The world I knew as a young writer is practically gone. Two of my mentors (essentially my literary parents) have passed away. Such is life, right? Those who grew up in the 1990s and read The Sandman series of graphic novels by Neil Gaiman all know that worlds, universes, gods, even the avatars of human archetypes, while called “The Endless”, also end.
I’m not the sort who handles farewells and losses very well. Since 2017, I’ve lost three close friends–all women. Two of them passed away due to illness. One of them, I lost due to my own failings–having disappointed the person to the point where it severely damaged, nearly completely destroyed, our friendship. While we have not ended our friendship, I still miss what was: we simply no longer relate to each other as closely and as trustingly as before.
Earlier than that, I lost my closest friend in high school. I learned about her death in 2005 but I was told that she had died–of ovarian cancer, I think–a few years earlier. Yes, I would think to myself, I am very familiar with grief arising from the loss of good friends.
When you think about it, friendships are rather quite special because they are chosen by the people involved. You can’t choose your dad, mom, or your siblings. They’re part of your life, for good or ill, after you are born. Friends, on the other hand, are people you choose to love, respect, and yes, protect and support when necessary. And yes, they chose you to be their friend, as well.
Which is why when you become friends with a family member–when your dad or mom, or sister or brother, also becomes your best or closest friend, that’s even more special. What makes a friend precious is the level of equality, trust, and respect between you: you can open up and be vulnerable to a close, trusted friend in ways that might not be possible with a family member.
When I was a young writer–I started to formally learn literary writing–particularly the poetry and fiction genres–when I was seventeen years old–I never dared to dream that quite a number of my mentors who were older than me by decades would become my friends as well.
Writing is a lonely (and in the Philippines, surprisingly misunderstood) profession. A writer needs other writers as friends. Writers who are a generation or two younger than me have been heavily criticising such friendships as a sort of old boys’ (or girls’) club where the elder writers pick out mentees that they “help” to build careers.
I suppose that’s true to a certain extent, although I have not personally witnessed any vile compromises or currying of favors, or “you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours” shenanigans–and at least from my experience the literary friendships I’ve had (and fortunately still have) were more about talking shop, sharing ideas, empathy, fellowship, and even simple companionship–a commodity many of us took for granted until the novel coronavirus forced us into isolation.
Losing friends can be painful–but so is conflict between friends. The current political divide in our society has strained, if not broken, a lot of friendships. Writers are not exempted from this. Since 2016, quite a few writers have made disavowals of friends from both sides of the fence. It’s a sad outcome whatever camp one belongs to.
What would our life be without even a single friend? That’s hard to imagine. We are wired to be social organisms and those of us who experience abuse and disappointment from our fellow humans will continue to find friendship–alternatively, with dogs, cats, and other pets. Devoted pet parents, or furrents, will tell us readily that a lot of times, our pets can love us more unconditionally than humans ever could.
In 2018, I received with great shock the news that a friend of mine from high school, Anna, had passed away from cancer. I had no idea that she had been battling that illness for the past few years–she never told anyone except her closest circle of friends. From what I heard, she simply didn’t want to burden anyone else with her pain.
Anna and I had a rather curious friendship. Back in high school, we would get together and talk from time to time but we always managed to get into arguments. Anna had one of the finest minds I ever knew and she was most in her element back then when she was with the high school debate team.
The arguments we had were neither serious nor personal. It was just that I was a campus writer and she was a campus debater–we both loved ideas and were willing to defend our points of view. Not surprisingly, she became a brilliant lawyer.
Anna seemed always ready to get into a fierce debate with anyone willing to cross swords wth her–but at the same time, she was one of the kindest, sweetest, most generous, most loyal friends you could ever have. Yes, she argued fiercely but she loved fiercely as well.
When I came out on Facebook in 2011 as a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder (BP Type 2) it was Anna who first sent me a DM to extend some much needed compassion, empathy, and advice. It turned out that Anna had a loved one who was dealing with the same illness and she wanted to give me some encouragement.
Like most, if not all, persons who get recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or any other mental condition) I was feeling simultaneously fearful, worried, angry, disbelieving, and even confused about what the future held for me.
Statistically, people with bipolar disorder make suicide attempts more frequently and are more violently/lethally “successful” in completing self-termination than people with regular depression. Persons with bipolar also have a reduced life expectancy of nine to twenty years. And of course, I knew firsthand the anguish, exhaustion, and excruciating experience of going through bipolar episodes. Was there any hope for me?
Then I received a DM from Anna. She wrote:
You are in my most fervent of prayers. Psychiatric illnesses such as bipolar diseases are a sensitive issue to me, having seen XXXX go through her bouts of extreme bipolarism since… with the worst when we were in junior & senior high school. I’ve seen the worst, the ugliest head (heads?) of this disease, and knowing how you are now, something tells me you will pass with flying colours 🙂
Had I known you were taking Prozac, I would’ve warned you that XXXX complained constantly and during her manic swings, very vehemently, that she hated Prozac. So we took her to another private clinic… where her psychiatrist… was able to give her better psych meds.
Have a good talk with your children, so they know what to expect of you. Children are never too young to understand that something’s wrong with their parents… I’d suggest that before you start your new regimen, for you and your wife to speak to your children so they’re not left in the dark.
Best of luck, Ramil! You can do it!
One of the last messages I received from Anna was in 2018, just a few months before she passed away. She was responding to a Facebook status I posted, where I shared my pain and exhaustion in dealing with mixed episodes (when symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously) and rapid cycling (when symptoms of mania and depression occur in quick succession). I also talked about my difficulties in adjusting to the side effects of my new medication, lithium (before lithium, I was taking lamotrigine since 2011).
Anna sent me a short DM, again extending to me some much-needed encouragement and compassion.
Ramil, XXXX is bipolar and yes, the summer months are difficult.
XXXX’s been on lithium for years. Hits her hard and she hates it. But she takes it one day at a time.
I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers. This is the time they need to understand you the most 🙂
I had no idea that during the time when we were exchanging messages, especially in 2018, Anna was already dealing with cancer and preparing herself to meet God. For her to take the time and effort to send some encouragement and care towards me, despite her own excruciating struggles with cancer–it simply blows my mind and humbles me every time I recall it.
True friends are God’s angels in our lives. They may seem as ordinary, fragile, and flawed as everyone else, and yet they are essential to our physical, mental, and even spiritual well-being. May we be given the grace to not take our true friends for granted and send them our affection, appreciation, and gratitude.
Two days after Anna passed on, I wrote a poem for her. It was the least I could do.
UN BALLADE POUR ANNA
signs of the end times.
clouds on fire at dusk
silence, dropping a spider’s
net over the world,
and everything gray,
and everything dust,
a murder of sound:
only the quiet of night
over the graveyard
over a desert strewn
with bones, skulls
upturned white with thirst.
goes missing. bell
of the sorbetero,
voices of children, bounce
of basketball, yells,
laughter: freeze to stillness
in darkening air.
cackle, soprano zipper-throat
of frogs bursting with sperm
and ova—gone. banished
from the wet mud.
the always just rain.
my mind’s soundless
closes its lacquered lid
over all the earth.
i never knew i loved you.
so i never told you.
a silver scalpel, slashing
they say the temple
of your heart was
filled with light.
they say it was
respite for the soul
i am inclined to
but you are gone.
and the words we
shared are communion
wafers in a brass bowl
lonely for a blessing.
i never knew i loved you
so i never told you.