On Wednesday I went to a play reading at a local theatre. The play was written by a friend and colleague of mine, and it was fantastic. I had no idea he was a playwright, so to go from finding this out to hearing the first reading of his play in the space of a couple of days was awesome. I was really glad to be there that night… and yet..
Going back to that theatre was an emotional experience. The last time I was there was over 5 years ago, for the funeral of my dear friend, James, who had been ill for years. He had been close to the brink so many times, and his quality of life was eroded to the point where he was finally ready to let go.
James was living in Brisbane at the time, to be closer to his grandchildren, and we said goodbye over the phone, in one of the most bittersweet conversations I will ever live to have. I can still hear his voice. I toyed with the idea of flying up to say goodbye in person, but in the end I decided not to bundle my 6 week old baby and I onto a plane, when he would likely not live to see me arrive. In the end this proved to be a good choice.
When I say “my dear friend”, most people automatically picture someone the same age and gender as me, yet James was in his 70s when he died. I was 35. He was a friend of the family for as long as I can remember and I had always liked him, but that was the extent of it until one day in my teens we looked at each other and there was an almost tangible flash of recognition. I think he suddenly realised I had grown into an interesting person, and I suddenly realised that we could connect as equals.
From then on he gave me a robustly hard time, which I tried hard to return, but I was never in the same league. James had a stinging tongue on him, and the measure of his affection was how hard he used it. If he was polite to me I knew something was seriously wrong. He loved to spar with my boyfriend, Andrew (who subsequently became my husband), who he persisted to the end in calling “whatshisname”.
James was an actor (hence the funeral in a theatre), and true to the stereotype he was a witty and entertaining conversationalist. I knew that inviting him to a party guaranteed that people would finish the night smiling.
Age was never an issue between us. He didn’t treat me like a child, and I didn’t see him as old, even when he was weak, emaciated and forgetful from his illness. He knew me from almost the moment of birth, but what really counted was that he knew me inside and out, and I him. We shared so much, laughed so hard, and hugged so fiercely. He gave me hell for being a perpetual student, yet when I finally graduated with my PhD he flew down from Brisbane specially for the ceremony, though money was tight, so that he could give me hell about the silly hat.
James gave me a lot of good advice over the years, and he never hesitated to wield the frying pan of perspective if he thought I needed it (which I usually did). It’s been a real roller coaster of a year, which might be part of the reason being back in that theatre has hit me so hard. These are precisely the times I’d have called him for advice and comfort, and he always knew what to say to bring me back from the brink.
Friends aren’t determined by birth date or gender. Friendship can materialize in an instant or grow from seed, but it is not measured, made or calculated. It is spontaneous and organic, and never subject to rules. Tennyson had it exactly right:
I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.