Things left unsaid


“If friendship is firmly established between two hearts, they do not need to exchange news.” My book of quotations attributes this to Sa’ib of Tabriz.

This is not what I planned to write about for this column. I wasn’t sure what I did intend to write about, but I know it wasn’t this.

A friend of mine passed away suddenly and quite unexpectedly over this New Year’s weekend. A friend whose family I have known literally my entire life. A friend with a tremendous heart, as my brother described it this morning. A friend I loved as a sort of adopted little brother.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone today, talking with other friends, all of us reeling and left in shock. All of us filled with grief and varying degrees of regret over phone calls not made and visits missed.

This has become all too familiar as I’ve gotten older, as funerals and distressed phone calls become more and more common. Every time, amid the tears and laughter over shared memories, there is always the regret. And then come the promises, promises to call more often, not to make the same mistakes again. But, invariably, life interrupts our well-laid plans and good intentions. And another year goes by without us living up to our promises. Until the next gut-wrenching loss.

So why do we make those promises? And if we’re so filled with regret over those missed visits and phone calls, why do we fail to make them yet again?

The easy answer is that we always expect to have more time. But we all know this isn’t the case. We all know that we’re inevitably headed the same direction and that our time is finite. I would argue it’s this very fact that makes life so precious and beautiful; if our time were unlimited it most certainly wouldn’t mean as much.

I am most definitely no expert on such matters. I’m no sage or wise cleric. I have no real answers.

But in searching through my heavy heart today, I’ve had a thought.

What if we fail to make those phone calls and those visits filled with small talk because, in reality, somewhere in our psyche, we don’t want these relationships and friendships to include mundane conversations and the everyday stuff? Maybe certain connections aren’t cut out for that.

I have some amazing friends and friendships that have lasted for decades. We seldom talk and even more seldom see one another. That doesn’t mean I love them any less. I don’t need to see them to carry them with me everywhere. They’re part of my identity and the fabric of my very life. Our friendship is firmly established, and we do not need to exchange news.

Friendships are easy when we’re young. There may be some drama; what youthful friendship isn’t filled with some drama and broken hearts along the way? But they’re pure and true. Sometimes we develop those almost magical relationships with people, those special connections when people are inseparable. Other times friendships are part of a group dynamic where it seems it takes several people to make a unique “whole.”

Friendships of any type, in my experience, are harder to maintain when we’re older, when spouses and family become involved. We often say that happiness is being married to your best friend, and many of us are actually lucky enough to know what that means. But what then happens to our other friendships and those bonds forged before marriage vows and children forever alter our lives?

Maybe those friendships are better this way. Maybe some relationships aren’t meant to be an everyday friendship. Maybe some are brief flickers of intensity in time, when the stars collide and your time spent with that person is such that it cannot be maintained indefinitely. Maybe some relationships require the air in those spaces of absence.

Whenever I do see these friends we’re able to laugh and enjoy one another’s presence in a way that I don’t think would be the same if we saw one another more regularly. 

I think what we often actually regret then isn’t the lack of phone calls or visits, but is instead the failure to tell people exactly what they mean to us when we have the opportunity, our failure to say the words. We regret everything that wasn’t spoken.

Different people mean different things to each of us. For me, my friend meant an enthusiasm and spirit for fun that was without match, a person who never had an unkind word for anyone, a person who often seemed larger than life, someone I was genuinely happy to see no matter how much time had passed since our last meeting — which was often quite a lot. I wish I would have told him so.

There are others this weekend whose grief is infinitely more than mine, whose grief is beyond measure, who will have to grapple with his absence daily. To anyone reading this with an urge to share your sympathy, please reserve it for these people.

I myself will think of him whenever I hear certain songs or see certain movies, or when any number of silly little things cross my mind, and I know with certainty I won’t be the only one. Our lives will be both darker due to his absence yet immeasurably brighter for him having been in them at all.

I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions. They’re usually just another example of broken commitments, made with the best of intentions. This year, however, the coincidence of my friend’s passing occurring at the same time as the New Year, has led me to this: My resolution is to remember to seize the opportunities I do have to say the things that matter, to the people who are always in my heart and are a huge part of what’s best in life, to make sure the next time I’m left emotionally reeling, I don’t have to regret those things left unsaid.

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