I dropped the angel on the floor as I was dusting my dresser. The chunka-ka-chunk stopped my breath — “please, no, don’t break!”
Conscious or not, the prayer was answered. Not so much as a chipped wing. Yet even in that beat or two of unknowing, I was aware of an unwelcome “so what?” It wasn’t as if the giver of the angel hadn’t already broken faith with me a long time ago.
Dusty angel in hand, I was lost in memories, contemplating also another figurine on the other end of the dresser — two women seated, forever turned to one another in intimate, silent conversation. That too was a gift from another country, which I had interpreted as a promise that distance wouldn’t matter.
But it did.
Suppressing my impulse to toss into the trash both reminders of a friendship that was, I returned to the dusting, still brooding on inevitable comings and goings of friends, the joy and pain of finding and then losing what Anne of Green Gables called “bosom friends.” In the giver of the angel and the two clay women, I thought I had finally found a bosom friend. Ruefully I concluded that only in novels of yesteryear, or as clay statuettes, do bosom friends last a lifetime.
Back in April 2016 I had written about the uncanny way books have of falling off shelves into our hands precisely when we need them. In between such incognito epiphanies, habitual readers, of course, choose many other books, some for delight, some for profit, some out of obligation, some never finished. Of the books destined to be read, some become beloved companions, each rereading another gift. Yet strangely enough, there are books, once truly life-altering, that turn out to be a disappointment when picked up again years later. The right moment for the reading has passed and will not come again.
So, too, I have come to believe that the universe conspires to bring together friends as designated angels for one another. Just as books can be pleasurable temporary companions while others speak to our souls at the deepest level, so friends are not all alike. Wayne Booth, in The Company We Keep, distinguishes three kinds of friendships (actual or book-friends) based on the gifts they offer — pleasure, profit, and “shared aspirations and loves of a kind that make life together worth having as an end in itself.”
In other words, some friends we keep company with because they’re entertaining or they make a given social context (dance clubs, schools, cooking classes, community groups) more comfortable. When graduation has passed or the club membership is dropped, so too do the friendships end. Friends are also useful; we collaborate with colleagues, learn from teammates, share baby-sitting, carpool with neighbours. Both these kinds of friendship — pleasure and profit — end naturally when circumstances change. Unless the friendships have advanced to another level, they do not last beyond the boundaries of their making.
The third kind of friendship is qualitatively different, whether having begun that way or having developed into it. With these friends, we can “be ourselves,” yet we also know that we are, in their company, becoming better people. The interaction feels supportive, transformative; life seems richer, more worthwhile. Abstract language here inevitably fails because what happens between “bosom friends” is highly specific and the friendship changes as it grows.
The giver of the angel — let me call her Becca — and I were just getting to know one another when the aftermath of family grief and an increasing anger over my church experiences pushed me into spiritual crisis and depression. How was it that she, a colleague and an ordained minister, just “happened” to be there? That we “happened” to have grown up in similar family dynamics with equally fraught relationships with our mothers? As our friendship deepened, Becca also faced the death of her mother, and then the loss of a job. Then it was my turn to listen and comfort, which I could do because I understood. There was between us a meeting of minds and hearts that neither of us had known before in quite that way. Without her presence in precisely those years, I would not be who I am today.
And then she moved to a different country. She was not a letter-writer.
In rare visits during the first few years, our conversations picked up where they’d left off, and the only sign of prolonged separation was the need to catch up on news. Nevertheless, a subtle, unnameable change was underway. People, unlike books, are not static, and while we may, decades later, understand and interpret a book very differently than we did at first, the book itself responds — if one may use such an active verb for paper and ink — out of its unchanging soul. Not so our friends. As our bodies’ cells are sloughed off and regrown, so we, too, change through our experiences, our decisions with their consequences, our losses, and our other, newer friends.
There is a time to laugh and to mourn, to embrace and to refrain from embracing (Ecc1 3:1-8). It follows that there is a time to laugh and weep together, and a time to laugh and weep apart. As deep as the grief may be, it is time to let go. The gift that was given — and I speak not of clay statuettes, but the expansion of soul that happened in her presence — has not been withdrawn. For that, and for all the friends who have walked with me, whether for a mere mile or two or for a thousand, I am grateful. I’m trying to remember that a clenched hand receives no gold. To receive new gifts, one’s hands must be opened and empty. For the divine benevolence that grants us books and friends is always generous.
Froese taught English literature at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon for many years until her retirement. She currently works part time as academic editor while relishing the freedom to read and write for pleasure.