My daughter hops into the car after school bubbling over with the day’s news. In our short drive home, she gives me the social update for her classroom. Graham pushed Billy on the playground. Sam passed Katie a note during math. Sarah and Emma aren’t speaking to each other because Emma said Lucy is her new best friend. I listen, and we talk about friendship. “I don’t have a single best friend,” I tell her. I list the friends she knows who are close to my heart. Each one contributes something unique to my life. I encourage my daughter to befriend many of the children of her class. “I could never pick just one,” I tell her. “I love them all.” I’m telling her the truth, I guess. Our lives are richest when we enjoy a constellation of relationships. But I also feel disingenuous. I did have a single best friend. He’s just dead now.
I met Rob back in 2001, about a year out from a big heartbreak. I was hesitant to give my heart away again only to have it broken. So, from the beginning, I insisted on only calling Rob my “friend.” I was done with visions of rom com chick flick romance. If I was going to try this love thing again, I wanted to hedge my bets. Friends could fade in and out of your life easier than loves. If things didn’t work out with Rob, I’d have lost little if I convinced myself he’d only been my friend.
Rob laughed when I told him my line of reasoning, but he was willing to play along. My guardedness didn’t bother him; I think he could see through it pretty easily. Rob and I were good friends from the very beginning. Friends who discussed books and loved the same music. Friends who took hikes and went on adventures. Eventually, friends who talked about a future together. Of all my friends, I loved Rob the best. Enough to say yes when he proposed. Even after we got engaged, I introduced him as “my best friend, Rob.” Rob entered my life as a friend; and for 17 years, no friendship could compare to the treasure of the one we had together.
When I met Rob, I believed that friendship was the way to keep my heart from being broken. But through our years together, I learned that true friendship was just as vulnerable as love. It was its own form of love and the core, the very essence of a beautiful marriage. Rob and I had a lot in common organically. We both loved reading and words. We shared the same hobbies and interests. We all have friends like that. Friends of coincidence, in the right place at the right time sharing the right things. But more than that, Rob and I were best friends because we intentionally knit our hearts together. We took our family backgrounds, personal preferences, and beliefs and created our own unique set of core values that would mark our relationship. We worked together, played together, raised a family together. Our friendship was by no means perfect, but through the years it was something we prized and invested in together.
If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, there have to be a hundred ways your lover can leave you. I’ve lost Rob as co-parent, financial manager, handyman, protector, lover — myriad ways he’s gone now. It’s a steep learning curve to pick up the slack, fill in for him in areas where I can. But despite what self-help gurus may tell you, you can’t be your own best friend. Friendship requires two. And I’m just one now. I’ve lost my best friend. The ache is unmatched; it is a unique sorrow.
When Rob first died, I wrote to him every day. I had so much to tell him. So much he was missing. After a while though, writing felt strange. Rob and I hadn’t written to each other since the autumn we lived 1,000 miles apart when we were dating. And I knew he wasn’t going to write me back. I tried texting his phone, but that didn’t make sense either. How do you go from talking every day to your best friend to never speaking to him again? It’s a hard transition for the heart and habits to make. As time passed, I stopped writing and texting. Instead now, I talk to Rob. Out loud. It feels so natural, even if he can’t talk back. After all, it’s what we did for 18 years.
“He is one of the best players in the league,” I tell the empty space on the sofa after reading the coach’s email requesting that our son play on the town’s Williamsport-bound team this coming summer. “His shoulders are getting broader,” I inform Rob as I straighten my son’s shirt before his presentation. “I wish you were here with me,” I cry to him through tears as I pull the trash cans to the curb in the freezing weather. “I don’t want to do this alone,” I whisper as I hold my daughter through a night terror. “I love you,” I choke out after the beep, my voice faltering from hearing his voice so fresh, so alive, so in-the-next-room on his voicemail recording.
I confess, this one-sided conversation isn’t always fulfilling. Sometimes it just heightens the reality of Rob’s absence. I don’t expect that he can actually hear me. There’s no indication that he does. I’m reminded of the cliches I’ve heard about prayer — that it’s less about the Divine hearing and more about you processing. I don’t like to think prayer works like that, but I’m not sure I can expect much more of my conversations with Rob. I’m not sure how else to talk to a friend who isn’t with you any more. I wonder if Jesus’ disciples had the same problem after He ascended and disappeared from their sight. There is no crowded room I enter that I do not look for Rob’s face or listen for his voice. I sit in church and expect to feel his arm around me. I look at the empty seat beside me in the car and long to see him there. I want my best friend back. I want to talk to him again. I have seven months of life to share with him. He has missed so much. I need to catch him up. And like all best friends, however long apart, I know that if I could just have an hour with Rob it would be like no time had passed.
When I talk to Rob, he doesn’t talk back to me in the way you might expect. I’ve never actually heard his voice out loud. But I have found that my conversations with my best friend don’t always feel one-sided. Like the best friend he always was, Rob often still finishes my sentences. “I don’t know what to do … ,” I complain to him. “… About the house? Give yourself a break, Clarissa.” I hear him say — for the millionth time, “You sometimes make things harder than they need to be.” I whisper, “I miss you,” as I shut off the light and settle into my now-too-big bed. And I hear him reply, “I miss you too, honey,” like he did on the phone each night while traveling.
Even in loss, almost 20 years of conversation, of best friendship, don’t just disappear. I can still hear Rob’s voice, his laugh. It’s not the way I really want, granted. But it’s him all the same. All those hours of late night conversations, of hashing-things-out discussions in the car on road trips — they’re all still here. The person is gone, but the words remain. C. S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, “The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.” My marriage with Rob was the most real friendship I’ve ever had. I miss his camaraderie every day.