For weeks, my mind was consumed by one thought: I didn't call him. I didn't fucking call him.
I had made a terrible mistake, and I couldn't take it back.
Years later, as I write this, his words still pierce me, as if they were written only moments ago.
He had told me that he had not met anyone as genuine as me. This was one of the most moving compliments I had ever received. Over the course of the following year, we began to lose touch. In his last message to me, he told me that he missed me. I responded halfheartedly, and didn’t take the time to ask him how he was really doing.
A few months later, he was dead. Killed tragically in a car accident. And I would never see my friend again, never hear his voice, or give him one more hug. That was it.
A trembling reality had colluded around me, and a man I had grown close to in the final years of his life had been taken away.
And the chance to connect, to commiserate, was stolen from me.
I fucked up. And I couldn't take that fuck up back. It had receded into the pains of history.
I thought about my friend quite frequently in the months after his death, wondering if he had died in pain, what his last words were, whether his last embrace with his girlfriend had been beautiful. But it was all conjecture. I had no idea what had befallen him in his last days, and this tormented me. Above all, I wondered if he had forgiven me for not reaching out sooner, for not taking the time to connect with him.
The worst part was that I did not know, and I knew that I would never know.
This filled me with a deafening remorse, especially given that he was not the first, nor the second or even the third, friend that I had lost to tragedy at a young age. I had experienced the gamut of loss in my teens and 20s; car accidents, suicides, war. I thought that I had seen it all; indeed, in the years after his death I have lost several more friends to similar tragedies.
I haven’t honored some of my friendships with those that are still with me. In fact, I've often retreated in cowardice. I haven’t always shown up, allowing myself to disappear for the stupidest reasons. I’ve made excuses, hiding behind the spurious curtain of busyness, of not having anything to report, of wallowing in my own ridiculous bullshit. Every time I’ve done so, I’ve deeply regretted it.
The thing is, we usually have no idea how we affect other people; how we touch them. This is particularly true with respect to how we affect other people positively: through our support, our compassion, our understanding. When communication is lost, the friendship drifts, and those opportunities vanish.
This is a tragedy, but we rarely see it that way. We rationalize our behavior through endless excuses, most of which, at least in my case, are bullshit.
While I cannot say that the loss of more than a few friends has made me a better friend, I can say that so many encounters with sudden death has changed how I view the fragility of life. Because life really is fragile. Time is fragile. It withers at a constant pace, our actions having no effect on its inexorable march into eternity.
We are a species of incredible contradictions: amazingly strong and pathetically weak at the same time.
I have found that I can give the best advice inside the fragility and contradictions of my own experience with life, as well as with death.
Relationships are acts of commitment, whether we want them to be or not. We must be there. We must listen. We must offer our support, especially when we don’t feel like it. We have the wonderful gift of choosing our friends in life. This is extraordinary, but it is so easy to waste. I have been guilty of this many times.
We all change and evolve. It is inevitable that some of our friendships will fade, and we will move on. Forced friendships are no longer friendships. Yet those friendships are no less beautiful, for the gift of having one in your life for a season is itself a miracle of epic proportions.
If your relationship with a friend seems to be withering and you don't know where the friendship is going, look at that as an opportunity to learn from your friend. Find excuses to get together; that’s where the magic almost always happens anyway.
Friendships need to be nurtured. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this. Our friends tend to be most important to us in times of horror. We all experience these horrors, but this is where we tend to royally fuck things up: adversity often convinces us to isolate or to avoid interacting with our friends, out of the fear of not receiving the comfort we seek.
That's a travesty, plain and simple. It is in periods of struggle when friendships almost always reach new depths. These are the times when our friendships most vividly matter, because in times of adversity, we're laid bare. We can give, or receive, unconditional love.
There’s nothing more sacred than that, but we often run away from the moments our friendships have cause to be most cherished.
We need to learn to be uncomfortable with each other, to be vulnerable, to allow our walls to recede into the nothingness they truly are anyway. In that place is where we find who are truest friends are.
They are rarely who we assume they are.
Painful times beckon us to trust each other, even when—especially when, we're really fucking scared. Being afraid isn’t easy. Being afraid when we’re alone is terrifying. Though we do this to each other endlessly, and in the process we do this to ourselves.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all need each other. We desperately long for connection, to feel the power inherent in an embrace of compassion.
Every time we recoil in fear, we lose a chance to quite literally be a friend to one who most likely needs us far more than we realize they do.
It’s ridiculous that we're often most insecure with our loved ones. It's so easy to withdraw in fear of their judgment, their lack of understanding. When we do this, we fail to recognize that we’re the ones who are doing the judging. We’re not giving those close to us an opportunity to love us, and that is the cause of unbelievable suffering.
With that said, I know my friend will have forgiven me, for he was strong in heart and filled with grace. I am ever in debt to him for that, and I wish that I had told him. I wish I had told him that he had had a beautiful effect on my life, and that I had taken his friendship for granted. I wish I could have apologized to him, as that is perhaps the greatest loss in all of this.
I have come to terms with the fact that I was not the greatest friend to him in the months before his death, knowing that I will regret this for the rest of my life. Those who say we shouldn't have regrets don't know what the fuck they're talking about. Of course we have regrets. Regrets shape us, they shine a light on our vulnerabilities, they tell a story.
Just because a story doesn't have a happy ending doesn't mean it's not important.
I have reconciled myself to the regrets my friend's death brought about, and I trust that deep down, he knew how much he was loved.
I can only surmise that my friend would want me to reach out to my friends more often, surprise them, and conquer the awkwardness with love. He’d want me to forgive myself for not calling him sooner, and to connect with those I have seemingly lost.
I have by no means done enough. Holy shit have I screwed up. Sometimes we're more afraid of those who love us than those who hate us, because those who love us expose us for who we are. We tend to assume that connecting with those who really care is easy, but sometimes, it just isn't. Being loved can be incredibly painful. We'd do well to remember this the next time we want to hide away from those who need us.
No matter the circumstances, a connection made is a chance to experience wonder. To come to a deeper understanding of those you love, and of yourself.
So pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t spoken to in years. Email the friend you last saw at your cousin’s wedding. Reach out to that former colleague who left your company last year. Just do it, and start by asking them, above all else, how they're really doing. Not what they’re doing or what they’ve accomplished, but how they’re feeling, what’s going on inside of them. How they’ve grown and changed.
Give yourself permission to be vulnerable, and the rewards will astound you. It won’t always go the way you hoped it would. There will often be little commonality left. But that's irrelevant, because we're so quick to treat relationships as utilities to be exploited, rather than pilgrimages of this common, messy, beautiful, and fucked up experience we call life.
Offer yourself in service. Ask how you can help. This offering alone will almost always be enough to break the ice and cultivate truth anew. It will provide opportunity—to serve, to give of yourself freely, without fear. As a result, a long-withered friendship may awaken. And even if it doesn’t, you will have participated in a continuum of creation.
What matters is that you do it. Take the chance, and let what happens happen. It could change your life. When I’ve done this, it has always changed mine.
It’s now been over five years since my friend has died, and his impact remains imprinted on my soul. He was a source of profound encouragement, tender compassion, and unrelenting graciousness.
I do not deserve it, but I am so very grateful.
Thank you, Nathan.
Until we meet again, I love you.
I'm Tim, and The Adversity Within is a blog dedicated to examining the topic of resilience in the face of adversity, while inspiring readers to stand headstrong in their grief and fight for their own evolution. Living with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I explore topics like post-traumatic growth, survival, and self-reliance. No one should face adversity alone. Subscribe to my mailing list below for free weekly writings delivered to your inbox, and follow me along on Facebook and Twitter.