»Was It Worth It?«


A friend in another country is ill. For nearly thirty years we were close, despite the distance. We went through divorces, each in our own place, supported each other in adversity and celebrated when there was reason – and spent Lord knows how many hours discussing on the phone, often laughing, always committed. Among our friendship’s finest features was discretion. Boundaries were respected. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, friendly taunts were never far away.

Then something happened that I still do not know what to make of. I received a piece of unusually disheartening news at the same time as my friend was fêted outside of our circle of acquaintances. A certain degree of self-absorption became inevitable. He interpreted his actions in one way, I in another. Before long, there was less and less space for talking about what really meant something in our lives (all right, for our souls). My friend probably regarded my manner of retreating as aversion, possibly envy. While I felt at a loss and finally impotent in the face of what seemed to me a lack of curiosity, concern, engagement. Increasingly I became uncomfortable with his self-absorption, perhaps even vainglory. (In an unjustly sullen moment I even went so far as to wonder: »So this, then, is what it looks like, la déformation professionnelle?«) The upshot was as deplorable as it was banal: contact between us faded. Over the last few years we have spoken once or twice a year, but rarely exchanged more than courtesies dressed up as interest. Despite the many signs to the contrary, our friendship apparently was not strong enough to overcome ambivalences. It surprises me still.

Now my friend is so non compos mentis that it has become too late to have it out. When I visited his country a while back, we met for what I fear may have been the last time. Shortly before I took my leave, my friend asked: »Was it worth it?« Since then I have been wondering how his question should be understood. Was it directed at me or was my friend, Alzheimer-abstracted as he had become, talking to himself? Was it reproachful? Was it genuinely perplexed? Did »it« refer to our lost intimacy? Or to life in general? My reserve? Did the question even have anything to do with us? I would like to assume the latter, as anything else would be too sad to contemplate. Yet I find it difficult to disentangle the various energies I perceive in the question – as if it was a koan! Thus the unfinished part of our friendship lives on, at a loss, beyond the point at which I have not yet learned to accept that it may have ended.