I showed up at Sarah’s door with a freshly baked cake and a pot of soup. Her father had recently passed away and I wanted to help. We had appeared at each other’s doorsteps for four years, which always led to a chat at the table or an impromptu glass of wine on the front stoop. But on this day, she didn’t invite me to join her. Instead, she looked at my gifts as if they were wares from a salesman.
“Oh, bummer, I was just fixing dinner,” she said hastily from her doorway.
I awkwardly offered her the food. We stood in silence a few long seconds.
“Sorry, but I’m really busy with the kids, gotta go. Thanks for the food,” she said, and shut the door.
I remember the warm spring sun barely warmed my back from the coolness she exhaled. I walked home feeling kicked in the gut.
Sarah and I had been friends since we were thrown together as neighbors in a new subdivision, in a new town, full of dirt yards and freshly painted white walls. Our cul-de-sac consisted of the first four families to move in; we joked we were like pioneers settling the West. Everyone was neighborly, but our two families connected immediately. Before long, we were sharing cocktails and BBQs in our backyards.
We studied the light in each other’s big empty rooms, choosing paint colors and drapes; we took our kids to the park; and we easily chatted over coffee. I loved her sense of humor and admired her intelligence. I hadn’t had a friend so close and accessible since my college days.
She was sexy and cool; I was smitten.
But after her father died, I noticed a change. Having lost my father the year before, I knew what it was like to navigate life with a piece of yourself missing. I understood everyone grieved differently; that time now trickled slowly. But I never turned away a friend’s love or empathy, or shut people out. I never shut her out.
My 8-year-old daughter loved playing with her children. Now, more often than not, she came home after being turned away.
“They can’t play … again,” she said.
“It’s not a good time, maybe,” I’d say, more for my benefit than hers. “You remember how sad we were when Grandpa died.”
When I called her the next day to ask her to lunch, her tone stuck me like a needle to skin.
“No, I’m busy,” Sarah said.
I stood in my kitchen, my legs felt weak. “Is something wrong between us?” I asked.
She paused briefly. “Hmm, maybe,” she chuckled nervously, which didn’t seem funny. “I don’t know; I just find it difficult to be around you lately.”
My heart raced. “Why?”
“I just don’t think I like you anymore.”
I sank into a stiff chair at my kitchen table and said nothing, the way there is nothing to say when lightning strikes very close and you hold your breath for the thunder. I gathered her words as they spun inside my head trying to form a sentence that made sense.
“Because you don’t like me anymore …” I uttered, clearly to give her a chance to correct me. Instead she belittled me, saying that lately she had felt we weren’t on the same page, that she now felt bothered by me.
But I had stopped listening. Her tone was unwavering. Cold. She said goodbye. Only she knew it would be the last time we ever spoke. I hung up the phone, took a deep breath, and cried like I had in seventh grade when a first boyfriend broke my heart — except now I was 40 and being dumped by a girlfriend.
In bed that night as I lay beside my sleeping husband, I cried softly. Her words hung before me like a lesson on a blackboard.
I just don’t like you anymore.
Only weeks before we were comparing reviews of a movie, joking about the great sex one of us had the night before, laughing over one of our kid’s funny antics, and now we were nothing.
My husband rolled over and asked what was wrong. “Sarah doesn’t like me anymore,” I said, looking into the darkness.
He wrapped me in his arms and kissed my head. “That’s silly, go talk to her tomorrow.”
“She told you that?” I pushed my face into his chest, glad he couldn’t see me or the hot tears. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “Give her a few days, she’ll get over it. This isn’t about you.”
With the sudden ending of our friendship, I examined my other relationships and could now see myself only as a liability. I may as well have had three heads and roared like a monster; I felt utterly unlikable. I didn’t know who I was.
A couple weeks later, our family met up with our oldest friends for an annual ski weekend. Still too raw to share my story, I struggled to have basic conversation with my friend Bridget. I moved through the motions, and at night prayed for sleep but instead heard Sarah’s voice in my head.
I just don’t like you anymore …
Bridget called the next week.
“Something was wrong with you last weekend,” she announced.
She was on to me. I was embarrassed and didn’t want her to know. I opened my mouth to say something silly, something that sounded like me. Instead, through tears, I told her everything.
Not one to be described as saccharine, Bridget was a fierce and loyal friend. “Something is going on with her. You aren’t the one with the problem and I doubt this is about you.”
If I could so easily be dismissed, was I ever really her friend?
Maybe not, yet a year after the breakup, I felt vulnerable and untrusting of women who might hurt me again. But, I knew it was time to move on. I understood the sudden ending of our friendship was as painful and surprising as losing a romantic love. And like any ended romance, I needed a better fit. It wasn’t about me being a bad friend; we just weren’t a good match.
I steadied my resolve and reached out to another friend, who reached out to several other women and we started a book group. At first, we were 12 strangers meeting once a month, but as they shared their lives with me, I felt my guard soften and my heart open once again. They became my circle, my reconnection to women. My personal turmoil felt like a fading memory.
Then, I learned Sarah had cancer. I was terrified for her and her family. I immediately felt drawn back to her. Just as when she had lost her father, I felt the need to be there. I was ready to bring soup and cake, but my husband stopped me.
“She has never looked back. She doesn’t want you, even now.”
He was right. We hadn’t as much as waved to one another in over a year, her husband hadn’t reached out to mine, her children never asked mine to play. It was over.
After months of treatment I heard she was well again and wanted to be closer to family. They put their house up for sale and disappeared without a word.
Four years after her diagnosis, I received the same terrifying news. My family and circle of 12 bolstered and loved me as if I was a tiny bird that had fallen from a nest with no mother.
My friends visited, cooked for my family, and made me laugh so hard I thought my stitches would burst. They saw me at my worst, and brought out my best. I realized then, that if I hadn’t lost Sarah, I never would have gained those 12. Days into my hospital stay, I received a letter. It was from her.
“I’m sorry to hear you’re not well. I have lived a life of few regrets, the biggest being the way I treated you all those years ago. I didn’t know how to deal with the loss of my dad. I’m deeply sorry. It wasn’t about you, it was about me …”
Tears fell and blurred her words. Cancer free, I felt gratitude at every turn, but resisted the impulse to respond. In the end, I did nothing. I had finally moved on. Her apology wasn’t about me; it was about her. I hope it freed her conscience and I hope she is well … and silently I thank her because now I know what it means to have real friends.
Everyone needs a girlfriend!
Sign up to receive our free weekly newsletter every Thursday.