Thursday, November 10, 2011


A dear friend of my husband and mine died suddenly of a heart attack at age 68. One minute he was dancing the funky chicken at a niece's wedding; the next, he was on the floor, moaning in pain. Henry (not his real name) had been my husband's college roommate and a dear friend ever since. They shared a love of making art, of travel adventures, and a bond of unshakeable friendship. Unshakeable, that is, until two years before Henry's death when, upset about something to do with his terminally ill brother, he severed all communication. Several attempts at reconnecting - letters, a birthday card, emails - failed. Henry had made up his mind. He wanted nothing to do with my husband or me.

For months Henry haunted us. We searched our memories for what might have sent him over the edge. But it was all a series of guesses; we didn't have a clue. We'd been declared dead and gone without any cause of death. In some ways, the not knowing catapulted me back to the suicide death of my brother. Sure, there were some plausible reasons - at least, in my brother's mind - to take his life: his fragile psyche, the reality of life without hard drugs, a complete lack of direction. But my family and I would never know for sure. And the not knowing, as much as his death, plagued me for years. Only when I'd pursued every lead and come to a dead end every time - when I'd talked to young people who had attempted suicide and lived, to family members and friends of those who weren't so lucky, to experts of every stripe - did I finally accept the not knowing, absolve myself of guilt, move beyond the anger, and the palpable pain.

Henry's wife, (I'll call her Sarah) also a dear friend for over 45 years, is a therapist. She's also an Orthodox Jew whose parents disowned her when she announced that she and Henry, then a lapsed Catholic, were getting married. As far as her parents were concerned, their daughter was dead and buried. The hurt was too much to bear. Sarah had a nervous breakdown. Only when Henry promised to convert to Orthodox Judaism did the parents welcome their back-from-the-dead daughter into their lives again.

Given that history, one would think that Sarah would remember the pain of being banished and would do all in her power to convince Henry that he needed to at least communicate with us and tell his side of the story. That never happened. So, when the phone rang early on a Sunday morning with Henry's sister on the other end telling us that he had died, I burst into tears for him, for his wife, and for us - the dear friend who would now never be able to restore the friendship.

"You're the first people we've called," his sister said.

"But . . we haven't spoken to Henry in two years."

"That doesn't matter. We want you here at the memorial service this afternoon." I hesitated. Did this mean that Sarah had agreed? Or was Henry's sister acting on her own?

"We'll be there."

We arrived at the funeral home later that day and waited for Sarah. She darted into the private room for family only, talking on the phone I was told to her son back in Phoenix who was saddled with making all of the funeral and burial arrangements. When I saw her come out of the room and head toward the women's restroom, I followed her.

"I'm so sorry," I said, wrapping my arms around her. She stiffened.

"How are you doing?"

"What do you expect?"

I began to feel very uncomfortable. "Is there anything we can do?" I offered.

Sarah stared at me, her eyes not filled with tears but with rage. "It's too late."

She turned and walked away.

I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to grab my husband and leave. I hadn't come for abuse but for some kind of a start toward reconciliation or at least some understanding as to what had gone so wrong between us. That was not to be. Sarah, even in her grief, refused to reach out to me for support. She'd made a conscious decision not to open the door, even a tiny bit.

And I made the decision to remember the good times we had shared and to move on.

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