Inventing a Life
Yesterday I went to visit an old friend who is 87 now and mostly stays close to home. She moves about with a cane and is in pain a lot of the time but her mind is as sharp as ever and her memory is filled with the most remarkable things. I visit her every few weeks or so not out of duty but out of a real enjoyment of her company and a delight in her sense of humor and knowledge of the world.
It strikes me that she has spent quite a bit of time revising her past: changing dates and reasons why certain things happened, revising her opinion of certain people and generally, as a chess player does, has moved and rearranged her life pieces so as to make her own life seem more palatable to her. Each time we visit together I am struck by the changes she has made in her history. Sometimes they involve changing dates things happen and sometimes they involve reasons why she did certain things.
I have known her for a very long time, however, so I know what has been altered to fit the new picture of her life. I admire her for doing this reshuffling as it has made her life more palatable to her. Though she is angry still at certain things that happened, she is less angry at herself which was the most difficult thing for her to deal with. At the end of her life she is still the feisty, proud, intelligent woman she was when we first met: unwilling to compromise about life or her position in it. She is also one of the bravest women I have ever known.
Once, when we first met, we were traveling somewhere in a car driven by her cantankerous husband whom everyone feared, including me, as he had a terrible temper. The husband, who had drunk a few glasses of wine, missed his exit on 101 and suddenly swerved across three lanes of traffic with a total disregard for other cars and speeding along at 84 miles per hour. From the back seat where my friend and I sat, I let out an enormous scream as I was terrified of dying in the moment. The husband pulled over to the side of the road and turned around in his seat to ask in a scary voice, “Who said that?”
My friend said without missing a beat, “I did!”
I learned more from that moment that a lifetime of other lessons. She jumped in to protect me from this mean man and didn’t care at all what he thought or what he would do next. She wanted to protect me and did it without even an instant’s thought. I was too young to really get the enormity of the moment but as years have passed I see that this small story exemplifies most of her acts in life. She does the right thing. She did the right thing many times and in many situations requiring great courage which I will not go into here as they are so private.
When I got home last night I felt very sad and still do. I wish I could wave a magic wand and change her life to one where she didn’t have to suffer so much loss. I wish I could have known what I know now many years before this so I could have been a better friend to her. I wish I could somehow explain to her that I understood her suffering and applauded her for her bravery but in the long run, it wouldn’t matter to her. She wants neither accolades nor any pity: what she wants is respect and for people to admire her life. Admitting there were frailties or failures in it would not be something she wants the world to know about.
I am grateful for her friendship and for the example she has set for me in life. So often we think that we need to go deep into our life experiences in order to be healed and function more happily. We spend hours in therapy trying to relieve our pain and reach an understanding of our fears. What I have learned from my friend is that this path does not work for everyone. Some prefer to carefully reconstruct their history and alter a few dates and eventually sit with their version of life as that is the only version they can live with. Sometimes the pain of what life brings is too harsh to bear in reality so embellishing a life when your life is almost over serves a purpose which is now understood and respected by me.