Being a Bad Friend in Midlife

Dear Alisa,

When your father called I didn’t answer because I didn’t recognize the number on my cell phone. When I saw the caller had left a message I listened. The words left me stunned.

“I’m calling to let you know that Alisa has died. She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in June, and she passed away October 1st.”

You were 51.

I was shocked. And then, overcome with guilt. When was the last time I saw you? Didn’t we get together for happy hour not long ago? Hadn’t we just talked on the phone?

Alisa Jackson 1970-2021

You and I were two of the three Black students in the master of education program we’d both enrolled in as we set out on new paths in our respective lives. We’d attended the same high school, a decade apart, and had never met until starting this graduate program. The first thing I noticed when I saw you was your brilliant smile.

We commiserated about our professors, racial inequities in education, raising Black sons as single mothers, and dating. Our sons played together several times. We visited each other’s homes. You cracked me up with your impersonations.

We were not close friends. I wasn’t good at the vulnerability that required. I was guarded, wary, untrusting, skeptical. I kept you at a distance then. Now, I feel guilty for being on-guard. I feel guilty, so guilty, for my skepticism.

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It’s been 16 years since we graduated. We connected periodically over the years since then. A text here, a drink there, usually around our mutual February birthdays. We got together for brunch after I retired, and again for happy hour months later. That was two years ago.

I texted you in February this year, then didn’t return your followup call for more than a week. I was busy. There was lots going on. I kept meaning to call back sooner. I didn’t mean for you to have to leave a second voicemail message. When I finally did call you back we talked for hours. You filled me in on 2020 (had I not talked to you even once during the pandemic?). You said you’d been hospitalized last year, without a COVID-19 diagnosis, though you suspected it had been the virus that had made you critically ill. We said we would get together when it was safe. I said I would do a better job of calling.

But I didn’t.

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I called your father back right away. I can’t imagine his grief. Your mother’s grief. Your son’s grief. I feel…guilt. And even that — feeling guilt ahead of sadness — makes me feel guiltier at the selfishness of it all. I was a bad friend. I’m sorry.

Sorry, guilty…and angry. Two best friends died from cancers that went undiagnosed or were misdiagnosed by doctors who brushed off my friends’ constant complaints for months. Two more friends died from diseases that should have received more urgent, thorough treatment. Like you, all these women were Black and in midlife. Why is it that women in general, and women of color in particular, continue to be marginalized by the healthcare system in this country?

Your father asked me to write a tribute for your upcoming memorial service. I am so not worthy of this request, but it is my honor to do so. Am I trying to make amends for my failure as a friend? Honestly? Maybe.

Every time I sit down to write your tribute, this letter comes out. Different versions, but always a letter to you. Maybe the Universe is telling me something? So I’m sending you this letter here, where I’ve disabled comments because the only comment I wish for will never come now.

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Today’s word is Guilt. Not a made-up word, but a destructive one. A feeling maybe others can avoid by reading this. Life is so fucking short and people are gone in an instant. You were diagnosed with cancer four months after we talked. Four months after that you were dead. I should have called. I should have been a better friend. But now it’s too late.

I. Am. Sorry.