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How To Forgive A Friend Who's Hurt You

Some things just don't matter in the big picture.

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illustration of two ladies extending their hands towards each other
Lisa Tegtmeier
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Ugh, I’m wincing just thinking about the big fight. I called Laura from the St. Louis airport while waiting out a delay for my flight home to New York City. What a fitting ending to the trip from hell. I came in for the weekend to visit her, but as I saw it, she blew me off repeatedly to run errands with her young kids. On my last day, she cancelled plans because her son was sick. Now I blamed Laura for my extra airport waiting time, and I wanted to make sure she knew my unhappiness was her doing. “Your behavior this weekend was unacceptable, and I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” I shouted on my phone while pacing in front of an Auntie Anne’s pretzels outpost. She responded that I was being selfish. I disagreed. We hung up. Then proceeded to ignore each other for six years.

I was too angry to realize what I was losing. Laura and I were insta-besties during our four years together at the University of Missouri. When I hung out with her, I didn’t have to worry about fitting the mold of a super-cool hipster party girl. We were so goofy and earnest that one Saturday night, we each decided to make a list of exactly what we were looking for in a boyfriend. We exchanged it, and made a vow to give it back on each other’s wedding day. Laura visited me and my family in Michigan on our summer breaks; I was a frequent guest at her parents’ home in St. Louis. After graduating, we did a remarkable job at staying close despite the miles between us. A bridesmaid at her wedding, I toasted her at the rehearsal dinner — where, yes, I handed back her now-crumbled Boyfriend List. We always ended each phone conversation by exchanging a brief but meaningful “love you.”

During our years of being incommunicado, I tried to erase Laura from my brain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-style. If I thought about her, then I’d have to come to grips that maybe, just maybe, we were both in the wrong. And then I’d have to apologize and expose my vulnerability. None of this interested me. Besides, time was passing by. It would just be weird, awkward and random to call her out of the blue now. So I forged ahead in New York City as a busy entertainment writer, and assumed she was enjoying married life and raising the kids in Midwest suburban bliss.

I’ve never believed in the cliché that traumatic news puts little things in perspective. That seemed an easy way to dismiss very real complications. But last month, I learned that a mutual friend from college had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Surreally enough, Amy was the second girl from our sorority pledge class in less than a year to receive this devastating diagnosis. Back in the day, Amy, Laura and I all went to lunch together after our graduation ceremony — and my mom snapped a photo of us outside the restaurant. I still have the 20-year-old pic in my bedroom, and when I heard the news, I unearthed it. We looked so happy and fresh-faced, our futures bright. Now Amy’s life was in the balance, while Laura and I were estranged. I couldn’t control what was happening with one friend, but I could with the other. I grabbed my phone and instinctively dialed Laura’s cell. I had called her so many times that her number was still lodged in my brain.

We chatted effortlessly, as if we had talked last week. No stilted awkwardness. We covered Amy and the awfulness of her illness, and expressed disbelief that another sorority sister was gravely ill. Life was too short, we agreed. Then we addressed the unspoken issue, the one that had been hanging over us all those years. Laura apologized first, admitting she was in an overwhelming emotional place in her life at the time. She didn’t know how to juggle her marriage, job and kids. I responded with a heartfelt sorry as well, telling her that I was too self-absorbed and judgmental to sympathize with her problems. As soon as the words tumbled out of me, I felt liberated and relieved. We promised to stay in touch. She texted me the next day, and the day after that.

Truth is, the cliché is right on target. All that petty crap — and 99 percent of the time, it is petty crap — doesn’t matter in the big picture, especially when it comes to preserving long-lasting friendships. Laura and I may have lost those six years to our own hang-ups, but at least we’ve addressed the issue and moved on while we can. I’m visiting her this summer and will be grateful for any time I can get with her. We call each other every Sunday night to check in, too. And we end each conversation with that same brief-but-meaningful exchange: Love you.