possibility. It is a good thing I think. So I personally put away those initial awkward feelings of "how can I respond to this, when I never met her?" and just let those feelings speak especially to those who were around her physical being daily.....and let them know she touched lives..

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  2. Yes, Laura--I no longer make a distinction between internet and "irl" friends. Friends are friends. I'm glad you had Charlotte and am sorry for your loss.

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  3. My first encounter with Charlotte was for her to let me know that I needed to make sure I blocked her so that others wouldn't connect the dots. I didn't. I read along, for the most part quietly. I feel I knew her, too. It breaks my heart as I knew what you were feeling, Laura. Is this enmeshment that has me tangled up and feeling your loss, our loss? While I envy your ability to connect in person I knew I had to move on and help when and where I can with respect to my own situation. Charlotte was far too young to leave her friends and family. Cancer is my other enemy in this world and it angers me that it took her from us. I don't know why but I have a hunch that heaven needed her to help with those who lost their battles. She's walking the gardens, missing life, her children and family, but comforting some sad soul missing their mama. She's a warrior. My prayers are that those messages she left those she helped will be heeded and used to stay well and fight, because life is worth it. A short visit with you my friend, Laura, was never forgotten. I know how warm and loving you are and Charlotte needed you in her life to balance her own life. Your compassion oozes! You understand so well how friendship works. When it's right it's forever. May you be comforted in knowing you are not alone. Love always my friend, Mary

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    1. I forgot that first encounter, Mary! We've all grown together haven't we? And now we have to keep growing, as she would want. It's not enmeshment, its a gift she gave us. We do feel one another's loss. Fuck cancer. Love you.

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  4. Laura this is a lovely tribute and I'm glad you were able to put all these feelings into words. <3, Raye-Ann

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  5. 'What is "knowing" someone?' you ask, dear Laura. I have awoken this Sunday morning, in the south-east corner of Australia, far from the USA and England, and began reading your heartfelt tribute to Charlotte before I was even half-dressed. Luckily it is summer here, because I kept reading, right to the end, and have been thinking about your words ever since. Such is the beauty and power of your pen. One of many sayings I have collected on friendship says: 'A friend is someone who knows all about you and loves you anyway'. Such friends have long been my lifeline. I have one friend from earliest childhood, another from age 12, and several other close friends that have come into my life over the decades. In the past seven years, I have developed friendships made possible by the Internet, through eating disorder advocacy. At other times I have had chance or serendipitous meetings with people - in airport queues, sitting on a plane, in a bus, at a conference, in a store - one of my most precious friendships is with a young Amish woman, Betty, 40 years younger than me and living in MidWest USA - our friendship thrives on hand-written letters and an occasional visit, by me. We met when a friend took me to an Amish craft store, in rural Missouri - sitting behind the counter was this young girl, 16, who when she heard my Aussie accent, asked where I was from … later, Betty would explain that was her very first day working behind the counter … just as it was my first visit to an Amish craft store. What is it, that creates a friendship? When was 13, my Sunday School teacher, 50 years my senior (he was born in 1900, and I was born in 1950) left my rural district, to settle in Western Australia, 3000 miles away. We wrote long letters, by hand, to each other for the next 25 years - I grew up, writing to Mr Findlay. I would describe my pregnancies and births, he would describe his heart attacks. He was a rock for me. A love of writing binds many friendships. You don't need to see each other in person to have a gem of a friendship. So it could be at a funeral, there are mourners who have never seen each other, but all of whom are connected intimately with the one who has died. Today, all of my closest friends live more than 200km from me. Our friendships are nurtured via writing, phone, Skype, and the 'icing on the cake' is when we catch up once in a while over lunch and coffee, and better still, overnight stays. Some friendships are for a long time, others are for a short time, some friendships are related to our work, or our hobbies, or our family, or our church, all become part of the tapestry in our life. Then there is this special realm of friendships that are for all-seasons and these are the very special friends who know all about us, and I mean, all, and love us anyway. These are the friends that can tell us straight, without fear of hurting our feelings, these are the friends we can count on to know what is best for us, when we are lost in confusion and doubt. These are the friends who are there for us in all moments, both sadness and joy, who accept us as we are and love us anyway. These are the friends like Laura and Charlotte, whose friendship was, is and remains forever, priceless. A treasure to hold in this world and beyond. Bless you, Laura and Charlotte. xx

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  6. I almost got through a day without crying, Laura. You know--about that friend of ours...that 'one of my best friends'...the one that I never met.

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  7. Dear Laura, i know it is so painful. But, i know that one day you will see your beautiful friend Charlotte again. One day, you will laugh and both joke together again. One day you will hold her again. It's going to be a good while, but that day will come. One day.

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  8. I KNOW I CAN CHARLOTTE, I JUST! DON'T! LIKE! IT!
    AT ALL!
    I MISS YOU.

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  9. :.(
    MiS
    Xxxxxxxxxxxxxx

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