“I’ve fallen into a pit of despair,” she said with a little smile. We had been sitting in a comfortable silence, me in the big green velvet chair and she on the sofa across from me. She picked at a piece of lint on the fuzzy white blanket that I pretend keeps the cat hair off my sofa.
I waited. She’s my best friend and I’ve known her for four years and I know that smile means nothing. I know too that if I keep silent, she will tell me what she wants me to know.
She looked over at Nellie, who was entertaining herself with a Q-tip. “Last Saturday, I taught all day at the Japanese Garden. It was beautiful weather and we had a good day. The students were engaged. I was on. There was some excellent writing, and some lousy writing too. But most of them remarked about what a lovely day they had had and how they were inspired to go home and write. Some of them signed up for my creatives email list, a sure sign of success.”
She paused a long moment. “I should have been overjoyed but I wasn’t. Any feeling of satisfaction, of a job well done, had evaporated by the time I got to the car.”
She met my eyes. “I mean, what difference does it make? All those people, those men and women, young and old, they’re all going to die. I’m going to die. Who cares if they write anything? In 60 or 70 years, after the deaths of my nephews, no one will remember me and even they won’t think of me much. Much as they love me now, their lives will go on and they won’t think of me that often. My mother died eight years ago and I seldom think of her, and for several decades she was the most important person, the most important relationship in my life. Even when I see her photo on the table there,” she pointed at the cherrywood altar near the door and the picture of the smiling young woman with dark hair that sat next to the vase of zinnias, “I don’t really think about her.”
She reached down to pet Nellie, who jumped into her lap. I could hear the little tuxedo cat with her squeaky purr all the way across the room.
“You make a world of difference to me,” I said, my eyes filling with tears. “You make my life so much richer. I, I don’t know what I would do without you in my life.” I counted on her for strength and I didn’t want to see her diminished in this way in her own eyes.
She nodded but her expression didn’t change. “Thank you. I know that.” Then she shook her head.” “I don’t say these things so you can reassure me though I love you too and I feel the same way about you and about other people in my life. But that doesn’t help me feel that anything I do makes any difference, is worth anything in the grand scheme of things.” She shifted in her seat and Nellie jumped down and stretched out full-length on the carpet.
“Yesterday I read that the polar ice caps are melting. An area the size of Texas was lost this summer alone. The water is warm and rising and big storms are drowning people and animals are starving and TV wants to sell us SUVs that pollute the air and guzzle what fuel we have left or to consume buckets of deep-fried chicken wings or double cheeseburgers. Everything is so far out of balance and me, I want to cling to the comfort of my spacious, nicely heated apartment and my down comforter and my big full fruit bowl and feel impotent and resigned. And even my Buddhist beliefs feel like crap: observe your feelings, remain open and curious!” Her voice dripped suddenly with cynicism and sarcasm.
“The other night I watched a PBS special on the Sixties. I hadn’t seen it before but it brought back so many memories. Those images still so fresh somewhere in my brain. And I felt a great nostalgia for all we believed in, for all we hoped for. I wonder if every generation feels this sense of loss and futility as they age.” She looked out the window at the rain. The last of a series of pretty hanging baskets was swinging in the wind, many of its little red and blue and white trumpet flowers wilted by the pelting drops.
She looked back at me. “Do you ever worry about this stuff?”
I felt caught. I wanted to commiserate with her. I did. I suspected her sensitivity, which was paining her deeply, might be reaching out, hoping to connect with something in me, something that understood and still glimmered, however faintly, with hope. But the truth was I didn’t worry about these things. I worried about my 16-year-old son and the diet pills and bong I had found in his room. I worried about whether I had energy and strength enough to finish my dissertation, schooling that had just run out of funding. And I needed to extricate myself from my lover, whose lack of consciousness and inability to communicate on just this level was a major frustration. But I didn’t want to say that I didn’t have time for existential angst. It just seemed too cruel to say. At the same time, I knew I had to tell the truth.
“No,” I said. “I don’t. I can’t remember the last time I thought about the bigger picture.”
Then she gave a little laugh and said, “Well, if I don’t stop eating so much, the real bigger picture is going to be mine.”
And I laughed too and she said that it maybe it was the change in season or some biochemical glitch and she’d soon be fine. And the conversation shifted to my son and his latest drug test and my lover and our last conversation and then she was asking where I wanted to go for lunch.
As I was driving home in the cloud-laden dusk, negotiating the go-home traffic of the Friday afternoon, I realized that she hadn’t spend much time at her computer although she had said she was going to work on her book. And at one point she had disappeared into her bedroom for over an hour. Again, I didn’t think at first about the bigger picture—assuming she had work to do or took a nap.
And then I felt a moment of alarm, a moment of wondering if I had failed her in some way. The nurse in me wanted to fix her, give her something that would bring back her hope and her purpose and her enthusiasm, but I know that while others can encourage us, we have to find that for ourselves. And I admit I had been so relieved when she laughed at herself and was willing to change the subject, that I had let it all go.
The truth is I don’t know what to do in the face of that kind of sensitivity. It leads her to worrying about her body, about her mind, about the world, in ways that I don’t’ see as helpful.
We both have gotten out from under powerful burdens: she from her alcoholism and me from my abusive marriage. I see no reason to take up other burdens, the burdens of the greater world. Life is tough enough. It isn’t that I’m callous or hard-hearted. Maybe it’s my training as an ER nurse. You do want you can and you let the rest go.
And maybe some of it is generational. I don’t often think of the fact that she’s 12 years older than I, 58 to my 46. Maybe something did happen for those children of the Sixties that didn’t happen for those of us growing up a decade later. I always thought it was the Seventh Day Adventist part of my upbringing that kept me out of that loop, but maybe it was the times, maybe some magical moment had passed and so I never knew it. And because I never knew it, I can’t mourn it.
Is there a way to really understand someone else’s demons? She tells of her own battles with such a clarity and often a matter-of-factness that I admire. I look to her to model that clarity and matter-of-factness and, yes, a certain patience and optimism. I get to have the drama. She gets to have the enlightenment. It’s how we’ve set up this relationship. At the same time, she keeps a lot to herself; she’s an introvert, a solitary. I blurt it all out. So I want to be there when she speaks of the deeper things, the painful things.
When I get home, I call her. “How’s the pit of despair?” I ask. “Have you furnished it yet?”
She laughs and I know that this time she is okay.