When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.
Time in dreams is frozen. You can never get away from where you’ve been.
― Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
The other day I had a phone call from a childhood girlfriend. Catherine is one of the very few people I am connected to now, who knew me as a child and teenager. Who knew my parents and my brothers. My childhood pets. My first love. When I see her name printed out in staccato fashion across my cell phone screen, I smile and catch my breath simultaneously. Is it a call to stay in touch or dispense sad news? Lately, the calls have included both.
She and I share the roots of summers at the lake. And winters exploring the frozen inlets and logging trails on snowmobiles. Together, we learned how to drive boats, paddle canoes, swim across the bay, change a spark plug and mix gas. We built mammoth sandcastles, walked slippery logs in the creek in search of frogs, and made driftwood gifts for special people in our lives. As pre-teens, we spent winter weekends on backwoods ski-doo safaris. And surviving death-defying cliff jumps into the lake, or down snowy rock faces on cross-country skis. We were fearless. She, taller and stronger than me, with long tight pigtails and an infectious giggle that, still now, morphs into an open mouth out loud laugh. I was smaller and faster. My hair flew wildly in the air. I can’t remember how I laughed.
Catherine married a farmer. I married a banker. She moved to the country. I moved downtown. She strengthened her roots. I let mine wither. She stayed connected through frequent cottage visits with my mother and father. I detached into my career and ego. She was ever-patient, ever-present, never dropping a stitch of our lifelong connection. Even when I was loose in the world, she stayed tethered to me through my parents.
An only child to a single parent, Catherine buried her mother in the late nineties. Her grief, even now, is never far from the surface. Dutifully, she was present for the funerals of my mother and father. And she shared my heartbreak and frustration at the death of one of my brothers. Aunts, uncles, cousins, friends: we knew each other’s relationships and the impact of each loss.
On our call the other day we admitted to being in our final quarter. We talked about our health vulnerabilities. The tests we were now needing to diagnose odd ailments and frailties. Her attention and concern for my wellbeing left me feeling inadequate as a friend. I had abandoned all but obligatory contact for many years. Her chosen path strengthened her ties to our childhood. Mine did its damndest to obliterate it.
And yet here I am. Catherine won’t let me abandon my roots. She won’t let me leave the memories filed away and forgotten. She won’t let me detach from my brother, the only family I have left —despite feeling unfastened and alone. Her calls fill in the details of thin slices of memories. They validate my fuzzy recollections, remind me of forgotten friends, explain the faded scar on my right index finger. They help me to link my past to my present. They comfort me as I ponder the future. Our future.
At least, that is my experience.