We resumed our friendship at the age of 9. When my family and I returned to live in Scotland. Now I say ‘resumed’ I couldn’t remember her. Despite her telling me a million times throughout the years how we used to be friends way before. When we used to play together as toddlers in her grandparents back garden.
In the early years she didn’t have a phone, we used to have to make the 10 mins walk to each other’s houses in the hope that the other was ‘home’ only to find that we had both set out at the same time to meet and gone different routes!
She always was more reserved than me. More cautious. A little less brave, or as I used to say a little too sensible! Over the years and on many occasions I managed to push her out of her comfort zone, I was able to convince her into pushing herself a little bit further to live a little bit more on the edge.. in later years during a heart to heart she admitted to sometimes feeling bullied by me. This made me sad. I had thought I was liberating her sense of adventure…
We were listening to the Doors, the Beatles and wishing we were at Woodstock.
I remember one time around the age of 13 we bravely tried on our hippy skirts. We managed to walk to the end of my street and we got spotted by the older cool boys and we were duly mortified. Those skirts never saw the light off day again.
My mum and sister used to encourage sleepovers at our place a lot on the weekends. Why can’t we ever go to her house I used to ask, a scared, knowing look would pass between the adults and her. I later discovered that she had a troubled family situation. That of course she didn’t discuss, but it was there in the background looming. I’m sure this contributed to her cautious nature.
She wasn’t always cautious. Her personality could turn, larger than life, into an all singing and dancing diva. She loved to dance. And sign too but her dancing was way better. She always looked so beautiful and so petite. I always envied her tiny little feet as they always made shoes look so much better growing up. My long flat feet, when wearing the same Wallabies, looked like clown shoes.
I remember the day we received our exam results. I proudly walked round to her house with my certificate in the padded envelope so as to protect the certificate.
Of course she wasn’t home. She had gone round to mine the other way and was waiting on my sofa chatting to my mum when I got back. ‘ Where are your results?! “ I shouted when I couldn’t see an envelope or anything in her hands. “ Oh that, She said, “wait it’s here” as she produced her exam results, neatly folded up into tiny squares, from the top left hand pocket of her denim jacket. “ They weren’t really worth protecting with the envelope she said” we laughed. I appreciated her at that moment, in all her authenticity and vulnerability more than at any other point in life.
She wasn’t academic at all. Dyslexia robbed her of any confidence or potential success she may have had, in those days, help was not readily available as it is now. Instead she was put in ‘foundation’ classes and left to get on with it. But she was so talented. A skilled seamstress, those tiny nimble hands could create amazing things which would become her career.
When my sister died we clung to each other really tightly. I remember being shocked and surprised by the inner strength and wisdom she showed me in those days. It felt like all of a sudden, she was the strong brave one and I was just… lost. I loved this new dynamic. It felt like in the death of one older, stronger sister, I had gained another.
This was to be short lived.
Several months after this I got woken up by a phone call. She was calling from a neighbour’s house down the street, her mum had died suddenly the night before. I ran like the wind. In my pyjamas all the way to her and we sobbed and held onto each other for what seemed like eternity. Right there in the middle of someone else’s kitchen. As she still didn’t have a home phone.
I reverted back to the brave one.
We fetched her younger brother and sister from the noise and business of a family home full of mourners and well wishers and we all 4 of us walked in the rain. Silently we walked through the streets. 4 lost children, mourning and soaking wet in the rain, trudging along with no purpose or chat.
I was angry and annoyed with myself. I wanted to say or do something to help those kids and to help my best friend. I didn’t have a clue. Too raw and lost in my own grief. So onwards we walked in the rain, with no idea the long lasting impact those days would have on the rest of our lives.
We handled our grief in very different ways. She was all too eager to grieve and to shout about the pain and to let it all out, something I tried in vain to stop her from doing. I on the other hand kept everything locked up inside.
Unable to even think about it, let alone talk about it. I hadn’t even dealt with the earlier death of my father, coming to the acceptance of my sister’s death was a long way off.
Instead I chose to worry and fuss at my friend’s approach, whilst at the same time numbing my deep fear and pain with substances a 14 year old had no right or no maturity to be dabbling in. On reflection her approach was exactly what it needed to be. Raw, authentic and open.
I remember the night she met her future husband, I took her along to a university drinks night and they met on a Glasgow – Edinburgh student night bus in the most romantic of ways, he wrote his telephone number on the outside condensation of the bus after he left it. We managed in our drunken state to memorise the number.
She was able to call him and arrange a date. She finally had a home phone.
She was the most beautiful bride I have ever seen, I don’t think I will ever see one quite so beautiful. It was as if her entire life had been in preparation for the moment. She built a beautiful family life and a successful wedding dress alterations career. She had a mortgage and a home whilst I was still trying to come out of the fog of grief and pain.
The more cautious and sensible side of her coming into fruition leading to the most ‘normal’ and stable of lives. Something she never had had as a child. Until it began to unravel…
In a cruel twist of fate, her spiral out of control seemed to happen in complete inverse to my own success and ability to bring some stability into my own life.
It crept up slowly. It began with her not wanting the night to end. At party’s she wanted to stay later and later, drink more and more. Be louder and more out there than she had ever been before.
We all began to notice. But by bit she became more manic and deeper into the depths of alcoholism.
It was about this time that I left the town and country I had called ‘home’ for 29 years.
Onwards and upwards my career took me to Jersey. When I came back to visit I began to notice things were very different with her. For the first time in our lives, her beautiful, shiny hair began to look unkept and greasy. Which was also reflected in her once perfect and immaculate home.
I received a call from one of our other best friends. She had signed herself into the mental health ward of the hospital. She was suicidal. A pattern that would continue for several years. I still don’t really know how long it took. She lost her husband, her home, her job and eventually the care of her two beautiful children.
Over the years we would regularly have chats of her turning things around. I tried my old bullying tactics, I cajoled and shouted and begged, to no avail. I couldn’t make her more brave, not this time. Her focus on her own self destruction was clear. Of course she agreed to get sober and get life back on so many occasions, the last of these chats ended with an agreement of her coming to live with me in Turkey.
Setting up her own business there. By the end the conversation grew awkward and sad. We both knew that these plans of hope and salvation would never happen.
In the final years I used to dread asking how she was doing. Of course she didn’t have a phone, a trait that would seem to follow her, and when she did get one it was still impossible to reach her. Stories would reach me that would make me squirm with shame. Shame that she had turned into this and there was nothing me or anyone else could do to help her.
When the call finally came, I didn’t even need to hear the words, our mutual friend only said her name and I knew. And she knew I knew. The dreaded and expected news that she had died didn’t even need to be said. She had been found slumped behind a door of a party that she had been at for several days, holding tightly onto a bottle of vodka.
The funeral was strange. I felt too distant from it all. The only emotion I can remember feeling was anger. Looking on at her beautiful children, sobbing. I had no words for them. I didn’t say a single word. Suddenly I was transported back to that day in the rain, walking with her and her younger siblings with no words to say, shocked into an unusual silence in our grief and disbelief.
I didn’t get the chance to grieve for my best friend. News of my second pregnancy and the sudden death of my own mum meant my own life and heart was too full to face the shame. I would tuck that away for another time.
It’s time now. To feel that familiar pain. To look back and try, somehow to make sense of the mindless loss and the self destruction. The last time we saw each other, the summer before her death we clung to each other sobbing. Much the same way as we had on the day my sister and her mum had died. Through my tears I asked her ‘why?” Why can’t you stop this. Through her tears she asked me ‘why – why did you abandon me?’
The final words she uttered to me as she left that night were “you will never see me alive again” and she was right, I never did…
To this day I still don’t know the answers to those questions from that last evening. I still don’t have the answers to a lot of questions surrounding what happened to us. Two children impacted by sudden tragedy, coping with their grief in such different ways with two very different outcomes.
Is there some sort of lottery whereby some individuals are selected to face great loss in their lives and given the tools to thrive? Whilst others are not so lucky and sink so deeply and freely into the grief that it leaves them with no choice but to drown.
My anger towards my friend I’m glad to say has disappeared. An anger borne of the guilt and shame that I felt at not being able to help her, to be there for her.
In my mind I had a plan, when I was successful enough, when I was right enough, when I was finally enough I would come home and rescue her, bundle her up and take her to a safe place that would finally help her see sense.
I have done enough inner work now to know how to grieve, not on how to shortcut the process, hell nobody can do this. I do know that burying it or locking it up, refusing to allow yourself to think about it leads to even bigger problems and issues.
Grief should be allowed to wash over you, like a sea in waves. Letting you sway with the ebb and flow of the tide. Sometimes it comes and that’s ok. Just don’t let it take you down so deep that you drown with it.
I will commit to talking about my friend… I will speak her name. I will remember her beautiful smile, her amazing laugh, her absolute crazy ways and most of all the tenderness and love she showed me throughout my journey of grieving, always.
My daughter when old enough will know her name and her story and the joy and fun and pain that she brought to my life in equal measure. Donna, the most beautiful bride in the world.