I Guess I’ll Never Know
We can become incredibly close with someone, and they can drift out of our lives never to be seen or heard from again. Forever is a very long time. We may get a sense that we may never hear from someone based on a long time passing, but you never know.
I met Maryellen the first week of junior high. We were in 7th grade, and 12 years old. We lived in suburban New Jersey where we walked to school which meant we lived within walking distance of each other. Her house was directly behind the school. Maryellen and I were on the same academic “team”, which meant a few of our classes overlapped, but our core academic classes were separate because we were on different scholastic levels. I think we were in the same gym class.
I became fast friends with Maryellen. We generally spent an overnight on weekends at her house where there was usually less supervision by her alcoholic parents. Her mother suffered from mental illness and was usually on medication, as well. We were “bad” kids; we smoked cigarettes and pot, drank and experimented with drugs.
We also did the usual young girl things like shopping for cool clothes, going to the shore, and going to parties together. We had another friend who lived near our high school who had a swimming pool where we spent a lot of time swimming in the summer.
We went to our first rock concert, Peter Frampton, Frampton Comes Alive tour, in NYC’s Madison Square Garden together with both of her older sisters.
When we were freshmen in high school, one of Maryellen’s older sisters was diagnosed with oral cancer. She was 19. This was my first exposure to serious illness. She passed away that year. It was devastating for Maryellen’s family. I couldn’t believe it. I had yet to be exposed to life’s disasters. I attended the funeral with my best friend.
My family moved to a nearby town in a different school district after my freshman year. The new high school didn’t have a competitive gymnastics team. For this reason, my mother drove me to school at my old high school through the competitive season’s end in January of my sophomore year. I maintained close ties with Maryellen and our friends after we moved with our parents shuttling us back and forth on weekends until we got our driver’s licenses.
Maryellen and I came of age together. We had our first crushes, boyfriends and many teenage firsts.
We graduated the same year from different high schools. Maryellen went to work, and I started community college.
I believe we were about 20 years old when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She opted to not treat it and passed away when she was around 50 years old.
I attended another family funeral with my best friend. Her dad declined rapidly following her mother’s death; he drank heavily.
I got engaged when I was 20 to my first serious boyfriend. I asked Maryellen to be a bridesmaid. By then she had become involved with a serious boyfriend, as well.
Maryellen and Joe opted to get married in Hawaii by themselves in order to avoid the family drama that often accompanies weddings. They had a small party in a local VFW hall when they returned home which I attended.
My best friend was tall and slender in sharp contrast to my other bridesmaids who were both very overweight. It was challenging to find a dress for all of them that was flattering.
The two of us had grown up together through many ups and downs. When we were first married, we lived near enough to each other to continue to socialize. Our husbands got along with each other and even had a few similar interests.
In adult life, we spoke on the phone nearly every day so we didn’t miss much.
I don’t think we could have planned it, but we gave birth to our first child within 18 days of each other. I had struggled for years with fertility issues so it was even more surprising when I finally became pregnant that my best friend was expecting her first baby at almost the same time.
Each of us had moved to new homes before the babies were born, but we were still in neighboring towns. We visited each other often while we were both trying to figure out how to breast feed and care for our babies. I had a boy, and she had a girl. We have photos of them in the crib together. Their first Halloween was adorable with Kelly in an Easter bunny costume, and Sam in Winnie the Pooh.
Twenty two months after giving birth to Sam, I was 6 months pregnant and suffered a massive stroke. Maryellen was one of the few friends who were permitted to see me in the neuro intensive care unit of the hospital that had very restrictive visiting policies.
She was also one of a small minority of friends who treated me the same after I became disabled. Things changed quite a bit, however, with my physical limitations putting a damper on many baby related activities that involved walking or pushing strollers. We remained close friends, and still shared child raising milestones.
Maryellen returned to work after 6 weeks of maternity leave, and I was fortunate to be able to choose to be a full time, stay at home mom. Our lives diverged naturally at this point, but we remained very close even if we spent less time together.
She moved into a larger home one town over that was still near where I lived so our friendship carried on. It felt like we knew everything about each other, almost like sisters.
She had a bad fight with her husband once over finances, and he hit her. He broke her nose. Going to the emergency room triggered a police investigation and child services got involved, as well. They spent a small fortune on lawyers to avoid having their daughter placed in foster care.
I remember when Maryellen had an affair with her boss. She shared the thrilling details of getting attention from a new man. Of course, there was some conflict about this because she knew it was morally wrong, but part of her acknowledged that she was motivated by her husband’s abuse. The affair was very short lived, and ultimately cost her her job. We talked about the possibility of more violence in her marriage, but she decided they would try to figure things out rather than break up.
She became tired of trying to have it all by working full time so her husband hatched a plan to move out of state into a smaller, cheaper home where there would be no mortgage and much lower property taxes. Supposedly this would cut down on conflict over finances, too.
I remember being a little shocked when Maryellen casually mentioned they were moving to Pennsylvania. We had lived in New Jersey since we met, and had remained in very steady contact. She told me they had a friend who had relocated and was quite happy. They had been house hunting for several months when it seemed like she sprang this big news on me.
They sold their house quickly, and it seemed like they were living in Pennsylvania in no time. I was kind of bummed that we would be so far apart, even though we had been getting together less frequently.
We continued to talk on the phone nearly every day, sometimes several times. In this way, things didn’t really change. Of course, there was email and Facebook. We shopped together online. My family and I went to visit them in their new home after they got settled.
Our friendship didn’t change too much until I mentioned that my family was planning to move into a more handicapped friendly home on the other side of town. She asked a lot of pointed questions about the new house including how much we paid for it. I think we had always been in competition with each other over so many years. I remember her often being envious of my stay at home mom status, and my college education that was paid in full by my parents. These were privileges that were not available to her.
I wouldn’t tell her exactly how much we paid for the new house, but I gave her a range instead. She was familiar with the area so she had a good idea of what we were getting into.
I moved to my new home in 2007. Maryellen seemed to distance herself slightly from me after I moved with less frequent contact.
My mother had known Maryellen since I met her when I was 12 years old. She was close friends with Maryellen’s brother’s best friend’s mother. When this friend passed away, my mom saw Maryellen’s brother’s friend at the funeral.
My mother asked this man how Maryellen was doing and mentioned that I hadn’t heard from her in a while. He told my mother that she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
I was shocked when my mother told me this. I couldn’t think of a rational reason why Maryellen would not share this devastating news with me, especially since I had been disabled myself since 1999.
I called my best friend right away and confronted her. She told me that her brother’s friend had the story wrong. She said she had RLS, restless leg syndrome, not MS.
Another strange point here was that she had mentioned being misdiagnosed with MS years ago, but it was actually Lyme Disease for which she had been treated.
Now I was thinking that she must have had some reason for not wanting to tell me she was sick, but it was hard to believe having been through so much together for a good part of our lives. I wanted to believe her explanation, and I gave her the impression that I did.
We carried on as usual with daily phone conversations. I asked how her RLS was. She told me about it in detail.
After I was settled in my new house, I invited Maryellen and her family to visit and check out our home. It was about an hour and a half drive.
As soon as she came in the house, I was very concerned. She had a stiff, awkward gait and appeared to be off balance. I offered to loan her a cane because she looked so bad. She refused, and said she just needed to walk around more to loosen up.
She denied anything was wrong other than being stiff from too much time in the car. Besides watching her struggle to walk, our visit went well. We had dinner, and a lot of conversation like old times.
As they were leaving through our garage, Maryellen fell flat on her ass. It didn’t appear that she tripped over anything in particular or that the floor was slippery. She didn’t get hurt, and was helped back to her feet by her husband.
They went home and our friendship continued as usual. Of course, I pressed the issue about her inability to walk correctly, but she denied anything was wrong. She said that was just what happened when she spent too much time in the car. I wanted to believe her.
I accepted her story and didn’t mention it again. Months passed.
One day I received an email from Maryellen apologizing for not telling me sooner, and yes, she did have MS. Still, I had trouble understanding why she kept this from me. It certainly explained a lot.
One day I mentioned that I thought we should go somewhere on vacation together that was accessible and relaxing. I had been doing a lot of complaining about my husband traveling alone. We decided we would go to the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas for 4 days in the winter. Each of us had been there before with our families so we were sure it would work for us. We set the timeframe for January, one of the cruelest months in New Jersey.
Maryellen stayed at my house the night before the trip. There were inconvenient winter weather delays that caused us to arrive a day late.
We limped around with our canes, enjoyed nice meals, and took in the scenery. I think we went in a pool once. We laughed a lot about our disabilities. Who’d have thought that those two 12 year old girls who met in 7th grade would grow up to be disabled, 48 year olds?
Traveling with someone will show you what you each are made of. We got along just like sisters; we had fun and we fought. The winter weather created additional complications upon our return, as well. She had to spend an extra night at my house.
Over the next 2 years, we barely saw each other, but communicated regularly. She had the misfortune of being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer after she turned 49. This was very scary because of her family history.
She had surgery to remove a very small tumor and seemed fine. She had also started a new treatment for her MS that seemed to alleviate her terrible spasticity somewhat.
Her life had become very challenging from a health standpoint as she was approaching her 50th birthday. She had always been very vain and uncomfortable about aging. So 50 was going to be a big deal.
Maryellen had a lot of issues over the years with forcing herself to get used to her Italian husband’s family traditions around large parties. She was always jealous of the seeming fancy parties, and now wanted one for herself.
As the date approached, she was getting ramped up about wanting this big party for her birthday. Her husband called me to discuss his ideas and to get my opinion.
In light of all of the recent health issues, he was thinking about having a small lunch for some of her close friends in a restaurant near their house. I told him she was hoping for a big party. I understood his reasoning about doing something small because of her poor health.
The day after he called, Maryellen called me and very angrily asked, “Did you talk to my husband?” “Yes, he called me to talk about your birthday.” She blew up in anger about how she didn’t like this and told me to not speak to him again. It was so weird to be attacked over what seemed like nothing, but she was furious.
The conversation went in strange circles until she finally said, “I have to go”, and hung up.
I’d been noticing some strange behavior from Maryellen for a while and wondered if her illness had affected her mind. I was also aware of a history of mental illness in her family. Her other older sister had spent time in a state psychiatric hospital, and her mother was on medication for years.
It’s been 5 years since I’ve spoken to my former best friend. I attempted to reach out a few times, but she never responded. I don’t even know if she’s still alive. I don’t know how her illness has progressed or not.
We are good friends with Maryellen’s husband’s cousin who at one time was very close with his cousin. He reports that he thinks they split up, and no one in his family ever hears from them.
It seems as if I may never hear from her again. We all see people disappear from our lives. I think in this case, I have learned to distance myself from this loss owing to the fact that she wasn’t able to continue being friends for reasons I’ll probably never know. Weird.
Thank you for reading. :)