The death of a friendship is quite different from the death of a friend.  The death of a friend is permanent, and not in your control.  The death of a friendship is also permanent, but voluntary.  Both require a certain time for mourning.

Why did we lose what had bonded us?  If this instead of that, could it have been prevented?  Was I the one who changed?  Or, was she the one who changed?  Why hadn’t I seen a hint that she was carrying grudges for the 20 years since we had last seen each other?  What could we have done?  What should we have done?  Was there anything that could have saved our friendship?

And now that we are no longer friends, will never see one another again, will never talk with one another again, what to do with the memories?  Enshrine them?  Discard them?  Try to forget them? Gnaw on them to figure out what happened and who was to blame? Keep the good things and throw the rest away?  Put them in a “once upon a time” space?

I had hoped to gain a greater, wiser perspective in the weeks that have followed our much awaited one-week visit. But I understand it all no better than I did before.  I have accepted the sad ending without figuring out the whys.

 

When I was a teacher in China, I sometimes corrected my students’ papers with a red pen. One of them finally told me that, in Chinese culture, when you receive a note or letter from a friend in China written in red ink, it means that the person wants to break off the relationship.
That method of ending friendships seems somehow kinder than friendships that get bumpy, but you can’t quite figure out why. Over the years, I can remember a couple of Chinese friends whose behavior toward me changed. Being very American about solving problems head-on, I wanted to confront the issue and straighten it out. While confronting a problem directly can work out well between westerners, I never found it effective with Chinese people. I tried to get them to tell me why they had changed toward me so I could apologize if I had offended them unintentionally. But I never got anywhere with that approach and regretfully just let the relationships go without understanding why.
I had a co-worker once that I tried to be friendly with. She rebuffed me and finally said, “You want to be my friend, but you can’t be my friend.” She wouldn’t explain why, but her message was clear and final.
After a 22 year relationship, there was definite finality in a Dear John letter I received from a once-boyfriend who had become a long-time close friend. He calmly explained in his letter that he no longer wanted any contact. That was at least forthright, honest, and clear.
I have recently had the feeling that a long-time friend no longer wants to be friends. She didn’t say so directly, which makes it harder to figure out. We don’t see one another a lot, but our relationship has spanned 20 years with letters and then e-mail to keep track of one another. The last time I visited her, I felt uncomfortable, as though I was displeasing her with my presence. I don’t know why. Was it something I said, or didn’t say? Was it something I did, or should have done? Was I imagining it? She’s not American, but she’s not Chinese either. I’m unsure whether to ask her outright what’s wrong and try to repair it, or just let her slip away from my life.
Ambiguity is harder to live with than a simple letter written in red ink.

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