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Tragedy, Guilt, and This Strange World in Which We Live

Certain aspects of this story have me walking along two lines, one being that of what I'm comfortable writing about when it comes to my personal life, and the other being protecting the anonymity of a dear friend of mine. I've tried my best to tread carefully down those lines here, balancing storytelling with privacy, but if my storytelling seems awkward at times, blame a writer on unfamiliar ground.


M is one of my best friends in the world. We've known each other only a couple of years, but I think we both realized early on that we'd be friends for life. She's smart as hell, one of the funniest people I know, and a kind soul, but for me the clincher is how we tease each other relentlessly and without mercy. I don't know how to explain it -- it's just how we relate. When she becomes sincere on occasion, and tells me how much she cares about me as a friend, the first words out of my mouth are, "Do I have cancer?" (She says something similar when I'm sincere with her.) She had a rough few years there, but her fortunes are looking up -- she recently married a great guy and has a beautiful new baby daughter. I think of her as my sweet, sharp-tongued kid sister.

While I was in Whistler last week, M's best friend from childhood, J, died. Not of some disease that gave everyone time to say goodbye, but unexpectedly and to the shock of everyone who knew her.

M was devastated and drove to her old hometown the next morning to be with J's family and friends. M and I talked while she was on the road, and I've never heard her so upset. She'd get a sentence or two out, cry for a moment, pull herself together, then start all over again.

J was young, M's age, in her late twenties. I didn't know her, but M had told me about her in the past. From what little she had said, I had a picture of someone attractive, intelligent, and loving, trying to move past hard times in her life. Since J's death, M has written more about her, and I can see from what she has written that my impression was accurate. M posted a photo of J, and when I look at it, I see a beautiful dark-haired girl, relaxed, comfortable with herself, yet sad somehow.

The funeral was held a couple of days ago. I spoke with M afterwards, and from what she said, it was understandably emotional. I haven't had a loved one die unexpectedly as J did, so I don't know how hard that must have been for everyone. I don't want to find out.


The night before J died, she talked with M. J had been engaged some years before, and it ended painfully for her. She had recently been reminded of the engagement, and was hurting. When M asked, it turned out that J still had a number of mementos from her ex-fiancé -- pictures, journals, clothes, and the like. They discussed it and decided together that J should burn the mementos to put him behind her. M suggested waiting for a little while, so that she could come up with a cleansing ritual, and they could do it together on her next trip home.

J died when her house burned that night.

I know what I've said to M. I know her friends have said the same things. I know she's told herself the same things. She suggested waiting. She didn't mean for J to do it on her own. She wouldn't have done it in the house. It's all true. It wasn't M's fault, not in the slightest.

But I also know how I'd feel in M's place. I'd feel that it was absolutely my fault. I'd feel that my friend was dead because of me. Even if all her friends and family, and all my friends and family, were telling me it wasn't true, even if I rationally knew it wasn't true, I'd still feel that it was my fault, without question. I know that. But again, I don't know how hard this must be for her, and I don't want to find out.

So now M is dealing with both the sadness at the loss of her best friend from childhood and the guilt over feeling that the responsibility was hers. And I know that there's nothing I can say or do that will really, truly help. I can tell her how sorry I am, tell her that it's not her fault, ask her if there's anything I can do. But no one, not me, not even her husband, can make this better. Only time can.

This Strange World in Which We Live

M told me about the fire and its cause over the weekend. I thought about it often until we talked again earlier today.

"This may sound macabre," I said, "but I'm surprised you didn't introduce us."

By way of background, my relationship with my long-time girlfriend ended permanently a few months ago. (The term "long-time" is an oversimplification, but it will have to do here.)

The more I thought about it over the weekend, the more I read and re-read M's words about her friend, the more I wondered why she hadn't tried to set us up. I can't point to anything specific about J that made me feel that way, like her enjoying the same food as me, having similar goals in life to me, liking the same music or movies as me... it wasn't anything like that. It was just something in the way M wrote about J, something in how she described her attitude towards people and her outlook on life.

"I actually thought about it," M said. "I really did. Don't you remember me talking about her?"

"I do, yes." She had mentioned her briefly during a conversation a few weeks ago after a trip home -- nothing special, just in passing while talking about her visit.

"I had thought about setting up the two of you. I just didn't get around to it."

M knew that I was fairly fresh out of my relationship, and that I was deliberately taking some time to reconsider my priorities and to focus on myself -- not in the sense of buying myself this or treating myself to that, but in the sense of thinking first about living the best life I can, as opposed to thinking first about making a relationship work (which can come once again down the road).

I don't think it was that M "didn't get around to it". I think she felt -- rightly -- that I wasn't quite ready to launch into another serious relationship. Given time, would she have tried to introduce us? I think so.

It's not that I think, "there but for tragedy goes my would-be love", not at all. Had M eventually introduced us, I don't know whether J and I would have been available, whether we would have been interested in each other in the slightest, whether we would have hit it off. I don't know and I never will. And since I don't know, it's not something I'm pining over -- which would in any case be self-indulgent of me given the pain my friend is in. So I'm not pining.

But I do wonder.


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