Friends and acquaintances

Thursday morning I opened an email from my university and felt like somebody had slammed my heart with crowbar.

The message was about the wife of my best friend on the faculty. It said she had died Wednesday after routine surgery in Buffalo the day before. I read it again, hoping I’d misunderstood. I spent the next hours in a daze, near tears at times, and my wife was nearly as dazed as I was because she understands the depth of my friendship with this man.

He is an English professor about a dozen years older than I am, and he has been teaching at the university for decades. His students past and present love him. I took a graduate course from him many years ago, and it changed the way I see the world. I tell my academic advisees they should not graduate before they take a course from him.

I had a sick feeling the rest of the day. I still do.

This great sadness descended on a day that I had known for months was going to be a sad one in itself. It involved my best friend. She’s a former student who graduated a year ago. We’ve done a radio show on the student-run station for the last seven semesters and are, in a word, simpatico. We did our final show Thursday and then, as we always do, had lunch. I barely remember what my meal tasted like. I tried to tough it out, to talk like Nick Nolte in 48 Hours, but it didn’t work. We both know she has outgrown this place, but that didn’t make it easier to say goodbye.

I’ve been thinking of this question a lot during the run-up to Thursday’s goodbye: What’s the difference between friends and acquaintances?

I usually don’t consider this question because the only person I need in my life is Sherry. We’ve been married 35 years and have never been closer. There is goodness in her heart and spirit that never stops surprising me. She is not my “better half”—she is my better 95 percent. Each year with her is more precious than the one before. But she is my wife, which is to friendship as the Earth is to Pluto.

Friendship in the traditional sense is more difficult to assess. On the album The Who by Numbers, Roger Daltry asks in the song “How Many Friends”:

How many friends have I really got?
You can count ’em on one hand

How do we define friends? Acquaintances? The boundary is blurry. Are friendships measured solely by longevity? Are they measured merely by the number of times you see people, and how often, or by how often they reach out to you, or you to them? And what counts as “reaching out”: phone calls, emails, “likes” on Facebook? Or is it all just a matter of quickly falling into a comfortable groove when you get together?

How many friends have I really got? I need one more hand than Daltry—but not all of the second hand’s fingers are taken. As I age, I don’t need as many. Our lives change. Values shift. There is no fault to be placed; no one is guilty of anything. This is a matter of inevitability and acceptance.

That made my friend’s departure yesterday all the more difficult. She’s nearly 40 years younger than I am, with a lifetime of (to steal a phrase from Bowie) warm impermanence awaiting her. Our friendship, having come early in her life, will fade to a footnote for her.

And none of us likes to be unremembered.

I might have used the word “bittersweet,” but I am not bitter—it’s more like wistful—when paths diverge. As I said, parting is inevitable. This parting reminded me of Paul Simon’s song “She Moves On,” the lyrics of which combine Simon’s ability to stand detached from a situation while describing it with lyrics that are anything but detached:

When the road bends
And the song ends
She moves on

My feelings, though, are less than trivial compared to those of my friend whose wife died. He always mentioned her—always—when we’d get together, regardless of whether we talked about Blake, baseball or B.B. King. As for Blake, my friend is the guy if you want to study English Romantic poets. Not long ago, I sent him an email in which I made a joke comparing his gaze to the Ancient Mariner’s “glittering eye.”

The phrase reminded him of a poem he’d written in the late 1970s. He sent me a copy. His wife was from Pittsburgh, and the poem marked something that happened to him one time when they visited her parents. The last lines read:

At the marbled university library I sit in the formal
silence, still transfixed by the city’s glittering eye.
The text lies open to John Clare, who like others
spoke in anguish, demanding transformation.

I told him I was going to have my students read it as an exercise in critical thinking. It had taken me three close readings to extract what he was saying in the poem—or most of it, anyway. I thought the students might see how rewarding it can be to burrow into something they read.

On a whim, I asked if he’d like to visit my class to discuss it. I say “on a whim” because the class meets at 8:30 a.m. He immediately accepted, and in our emails to nail down the details, he kept writing, “Looking forward to it.”

Of course, he was brilliant. Part of the discussion was about the question of audience. “Who am I writing this poem for?” he asked the class. After the question hung in the air unanswered, he told them.

“I’m writing it to my wife.”

My radio show friend has left town, but she might visit or at least stay in touch. He has no such consolation.