About eight years ago, I went to dinner with a dear friend I had known for more than 40 years. It would be the last time we would see each other and by the end of that evening I was deeply shaken. But more lasting and more unsettling than this has been the feeling of loss without his friendship. It was a sudden ending but it was also an ending that lasted for me well beyond that evening. I have worried since then at what kind of friend I am to my friends, and why a friendship can suddenly self-destruct while others can so unexpectedly bloom.
My friend and I were used to going to dinner together, though it had become an increasingly tricky matter for us. We had been seeing each other more infrequently, and our conversations had been tending towards repetition. I still enjoyed his passion for talk, his willingness to be puzzled by life’s events, our comically growing list of minor ailments as we entered our sixties, and the old stories he fell back on — usually stories of his minor triumphs, such as the time his car burst into fire, was declared a write-off by insurance, and ended in an auction house where he bought it back with part of the insurance payout and only minor repairs to be made. There were stories of his time as a barman in one of Melbourne’s roughest pubs. I suppose in a lot of long-lasting friendships it is these repeated stories of the past that can fill the present so richly.
Nevertheless, both his opinions and mine seemed to have become too predictable. Even his desire to come up with the most unpredictable viewpoint on any problem was a routine I expected from him. Each of us knew the weaknesses in the other’s thinking, and we had learned not to go too far with some topics, which were of course the most interesting and important ones.
He knew how politically correct I could be, and shrewdly enough he had no time for my self-righteousness, the predictability of my views on gender, race and climate. I understood this. He knew too that his fiercely independent thinking was often just the usual rant against greenies or lefties. Something had begun to fail in our friendship, but I could not properly perceive this or speak of it.
We were a contrasting pair. He was a big man with an aggressive edge to his gregarious nature, while I was lean, short and physically slight next to him, a much more reserved person altogether. I liked his size because big men have been protective figures in my life. At times when I felt threatened I would ask him to come with me to a meeting or a transaction, and just stand next to me in his big way. During one long period of trouble with our neighbours he would visit when the tension was high to show his formidable presence and his solidarity with us.
I was always reading and knew how to talk books, while he was too restless to read much. He knew how to sing, bursting into song occasionally when we were together. He had been unable to work professionally since a breakdown that was both physical and mental. By contrast, I was working steadily, never quite as free with my time as he was.
Nearly two years before our last dinner together his wife had suddenly left him. As it turned out, she had been planning her departure for some time, but when she went he was taken by surprise. I saw a more confused and fragile side of him during those months when we would meet and talk through how he was dealing with their counselling sessions, and then how the negotiations were proceeding over belongings and finally the family house. He was learning to live alone for the first time since he had been a young man, and was exploring what it might be like to seek out new relationships.
Here perhaps is the closest I have seen to a definition of friendship at its best: a stance imbued with sympathy, interest and excitement directed at another despite all that otherwise shows we are flawed and dangerous creatures.
For some years after this, I felt I had to learn how to be myself without him. I have read articles and essays since then about how pitiful men can be at friendship. We are apparently too competitive, we base our friendships on common activities, which means we can avoid talking openly about our feelings and thoughts. I don’t know about this “male deficit model”, as some sociologists call it, but I do know that the loss of this friendship took with it a big part of my shared personal history at that time. It dented my confidence in ever having properly known this man or understood our friendship — or in knowing how secure any friendship might be.
I was drawn to read and re-read Michel de Montaigne’s gentle and strangely extreme essay on friendship where he was so certain that he knew with perfection what his friend would think and say and value. He wrote of his friend, Etienne de Boëtie, “Not only did I know his mind as well as I knew my own but I would have entrusted myself to him with greater assurance than to myself.”
But to lose an individual friend from one’s closest circle is to have large tracts of one’s inner world laid waste for a time. My feelings over the end of this particular friendship were a kind of grief mixed with bewilderment.
After 40 years of shared history, there was not the disgust Eliot writes of, nor Montaigne’s perfect union of mind and trust between me and my burly friend, but there was, I had thought, a foundation of knowledge whereby we took each other’s differences into ourselves, as well as our common histories of the cafe we had run, and as it happened our common serving of time in semi-monastic seminaries before we’d met — differences and similarities that had given us, I thought, ways of being in sympathy with each other while allowing for each other.