The High and Low of a Lost Friendship

How do you begin writing about a person who was one of your best friends in college, but with whom you'd lost touch over the ensuing decades? My old friend was never much of an electronic communicator; phone calls or nothing for the most part. It's funny how someone you know for only a few years can stay with you in so many ways for thirty-six more, without ever seeing them in person again.

The last time I'd seen Christen Grainger in person was in 1992, after she'd stood me up for a couple previous attempts (she was frustrating when it came to keeping appointments), when we met after work in Waltham. I wanted to show her pictures of my new son, Andrew. Even then, she was deliberately late by over a half hour but this final time I waited her out. When our visit was over, however, I realized she didn't want to see any pictures or, really, hang out, so I stopped trying to stay in touch. Years later, I made a connection again, just to see how she was doing, and we had a great conversation. But at that time things with my first marriage were getting weird and falling apart and I'd found myself withdrawing from people (which was the opposite of what I should have done, but that's another story), so I stepped back. Years later we talked again, and as always it was punctuated with laughter and enjoyable banter and, as always, it ended with false platitudes of making time to get together. We both knew it wasn't going to happen, but we both pretended to mean it.

The last opportunity to see each other came when Linda and I went to the cape for vacation with then-baby Elias and my adult daughter Audrey. For a number of reasons, some valid, some lazy, I never called her. If I had, most likely she would have shown interest but when the time came likely wouldn't have shown. Maybe she would have. Who knows?

If we had seen her, I would have discovered that some issues she'd mentioned in our previous conversation were more than just a pair of bad knees, that she was struggling with Lupus which had been breaking her down little by little. In the end, a few weeks ago, she died of natural causes. As "natural" one could call the death of a once-healthy woman in her fifties.

A woman with whom I'd hang out all the time at school, and laugh with constantly. We once went to IHOP in Waltham (Bentley College, cum University, is our alma mater) and were eventually asked to leave because our banter and laughter was too disruptive to everyone around us.

If our friendship was so great, why is this tribute so negative-sounding? It's probably why I have been putting off writing it for weeks. Why this morning, sitting down with a "tribute" in mind, I spent a half hour finally accepting all those Facebook friend requests I'd ignored for over a year.

Unfinished business. We had a friendship that, I need to admit now, ended with a thirty-year whimper. She was brilliant, funny and a joy to be around, but also a very troubled person, flighty and defensive and always seeming to be running away from whatever the hell happened in her family growing up.

She wore many masks, but behind them was an extremely beautiful women. I think she knew this and because of that wore too much makeup – Tammy Faye Bakker amounts (look it up) – whenever she was out in public. She also wore jeans so tight I would half-jokingly worry might cause medical issues someday. 

Christen spoke of her mother often, sometimes in a long diatribe but mostly in small bursts of frustration. Deceased now, her mother, I suspect, was severely bipolar (the term hadn't come into common use back in the early 80's however) and who, I assume again because Christen only let out small details at a time, made life a living hell for the rest of the family, including her father who seemed to be the calm, loving oasis of her life. Him, and her younger sister (but I don't think Christen realized this until much later in life). A lot of bad shit happened at home, in other words, so she escaped often. My friend was naturally smart with a photographic memory, graduated high school a year early, and was someone who took her studies seriously but who also went out almost every night clubbing, living as fast under the lights as she was studious in the classroom.

Always happy and smiling. On the outside at least.

Maybe a lot of that was as much a mask as the makeup. None of this diminishes the joy she spread, the smiles on those blessed to spend even a small amount of time with her.

Did I occasionally in those four years at school wonder if she and I could have dated? Most everyone else assumed we were, even now. Sure, the thought crossed my mind because at that age being so close to someone of the opposite sex, both physically and emotionally, even feeling love for them, implied that a physical relationship should be the next logical step. Maybe. Sometimes. Not in this case. Even living under my naive view of the world back then, I understood one important constant in our friendship: if we ever tried, it would destroy a great friendship. She was not a one-man woman, much as she tried a few times. She couldn't settle down when she was so busy running away from all the things chasing her. I knew this, observed it more than once, and understood there was a line that I could not cross if given the chance because if I did, I 'd end up in an emotional ditch. I'd had plenty of that with other short-lived relationships in school (and beyond), I didn't need to invite any more.

Besides, my friendships at school with Christen and others were anchors, islands of sanity in a stressful time. I still have nightmares of those years spawned by my inability to study or organize myself. How I graduated with a semi-decent GPA is beyond me. One thing that helped was surrounding myself with people who took school seriously and who inspired me to try my best.

After all, I was running away from stuff in my past, too. Maybe not as serious as hers, but it helped me see that one can do so despite one's past, while still keeping an eye on succeeding in life.

I honestly don't know a lot of details about her life after 1992. In fact, by the time mutual friend Peter Drakos contacted me about her death, everything about her had become, I thought, mostly a fond memory. It wasn't until they posted her obituary and I saw the photograph taken senior year did a lot of stuff come back to me.

Then I felt a loss, but honestly - and I'm trying to be as honest as possible with all of this, because I think it needs to be said, not the lies I tell myself over the years to cling to whatever illusions we sprinkle memories – the loss wasn't that she was gone. I didn't know the Chris Grainger who'd been living these past thirty-five years. Talking to others during the funeral, I understood my connection to her was long past and faded. Even with failing health it was good to hear she was still the funny, eccentric gypsy of a woman I'd known from our youth, though.

I'm not even sad that I'll never get to see her again in this life. I never really expected to see her that often, or ever again, anyway.

That, I finally understand, is my sense of loss: that I'd been living with the illusion I had a friend living on the Cape whom I simply never saw because of conflicts and lifestyles. The truth is, I've never had a friend living on the Cape.

The Christen Grainger of these past thirty-six years was not my friend, at least not in any way a normal person might consider. No matter how I try to turn it over, there is still no question we were very good friends in school. I'll never let that go, would be ill-pressed from any angle to consider otherwise. That, of course, might just be more self-deceit but I don't think so. Thoughts, however, are running through my head even now, reminding me of signs that should have been obvious even back then, painful as they might be, that as our senior year came to an end, so loomed the end of our friendship in whatever fun, goofy form it took. I simply didn't want to admit it, then nor over the past three and a half decades since.

We carried the friendship sporadically for a few years afterwards, but something tells me she never really intended us to be friends beyond school. I loved her, and I honestly feel she loved me in those days. Both of us, as friends. After walking the stage to get our diplomas, she didn't intend it to continue. Maybe it was just me. A few others continued their close relationship with her through the years. Not many, but a few.

After I met my first wife and we married, calls stopped being returned, the patterns of making and breaking lunch dates or what-have-you's began, until that day when I actually had to trick her into meeting me in 1992 to show her Andrew's baby pictures, which she could have cared less about seeing.

I'll toss this important caveat in now because as much as I say all this about (or to) her, I've done this same thing to people who thought I was their friend over the years. I can think of a few names right now – Scott F, Doug D, Kathy G and even my oldest and best friend Kevin for a span of time. I'm not unique in this, then, from either end of the pointy stick of broken friendships.

Writing this has been hard, but cathartic, and for the first time in my life, when it comes to this particular story, it feels most like truth. As such, it doesn't hurt as much as I expected when the words first began to come. False platitudes and make-believe realities might make for emotional, Chicken Soup remembrances, but they aren't always real and so don't belong in life. I've had enough of them.

Even so.

For four years I had a wonderful friendship with a funny, troubled, silly, brilliant woman who brought me out of my shell and showed me in so many ways how to grab life for all it's worth and live, even if some of that living was, in fact, running away from things.

I hope through the ensuing decades, she learned to turn around and face her pain, not dwell on it. And though I regret not pushing harder to stay friends with this amazing person over the years, I understood then, and now, that the life I'd built around myself was never compatible with hers. Her castle was on a cliffside, dangling precariously over troubled waters and she would lean out of the parapets shouting in rage and joy. I was trying to pickup the kids from daycare without incurring late fees, buy a home, pick up dog poop and for an hour each day write my stories and novels.

Christen Grainger and Dan Keohane had turned onto different roads at a fork in their lives, and we both, I think, were better for it.

Often I have thought of my friend since graduation and how much we laughed through four years of school. I've smiled at each memory, fuzzy as each has gotten over time. There apparently has also been some long-suppressed hurt and bitterness over this broken friendship, but I hope all of that has been expelled with this writing.

Because she was an amazing human being and for a short time, a wonderful friend, too. For that, I'll always be grateful.


Anonymous said…
As a former friend of Christen Grainger who only recently became aware of her death.I just came across you tribute and must commend you highly for it, My relationship with Christen dates back to the late eighties when I was an Irish immigrant in Boston and we went out together for a number of years.
I was forced to leave the US in 1991 to return to Ireland and our relationship slowly faded.
Like yourself I had sporadic co ntact with Christen these past 30 years. Maybe it was false emotions and nostalgia brought on by our separation but I never forgot her and was always curious as to her well being. I was therefore terribly shocked when I learned of her passing and the its circumstances
She entirely hid her illness from me so I was quite shocked to hear about her final years, I try to say maybe I could have helped her, the odd telephone call or visit but was convinced she was living a normal life with a new man and being 3000 miles away leave her alone. Unfortunately I think I was entirely wrong and it hurts me deeply
She was indeed a wonderful but troubled person, inspite of asking many times she did not reveal much about her family or years growing up, thanks for shedding some light on this. It is tragic that a beautiful intelligent attractive lady would die in her 50's alone.
You writing has helped put our relationship in perspective, when I left for Ireland, this was the end of us, she had no problem with replacing me but nothing lasted, illness set in, could not work, very little support from a dysfunctional family, all downhill it seems. Although I believe she remained positive, never complained and bore her disease with courage.
I just wish I could have had one final chat with her, tell her that she was my first love and that I will never forget our times together.
Thank you for the tribute and helping me coming to terms with my grief.
Best regards
Bill Foley

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