Waving Good-Bye To A Friend, Learning The Here Is Stronger Than The Gone

One gets to an age where certain friendships glow like slow embers - charcoals that're just a little bit golden, throwing comforting warmth and unspoken understanding. Those companions who follow us from youth or college forward through life, the ones who know even before the story is rolled out are the greatest treasure we amass.

New friends are thrilling. Colleagues inspiring. Compadres quick to help you shoot out the lights. But old friends as the Texas expatriate poet Guy Clark has always sung "shine like diamonds."

The first time I heard Guy Clark sing "Old Friends," it was in Dublin. At a Thanksgiving dinner table surrounded by his peers - John Prine and Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Marty Stuart, Kieran Kane and Jamie O'Hara (then working as a spare Appalachian duo called the O'Kanes), Rosie Flores and Flaco Jimenez. It was a benediction for the collected and divergent roads these storytellers and gypsies had traveled, and it was sung to Bonnie Garner, who'd managed Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris amongst so many.

At the time I marveled at the intensity of what was unspoken. To have friendships that deep, that strong, that defied time and miles and moments… it was something a young woman couldn't know empirically, but would have to take on faith. Blind faith…something I once wrote "keeps you believing whenever things get too rough, but when you live in the street and all your dreams shatter, is blind faith really enough?"

Watching them, though, a-glow from the conversation, the Guinness, the fellowship, there was something so comforting about it all, there seemed no safer harbor. With the softness and familiarity of awell-worn flannel shirt, the shadows whose friendship ran deeper than veins of iron ore were the most intoxicating thing of all.

What you don't know when you're young and washed in promise, though, is the fires that forge those friendships can sometimes be too intense to withstand. On one's way to adulthood or knowing or just the passage of enough years and shared memories to transcend the basic plane, there are casualties - of misunderstandings, selfishness, cross-purposes, bad timing or merely outgrowing each other.

The weeding process, though painful, is an attrition of the heart. You genuflect before what you believe to be common passions or singular moments - and you believe that they do, too. It is plaited with laughter and tears, lost nights and early mornings, standing by and standing beside and standing up for.

And as time passes, you need less to feel more. It is a given. It is a gift. You take the memories with you and you smile at the little triggers life litters across your path. There may be estrangements, but they pass. The friendship is larger than both of you - and time will flow across the wounds and ultimately draw you back together.

Every now and then, though, a friendship falls on the rocks. Shattered by doubts or recriminations or outside influences, especially outside influences, there is nothing left but tattered memories and jagged pieces of feelings; it's an ache like a broken rib or the slicing pain of a papercut on the tip of one's finger.

In the wake and the wreckage of what was, the abandoned looks around, blinks, wonders what the hell happened. It is a bitter mixture of betrayal and sadness and an emptiness where this faith and friendship had lived quietly for years and years and years. Trying to rub the sand or dust from one's eyes, mistakenly believing it will offer some kind of clarity, some sense of what was done wrong, only makes the tired eyes redder - and leaves nothing but more confusion in its trail.

The older one gets, the less it happens. And it's a strange thing with the passage of years: a numbness sets in to offset the loss once you've been to this rodeo a few times. The memories go into softer focus, the feelings mute - and while whatever was precious remains so, there is no pain for what was gone.

If someone had told me that this year, perhaps I'd have wrinkled my nose, rolled my eyes and offered an "oh, yeah…" in dubious Minnie Mouse tones. How do you survive the loss of someone whose been there since almost before you can remember? who embodied St. Francis' prayer, especially sowing the gentlest forms of love and kindness to a kid looking for answers and dreams?

But you do. You realize how ephemeral it all is. It makes you that much more fierce about telling the people in your life, the ones who choose to be here, the ones who refuse to relinquish the joy and the faith, that you love them, that you miss them, that they matter.

There are certain truths to living in the wind and falling through space - which is a job requirement for the way I chose to make my way in this world - and one is that you're always gone, always moving on to the next mountain or moment. It gives you a richness of friendships, but it makes roots something that must anchor in the air. So you tell the people in your life. You invoke the things that make them special, remind them they're precious, leave nothing understood. And you find out people like knowing their place in your world, seeing that sparkle when they view their reflection refracted in your eyes.

You stop taking the people who've been there always, or even for however long, for granted. You let 'em know. Celebrate that which is here. It may be gone tomorrow. Whether it's fate's hand, human caprice or petty jealousy.

Lost a friend like that this year. A quarter century washed away over insecurity, a small light held for poetry and melody snuffed out in the name of terror over a loss of something they believed to be greater. What can be greater than old friends I do not know…

But this year I learned, while you mourn those friends who should always be there to hear how rich they make you, the insight they give you, the wisdom and the laughter they bring you, they are gone. Loss is part of life, no doubt.

The greater truth, though, is choice - and that which remains. Don't waste time on those who have left by their decision. Invest your heart, your emotions, your sparkle and your passion on those who continue, companions of what it is to come. The friends who bring you diamonds with a few quick words on a stolen late night call or evoke a cheap bottle of something in a couple dashed off lines in cyberspace are the ones who are here - even when their somewhere else, a million miles from your conscious.

Postcards from the edge it isn't. But don't think those postcards don't get sent from wherever with nothing much to say, except "I love you." Because old friends shine like diamonds and rubies and saphires - and a candle in the window when you're trying to get home.

29 December 2001