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Rip Van Winkle: The Downside

Rip Van Winkle- public domain

Winter, 2012

I woke up one morning recently and discovered I was 48.

This shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Somehow, it did.

Hanna and I had been friends since 1974. We met when we were assigned to the same Gymnasium class during my four years in Germany. We became the very closest of friends in the summer of 1979, when she somehow convinced her parents to let her visit me in the US. Time and distance could not diminish the intensity or rewards of our friendship.

My dear friend and her husband Niko came for a five-week stay last June. Just as that first lazy summer had marked the beginning of something magical, the last summer had signaled its end. The visit went irretrievably wrong despite good intentions on all sides.

I had made a few attempts to process this with Hanna through letters, and I had gotten no response. It is true that I had expressed hurt and anger but I had also expressed remorse over mistakes I had made, along with the hope that we would, with time and perspective, work things out. In the meantime, I continued to observe birthdays and Christmas. I wanted Hanna and Niko to know that, while I couldn’t fix or even explain the summer, I loved them.

I knew Hanna was struggling. In June, we had sat at my kitchen table, desperate and holding back tears, trying to figure out why things were turning out so badly. From almost the first moment, tension had begun to build; and Niko’s paranoia had hinted, here and there, at a slow smolder. It is hard to say if one precipitated the other. Maybe no causality existed. Maybe we don’t need to know.

Normally we would have been able to discuss any and all matters but Hanna wouldn’t let my mind attach to hers the way it always had. Was I was denying her as well? This was the first time Niko had viewed me with suspicion, and Hanna seemed unsure of me. She had always bragged about his instincts.

My conversations with Hanna were becoming fewer and shorter. For the first time ever, they were becoming stilted. Niko sat in the basement apartment counting the number of minutes Hanna spent with me above, anxiously awaiting her return. If she and I spoke for too long, he began to fear she would choose me over him.

I held fast to my belief in our friendship. We were bedrock. But after several months, I felt malaise. No word from Hanna, even at Christmas. I pushed my fears away.

In January, two days after my 48th birthday, my heart leapt at the sight of the thick envelope. I knew that sorting things out between us would be an arduous task, and I surmised that Hanna’s letter contained her initial take on our summer disaster. Her silence on my birthday had been especially acute. She had never before neglected to call or write. But the hefty packet proved I had not been forgotten, and all would be well.

My knees buckled as read her letter. It was a list of grievances and hurts announcing the end of our friendship.

Happy Birthday to me.

I see a different person in the mirror these days. My skin is turning a soft, papery white; and my lips are thinning and losing their color. The flesh around the sides of my mouth is sliding downwards, forming a rubbery Fu Manchu and forcing my default face into a frown. This must be my reward for decades of smiling. Grays sprout like miniature fountains from my parted hair–noncomformists with the audacity to stand at attention no matter my efforts at calming them.

Everything has begun to sag and become pendulous: I have the beginnings of what one friend terms “mommy arms.” Even my knees—my knees, for heaven’s sake!—are starting to resemble bunched-up nylons, scooched down and slid off after a long night of dancing. I can no longer ignore the fact that the ache in my right knee keeps me up at night. And why does my left hip keep trying to slip out of its socket? This is not supposed to happen to me.

Hanna’s letter ended more than just a friendship. Our shared history kept the lines between youth and middle age comfortably blurred and conferred eternal youth. I didn’t really age; I was just Jane. I was suspended forever with her in the continuum of our relationship. If not for that letter, I might still jump out a second story window with her in the middle of the night to explore a forbidden barn. Or find myself shooting spitballs at Manni’s head to keep myself awake during Latin class. Or gossip with her about what has become of the rest of the prep school crowd. If not for that letter, I’d still be able to run a kick-ass mile. And travel the world. And become any number of things when I grow up….

I woke up one morning recently and discovered I was 48.

I am not invincible. I am growing old. I am on the downward slope of becoming, and my days are numbered. And in the meantime, my bones ache.

This is the fifth installment in The Story of Hanna. Click here for the fourth installment. Click here for the sixth.

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12 responses »

  1. When my best friend since age 7 and I got into a big fight at age 20, I tried to repair the friendship. She had no desire to repair it. It was harder than any loss except for my Mom. I feel your pain. Hugs

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  3. I’m a bit older than you, and became suddenly aware of aging a few years ago, when I became a grandmother. Cripes! A grandmother? I have learned to slowly embrace my age, to take on a new role as friend and mentor when the opportunity allows. I’m sorry to hear about the end of your friendship. That’s hard, but I’ve found that new friends are everywhere, even in the second half of life.

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  4. I’m so glad to have discovered your blog, especially with this one. What a timely topic for me.
    I recently lost a good friend of 32 years. She didn’t die; she decided that if I would not come to their 43rd wedding anniversary celebration at their lake home (1,400 miles from my home), then our friendship didn’t mean enough to me. That her anniversary weekend was during my grandson’s birthday and also the memorial of my father’s death didn’t matter. I was disappointing her, and that was it.
    This post gave me perspective, and I agree with D. Wallace about finding and appreciating new friends, plus, in my opinion treasuring the long-term friends who don’t make ultimatums.

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    • Thanks, Marylin! I was just starting to look at your blog too. It looks really good!

      I feel so many words and thoughts and feelings when I read your response that it is hard to compact them into one response. I guess, bottom line, is that I feel understood and am grateful that sharing my story with you feels meaningful.

      I’m not a professional writer. I am having some anxiety about posting these bits about “Hanna.” I haven’t yet figured out how the story ends–either here or in real life. Maybe I am in denial that it HAS ended. Therapy in progress, I’d say. These bits were mostly written a few years back but I’m fleshing them out and revising, and it stirs it up again. Trying to be true to self AND respectful of her as someone I care about.

      Thanks for reading!
      (You too DWP. You always have supportive and thoughtful comments!)

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