The month before I finished my BA, a friend informed me that I had become a ghost. He said that he could no longer see me as quite present nor as quite gone. He could not continue to invest in our friendship, but my lingering presence kept him attached. I think he was just bitter that I was leaving, but now, years later, his comment has me thinking. When it comes to friendships, do we all, eventually, become ghosts?
My freshmen have just turned in an essay assignment that asks students to analyze a group to which they belong and to discover what shared activities bond them. As I’ve been reading these essays, I’ve noticed a theme. After only two months of knowing their roommates or sorority sisters or teammates, they declare that they’ve made “lifelong friendships” and are experiencing “a bond that cannot be broken.” Perhaps it’s my own bitterness at recently losing a twenty-five year friendship that makes me cringe at these platitudes. How do they know whom they’ll be friends with until the end of their lives, and how do I know either? My friendship ended over seemingly nothing, and yet, looking back, it also seems obvious that the branches of that tree would have eventually, undeniably, grown apart.
Losing friends in my 20s made more sense to me once I reached my 30s. In our 20s, we were still making deeply significant choices about how we would be adults. Habits were malleable and often remained undetermined until later. It made sense to me, in retrospect, that once the pieces of our adult personalities fell into place, some of us would no longer fit.
Losing people in my 40s is also painful, but instead of confusion and regret at what might have been, it feels more like an intense awareness of reality. I can usually see clearly now, after years of watching patterns (both other people’s and my own) how thoughts, feelings, and choices shape our lives, together and apart.
Now, I have all these memories of my former friend, an entire lifetime of them, fun ones like when we got lost in Redondo Beach, looking for the restaurant we had visited several times before. Bad memories of arguments and misunderstandings. And just the nice ones, walking along the beach, talking about our respective futures, whom we’d like to marry, whom we’d like to let go. But now it feels like I’m haunting these memories, as though I’ve regressed to a previous lifetime when I was inclined to walk with a dragon who would burn me if I was not charmingly demure enough, if I did not twist for him just right. The pleasant memories can only live in the context of who I used to be, and it’s a strange way to grieve, stacking memories in a cupboard I will no longer visit.
Today, I leave you with Cynthia Huntington’s “Ghost,” a poem that explores different phases of connection. I like the faint existence that the speaker inhabits in the poem, and the object of her interest’s distraction. Bit by bit, the ghost seeps into form until she finally states her name. The situation reminds me of how people become more of who they are, as time passes, and the unpredictable response of their loved ones to that strengthening identity.