I pushed him once too often. He needed the push, or rather, he needed to take action, but he couldn’t take the push. His exact words as he left my life are forgotten now, although I do remember thinking profanity wasn’t ever expressed more eloquently than in the irate oration of this man. My front door – no stranger to his exits – punctuated the sign-off message with a profound slam, and then there was a very long silence.
That was the surprising part: he didn’t come back. The almost daily visits of the past twenty years completely ceased, and I got used to days and weeks uninterrupted. He was still around, but even in this North Country where no one is a stranger, our paths didn’t cross for almost two years. He had a woman companion (no doubt the reason he was able to “give me the mitten”), and I was glad for that, and a woodpile appeared in his driveway, so apparently he did make the call I was suggesting when he lost his temper with me. I hoped he was doing okay, but frankly the relief of no longer being the best friend of a person suffering mental illness was a relief I savored. I just never thought I’d be savoring it for so long.
Today while weighing the relative merits of Keebler and Nabisco in the local supermarket snack-food aisle, I became aware of a shopping cart close to mine, looked up, and there he was. I don’t know how long he’d been looking at me, but his eyes were filled with tears, and instead of “Hello,” the words, “I’m so sorry” flowed from his mouth. We embraced, a long emotional embrace, causing shoppers to make U-turns and forego crackers rather than confront this soppy pair. I told him I don’t ever care if he calls me names or gets furious with me, but he if he ever again disappears on me for two goddam years, I will hit him right side of the head with a two-by-four.
As I drove home, my mind wandered over the memories of what nearly a quarter-century of this friendship was like. How many phones had he smashed? How many dents in the front door? I thought about the morning he discharged himself from the hospital – an I.V. line, a string of obscenities and me trailing behind; remembered the call (made in my absence, from my phone) to the crisis center to come pick up his body in half an hour; thought of being in his tiny cabin as he flailed his ax, committing murder on a block of wood in the doorway; considered the night spent with him in the emergency room, his hand slashed open by the propane heater he had raged against. And who could forget the Town Court appearance where he put on a drunken oration Richard Burton would have been in awe of. With him there would always be times like those, and there would not be apologies.
And yet, he is a wonderful friend. On the good days, no one has a better sense of humor, a quicker wit; no one is smarter than my friend, no one more fun to be with. He has nursed sick animals, maintained diabetic cats, and comforted me through the death of dear pets; it was this friend who introduced me to P.G. Wodehouse, Gilbert & Sullivan and led me to Randy Newman. Have a question? Just ask him, and if he doesn’t have an informed, insightful answer immediately, expect a typed, researched response left on your dining room table within 24 hours. Baseball, science, literature, music, history – choose your topic, and my friend will bring it to life with sensitivity, intelligence and often humor.
So here I am, back on the merry-go-round again. I know there will be days when I’ll ask myself how I ever got into this relationship again, but right now I am feeling a warm sense of happiness. Thanks, Keebler and Nabisco. There’s been something missing from my life.