When a Friend You Love is Ill

Right now, I am at my desk preparing my seminar for tomorrow, but my thoughts keep straying from Holocaust testimony―this week’s subject, as it happens―to the fate of a close friend. My friend is in the hospital recovering from surgery, but probably not recovering from the cancer that made the surgery necessary. It is not all that strange for me to be thinking of her as I try to concentrate on work.  I’ve just taught one of her essays, an essay on the use of metaphor  in literary texts representing the Holocaust.  You may know the author, but I don’t want to violate her privacy by going any further. The singular identity of this friend matters to me, of course, but that is not my subject. Nor is the essay she wrote, which I have always loved.

UnknownIn his work on friendship (friendship between men) Derrida writes somewhere: one always leaves before the other. (Every once in a while Derrida says something stunningly simple and true.) When I read his text, thinking about friends I’d lost, I realized that I had never confronted that truth.  I expected my parents to die; one does, even in this era of increasing longevity. And if we are coupled, we worry, when we make our wills, about who, in a spousal dyad, will go first. Typically, neither wants to be the survivor. But in the matter of friendship, even if you are old (and I am), we tend not to foresee the loss of a contemporary―give or take ten years. It does not seem part of the contract. We are unprepared in addition to being bereft.

One of the strange features of friendship, I’ve learned, is that a pair of friends, no matter how intimate, rarely forms a single couple. What I mean is that the friend I lose is not only mine to lose. There are others who mourn the loss of relation to her―intimacy, laughter, solace. At a memorial service, you discover just how many people loved your friend. You are not a solitary mourner, you are part of a community―friends of your friend.

When I first observed this phenomenon, I felt a kind of shock seeing my bond diminish, spread across a room, oceans, geography. But now, as I’m becoming more accustomed to the community of loss, I realize that there is a peculiar comfort in sharing our dread, sadness―it sometimes takes the edge off extreme loneliness.

Still, I don’t want to lose “my” friend; her essay can’t fill the place in my heart.