Speak of the Dead
Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Passion to the Third Degree .
When a loved one dies, we are often crushed by the realization that life goes on without them. It’s no different when someone is “dead” to us, whatever the reason may be. It’s just not as obvious because we assume they still live on elsewhere, not just in our memory.
We tend to remember the last time we saw someone or heard their voice. That’s why I declined to see Joe when he was dying and so ravaged by cancer. It’s why I refused to see Daddy in his casket. People are forever emblazoned in our memory as they were at that last encounter.
The same is true of people we have not seen in a while, whether that’s a few weeks or a few decades. The longer the distance, the more pronounced it is as we realize— if we realize—that life has gone on without us. Not without them, but without us. They may have been dead to us, but life has not ended for them. Their lives have happened without us, without our mental documentation of their joys and sorrows and daily growth experiences.
We don’t usually see it that way, though. That intervention of life feels like a betrayal, as if they’re no longer who we thought they were. And they’re not. Things have happened, while they were dead to us, and they really aren’t the same person as in our memory.
I’m at a place in my life where enough cycles have completed that I have now seen many people come and go and come again in my life. The ones who come back are often surprised, and the ones who are more of an oppressive nature don’t tend to stay for very long and almost always try to shame me that I’m not the person they remember. That usually happens the first time I say no.
I think on this as I consider brief reunions with an older woman I have not seen in many years and a younger woman I haven’t seen in a couple of months. Both are professional ties, but we were friendlier than most colleagues and were close enough that we knew each other’s kids’ names and quirks as well as each other’s politics and sexual preferences.
The older woman was back in town on a visit and looked me up. I’d tried to keep in touch but she’d moved out of the country and she was never one to write long letters. Lonely and newly divorced, she decided to seek out old safety—and finding me again was part of that. She could not, however, reconcile that time had passed, and while it was great to hear Pat Benatar CD’s again after so many years and talk of nothing but remember-whens, it grew stale very quickly as I realized we no longer had anything in common but our youth. We could not hold a conversation in the present. Our reunion was nothing but a trip to the past, and she couldn’t understand that I’d changed. I’d grown up and my priorities were different. Our visit left me feeling a bit sad, I think more so because she really had not changed so much over the years and was stuck back in that place of long ago. She’d frozen me in her memory, most likely in some spike-heeled, hat-wearing, braless-but-mega-shoulder-padded concoction from the 80’s. I’d been dead to her for a long, long time, but my life had gone on without her.
The younger woman basically dumped me as a lunch partner when she took a new job that required a new set of friends and activities. It wasn’t malicious—she just didn’t have time for anyone who didn’t give her career a boost right then. But two months later, she’s back and calling to suggest we do lunch and reconnect. Now that she’s settled into her new life, she’s a bit lonely and misses our talks. She’d like to take up with where our friendship left off.
And therein lies the problem. She may have put our friendship on a shelf, but my life hasn’t been on a shelf. I’ve had a lot happen in the past couple of months. She says she wants to hear all about it, but I no longer feel like sharing any of it with her. I’m not the same person I was two months ago. I was hurt when she cancelled lunches with me to associate herself with higher-ranking professionals and pissed when she brought them along to what I’d thought would be private discussions—and shared with them some of my private information so they wouldn’t feel “left out.” While she’s been working on her career and neglecting old friendships, I’ve worked through my annoyances with her and moved on. She hasn’t seen me in two months and in her mind, I am still the same person who hung up the phone after our last conversation and I’ve been frozen in time for those 60 days, still sitting at my desk and, while working on a project, waiting non-chalantly for her to call back and say, “I’m running late so meet me at the food court at 11:45 instead of 11:30.”
But I am not the same, and life has gone on without her.
Everything changes. Nothing remains unchanged by the passage of life and time. And if we do not share the moments, if we choose for someone to be dead to us, then we’re actually the ones who have died in that person’s life because they do go on and they will never be the same again as they were in that moment.
Nor will the relationship ever be the same again as when we parted. And then, it’s often easier to speak to the Dead than to start over with the Still Living.