A year ago today, my grandmother passed away. It also happened to be the day when my dear friend, J, turned 40.
J is what people refer to as a character or, as he sometimes puts it, “an acquired taste.” I can vouch for the fact that not everyone knows how to take J’s bawdy sense of humor, which isn’t weighed down by concerns about propriety or other people’s comfort.
Taking this into account, my 100% Italian, 100% Catholic grandmother should have been the last person on earth to develop a soft spot for J. Yet Nana loved him like he was family. I never asked her why, but I think I can guess.
It wasn’t the simple fact that, because J had been my sidekick since 1995, he tended to show up at family events. Nor was it because he did things like ask her to dance with him at my cousin’s wedding. (Trust me when I say this gesture was nowhere near as gallant as it sounds. As anyone who’s ever done it knows, dancing with J is like being the rock at the end of a catapult. At some point, centrifugal force will forcibly eject you and fling you across the room, resulting in mass casualties wherever you land. My father and I panicked the moment we saw J make a beeline for Nana at the wedding.)
Nor was it the fact that, when Nana was living with my parents in 2008, J would drop by my parents’ house to have lunch and play Yahtzee with her. This sounds cute, I know, but those two were to Yahtzee what Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed were to boxing. Somehow my grandmother always maintained a slight edge.
“Nana cheats,” J would say, and then demand a rematch.
When Nana died on J’s birthday, I joked with my family that she’d done it on purpose so she could have the last laugh. But in reality, if she did it on purpose, it was in tribute. Nana adored J, and I think it comes down to one very simple reason: She could tell just how much he loved me and my family.
The minute my sister relayed the news that Nana had passed away, I wanted to tell J what happened, to get his support as I grieved. But I couldn’t reach him.
You see, friendships age just the same way people do: inevitably, but not entirely predictably. Some age with grace and dignity, others with neither. Some see change coming and resist it for as long as they can, others simply succumb.
The years had mainly been kind to my friendship with J, right up until I married “Mark” in 2010. Male/female friendships often take it on the chin when a truly significant other enters the picture, especially when the friend and the S.O. are polar personality opposites, as Mark and J were. J is the kind of guy who took one look at the treehouse behind my old house and said, “We’ve got to host a redneck picnic there” (which we did, complete with Spam, Cheez-Whiz and Franzia), whereas Mark had probably renounced both treehouses and Spam by age seven.
Despite the huge differences in their personalities, I thought everything was fine between me, Mark and J until, less than two months into our marriage, Mark declared J unwelcome in his household based on a perceived insult. (I soon learned that Mark was an expert insult perceiver.)
After Mark’s pronouncement, I kept up my friendship with J but it was strained. He couldn’t show up at family gatherings anymore, and that pained me. He and I still got together fairly regularly, which I never once hid from Mark, but we weren’t the same. I felt uncomfortable talking about anything involving Mark, making a huge chunk of my life conversationally off-limits. My and J’s friendship, while technically alive, fell into a persistent vegetative state.
It gained a new lease on life in the summer of 2011, when I left Mark. To J’s everlasting credit, he never said, “I told you so” or harbored any ill will toward me for the near-death of our friendship. He immediately lent me his total support, no questions asked, just like he always had.
First, he planned a getaway to Gettysburg where we rode horses, stayed in a very questionable establishment that called itself a hotel, and laughed far in excess of the legal limit. Then, he opened up his home to me. I would go over there most Tuesday nights and make dinner –a simple pleasure I missed while my life was in flux—and vent while he listened and poured wine. J helped me through that time in ways I will never forget.
Less than a year later, as I was settling into my life after divorce, J Met Someone. When he told me about it, I was excited for him because no one deserved relationship happiness more than J (except for me, of course). I expected our friendship to change if his new relationship progressed, but I hoped we’d find a way to stay close. And I vowed to accept whatever changes came gracefully, just as J had.
Well, that vow went right out the window last year on March 4, when Nana died. I couldn’t reach J because he was in Puerto Rico, celebrating his 40th birthday with the girlfriend who had moved in with him. I understood intellectually that this was an excellent reason for his unavailability, and that I should feel happy for him. Instead, I just felt lousy—as if I’d lost my grandmother and my best friend on the same day.
A year later, I’ve adjusted to Nana being gone and to the change in my and J’s friendship. (He’s married now, and happily so.) Life has gone on, and it has treated me well. But I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t miss them both, terribly.