I had to say goodbye to a friend… no, he didn’t die.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
He didn’t stay dead, and he did die. Briefly.
I could no longer watch him actively discard his life and dreams… I could no longer sit idly by and pretend I didn’t care about the cycle of abuse and addiction to which he was repeatedly finding ways to engage. This is the story of our last meeting.
The harsh backlighting of the afternoon sun silhouetted the figure approaching the table where I sat, using a straw to mix the ice cubes in my glass of water, as if they needed steeping time. Even in the shadowed state, I recognized him: his stride, rife with the swagger and confidence; the lines of his body, recognizable and distinct. He glided as if each moment was to be conquered, unseen obstacles with yet to be discovered solutions. But when he got closer, a discordance revealed itself. His cheeks were sunken, but masked by many weeks’ worth of beard growth. His trousers were baggier than I remembered his liking, leaving behind poorly draped fabric. Alarming as those features were, his eyes were the real tellers of the truth, orbs to the soul that no longer captured joy and passion. Hollow. Empty. You could walk miles into the optical caverns without finding the man for whom you were searching. He was shifty, unfocused, resigned.
Bring back the silhouette! I remember thinking. Bring back the silhouette! I want to see the semblance of him, not… this! I’m not ready to face this!
But I didn’t have a choice. I was there and it was time, so I stood to greet him. To my surprise, we embraced. I held him briefly while he went through the motions, allowing me to wrap my arms around his compromised stature before I returned to my seat. We sat in such a way that occasionally our knees would brush, and the once-usual magnetism that drew us together had morphed into opposing poles of strong magnets. There was small talk, pleasantries even, and when I could no longer withstand the banality of chit-chat, I launched and confronted the beast directly.
“Hey, so. I’m worried about you, and…”
But just as soon as I began, he interrupted only to mention that this was the exact conversation he was hoping to avoid. I brought up the events of the week, the reasons I had flown into town with a mere 24-hour notice. After all, that’s what one does under the circumstances: a best friend’s death (even though he was revived), a cry for help, a blatant request for assistance, a hospitalization. I guess I should have listened when, post-mortem, he told me from his hospital bed that I shouldn’t bother traveling to see him at all, that I was not welcome, but he told me that it didn’t matter what he thought because he knew I was “going to do what I want no matter what. So whatevs.” These are not the words of the best friend who was previously excited for our weekend rendezvous under far different circumstances in a far different location. Quite the opposite. These were the utterances of a stranger, of a child attempting to avoid homework or the dentist.
He made reassurances, excuses, and light of the fact that he was in his twenties and was in cardiac arrest from an overdose only four days prior. Unfazed and apparently unaware of his actions, he nibbled on some food before filling up on enough of the conversation. “That’s enough,” he said. But I wasn’t finished, not with my cup of soup that I was merely spooning at, not ingesting. I just wasn’t hungry… And I also wasn’t finished with the conversation, with the monologue.
“This is it. I am done trying to understand and I am done thinking that I can help you. Please, get the help you need. I can’t do this anymore. I won’t do this anymore.”
He glared right through me– he knew I wasn’t bluffing. I didn’t realize that my visit would culminate in the ultimatum. After a moment’s pause, he said in his icy tone that was friendly-adjacent, “Good to see you. Goodbye.”
He stood up, hesitated only to ensure that he had his phone, and then walked away. He didn’t look back. He didn’t reconsider. He just… walked away.
I remained, having moved on from the soup to tearing my napkin into tiny pieces, feeling the hollowed out space that he used to occupy– not just across the table from me, but it heart. It was like there was an energy that remained. Up until that moment I was steeling myself for battle, a battle that I was prepared to win. I was so certain I would be victorious, that my friend and I would take on the demon, seeing it for what it was and then emerge victorious. But I was wrong. He didn’t see it. He didn’t see anything. Staring into space, it was as if an ocean of warm salt water had been held in by a levy behind my eyes and finally, the pressure was too much.
He walked away, embracing the new inhabitant of his body. I wanted to believe it was only temporary, but that was even too painful. The idea that he could come back is appealing, of course. And selfish. There are no guarantees in life– and when you are dealing with someone whose mannerisms and attitude lack humanity, any guarantee quickly diminishes to nothing more than a grain of sand that has lost its beach.
I lost him.
There’s a difference between loving and caring about someone, and showing up for someone every time they struggle or reach out after they’ve demonstrated that they are unwilling to make changes in their life. You see, that wasn’t the first time I tried to “save” Edward. In all my attempts, I reinforced the idea that I would enable his behavior, that I would, literally, send out a team to collect him when he was high, paranoid, and feeling unsafe. I let him believe that I would do ANYTHING to save him. And so, he continued to reach out and tug on my heartstrings.
I flew in from across the country that day to have a face-to-face meeting with him after his untimely death and subsequent resurrection, because I couldn’t stop caring. And I cut him off that day because I cared so much– I loved him so deeply, and it was time to show him that my love wasn’t to be taken for granted. I could no longer lend money and send out search parties or buy him groceries… I could no longer save him from himself.
I was so naive. I believed that I could actually save someone, that I had a special gift. But, I learned a lot in that meeting– I learned that people only get help when they want it. I learned, or was reminded, that I am not special and that I don’t have super powers. I learned that the only person we can truly save is ourself.
That day, in letting him go, I saved me.