In my early twenties I met Sami, who became my closest friend for over twenty years. It wasn’t her given name, but one she had chosen in place of Jane, which she felt was far too dull. Being a lot more conventional myself I thought this a little exotic, and I shortened it to Sam, which was as far as I would go.
This was at the heart of what kept us close through all the changes in our lives – we were opposites, shaped by very different backgrounds, but we did our best to meet each other where we were. And if we couldn’t quite make it the whole distance, that was OK. For my part this was rare, in most relationships I had a strong need to “help” people change for the better, as I saw it. But with Sam, well, she was who she was, and I loved her come what may.
She was older than me by ten to fifteen years, I can’t remember now because it didn’t matter. She was from a rather cut glass family, was brought up learning nothing about how to make her way in the world, and married very young, and unhappily. I met her shortly after her second marriage which was romantic and fiery, and also burnt out after several years. I’d grown up in a family business, made aware from childhood of the need to work hard and take responsibility. Sami lived a far more hedonistic life which she simply expected, but sadly couldn’t often afford.
She was tall and willowy with strong, angular features, large eyes enhanced by the dramatic makeup of the 1970s, and long, flowing hair. She smoked compulsively, as did I in those days, and made no exceptions. Art College had encouraged her individual style and she made and wore beautiful, romantic long dresses, patching together all kinds of fabrics into something entirely her own. And each of the houses she lived in was old and full of character, brought to life with very little money and her own inimitable style – wonderful colours, plants, walls papered with photographs from magazines, comfy old furniture, and always a cat or two. Homes that felt loved and welcoming.
I did the visiting because we lived in the country and she never learned to drive. She could be prone to unrealistic expectations of life because she chose to live in a fairytale, and firmly pushed out of sight what she didn’t wish to see. She wanted to be enchanted, to let down her hair from the highest window of her castle and have a prince climb up and free her. So there were whole aspects of life, what most people would call real life, that she did her best to avoid.
But it made her such a wonderful friend and companion – that shiny eyed excitement and interest in the smallest of things, unshakeable faith in magic whatever came her way, her endearing naivety, the way she could skate over the top of something serious and find the frivolous that would make us both howl with laughter.
And I was far from the only one to value her radiance, she had friends of all kinds and ages. I might visit and find a young man in huge boots who worked in a mine drinking tea and chatting comfortably to landed gentry whose Jaguar was parked outside. Her wide open, child like nature welcomed everyone with equal eagerness, and never imagined we might not all get along. So we did, and we all kept returning, like moths to a flame.
At my first wedding, a full blown affair, she was matron of honour, wearing one of her own wondrous creations. I was twenty nine, and so many of my parents friends had said how wise I was to have waited until the right man came along. The marriage lasted six months. She was my lifeline, the place I could run to and hide in ignominy, and be comforted. And for the following twelve years both of us lived alone, saw each other most weeks and shared everything that became of us.
It wasn’t always unrelenting fun. Occasionally she might be angry, and unforgiving of the world that the rent had to be paid, leaving no money for a bottle of gin. Even if I went out and bought one there and then, life was still not fair. Or I might be withdrawn and preoccupied, overwhelmed by some drama at work which was beyond her understanding, and we’d find little to say. But there was never judgement or blame, we always allowed each other to just be where we were. And that was the magic.
A workaholic in the making, I took on whatever I thought was needed of me in the family business, and when I was forty one I married again, joining my new husband and his two children, now living an hour and a half away from Sami. And at the same time she was becoming seriously ill, with a weak heart and emphysema, and was in and out of hospital. With steroids she rallied and was allowed home for longer, and I managed to see her a couple of times a month. But there were no cigarettes now, or gin, and with remarkable grace she did as she was told.
Then came cancer. Oh how it changed her, and in the most wondrous of ways. Her stubborn refusal to take the unpalatable with the good melted away, allowing a new found humility and gentleness. She was engagingly grateful for every waking day, every moment she could spend outdoors, and every memory we shared. Her tolerance seemed to know no bounds, and her loving care and concern for me as I struggled to come to terms with life in a ready made family was the support I really needed.
We knew, of course, that she was going to die, and that there was a hospice she could go to when she was no longer able. But even though she gradually became thin and frail, she made every one of our days together fun, regaling me with hilarious stories about hospital visits as if they were adventures, making me laugh and turning the conversation to me, wanting to know every detail of my new life.
I hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks when I received a letter in her wonderfully spidery, artistic hand. No mobile phones then, no texts or emails. It wasn’t unusual, she was a very generous letter writer, adding whimsical little drawings in the margins, pixies and elves, moons and stars. And this one was loving and light, but brief, saying she was a bit over tired, so they were taking her to the hospice, just for a couple of weeks, then she could have a good rest. “Don’t worry, darling girl, and please don’t work so hard, I’ll be home soon.”
The hospice was even further away. I planned to visit at the weekend. On Friday someone called to tell me that Sami had died that morning, and the funeral would be next week. It turned out to be on the day I was holding interviews in London, three hundred miles away. I was head of HR, we needed a new Sales director, I’d made all the arrangements with everyone involved. It was my responsibility, and I felt unable to put my needs first and change everyone’s plans at the eleventh hour.
I was sitting in a bare, functional room in a large hotel, a table, chairs, notepads and pens, two other people and lukewarm coffee. We were each writing up notes in silence between interviews. I heard myself say very quietly “it’s my best friend’s funeral today.” They each glanced at me with a faint smile, turned back to their notes, and nothing else was said. I could not and would not allow what I felt, but I knew where I should be. And for all the years that followed, I never forgave myself for choosing instead that grey, impersonal room, listening to the stories of strangers.
Back then, I never had any kind of forward vision, no retirement plan or bucket list, I just let life happen to me. But if I’d thought ahead, to when my step children were grown and gone, when I’d retired, when there was time, the list would have included adventures with Sami. Places we’d visit that we’d never seen, idling over long, indulgent lunches, eyeing up young men, giggling like girls. And we’d have spent winter afternoons by her fire, sharing a cat, laughing at our photographs, ridiculously happy. When there was time. The shock of having taken so much for granted was profound, and at an unconscious level I shut down to grief and sealed the wound before I could even acknowledge it. So of course, deprived of the light, it never healed.
That was twenty five years ago, and for the last eleven I’ve lived alone and had time to reflect. It’s been my priority to discover more about myself, to find the masks we all wear and let them fall away, gradually becoming comfortable with whoever is beneath, just as I am. In the last few weeks, out of the blue, came memories of Sami, and I circled round them for days, finding the happy parts. I knew she’d be thrilled that I’d overcome my need to be responsible for everything and everyone, kicked over the traces, and lived in Italy and France. She’d love it that my family became seven cats and a dog I met along the way, and that I too, had let go of my given name and chosen one of my own. And she’d love me, as she always had, just as I am.
Letting light into the wound was immensely painful – guilt and shame finally giving way to long overdue grief and sadness. It wasn’t only the unacknowledged loss of her that cut into me, it was the recognition that she saw through my blind spots, and always forgave them. She knew that I’d programmed myself to believe that my needs were met by meeting the needs of others. It’s what happens to some of us, we forget about ourselves. Apart from my times with Sami, my relentless busyness rendered much of my life very lonely. It was hard to acknowledge that I had cared so little for myself that I’d I let that happen.
But in the aftermath, a weight I’d never even recognised was lifted, and the guilt and shame I’d concealed were gone. Sami never wanted it in the first place. I think about her now freely, happily, laugh, and am grateful. My friend Meg posted something recently by Kahlil Gibran that encapsulated just what I had experienced – “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
I think it’s one of the hardest things we have to face in life, accepting and loving ourselves as we are. We can only do the best we can with what we know and understand at the time. And in time, when we learn more, we can do better. But we don’t need to rake back over the coals and look for what seems like all our past failure.
And isn’t friendship such a gift? Being seen, heard and understood is the fundamental need of us all, we didn’t come here to live in isolation. When we find the grace to allow each other just to be as we are, without judgement, how much we have to give and to receive, how it enriches us, and how precious we are to each other.