Some days are harder than others. I went to a funeral today. A woman I have known for fifteen years but barely know. How can it be possible to know someone for fifteen years and not know that they like banana cake better than any other cake in the world? Or doo wop groups from the 50s? Or deep red lipstick only available in New York?
Maybe it’s better to say – callous as it sounds – I was aware this woman existed but I was unaware of most of the details which defined her?
Etta was my husband’s friend rather than mine. She and her partner were my husband’s best drinking buddies for several years. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? It was the drinking, the constant drinking and staggering home at two in the morning while I had been sat at home alone for the third night in a row with an asthmatic two year old that caused me to put up a wall through which I could not see the true content of Etta’s character.
For years I regarded Etta with resentment. I blamed her for the problems in my marriage. I believed she was enabling my husband’s bad behaviour. It is possible that to a certain extent she was, but most of the enabling came from little old me. I can see that now but at the time she was the closest thing to a scapegoat I could find.
Etta liked to party. She was welcoming and generous but sometimes when her little kids were still up at 2AM on a school night or came to school with dirty faces, I thought she had gone too far. We clashed. We fought. She said I was bossy and uptight. I said she was bossy and impetuous.
For about four years we didn’t talk, sidestepping each other like strangers if we happened to meet in the street. When she got sick I felt bad, sent her cards and presents, I even popped round to her house one day with a casserole, but she didn’t answer the door even though I had seen her through the window.
‘Screw you,’ I said under my breath as I left the casserole on the doorstep. ‘You just can’t let things go, can you?’
When she was admitted to hospital my husband wanted us to volunteer to help out with the kids. I feel bad about it but I refused. I couldn’t excuse her past behaviour just because she was ill. I kept looking backwards, expecting to see pillars of salt dissolving in the wind.
I wanted to forgive and forget but I remembered the long, lonely nights for years and years which she knew about (because I told her), so I couldn’t. My resentment towards her kept itself alive, gorging and binging until it stood like a monolith between us.
In her final days I went to the hospital but she didn’t know me – out of her head on morphine. I wanted to make my peace but the chance never presented itself.
It’s an odd feeling when you know someone is dying – you feel this incredible urge to absolve yourself. It’s as if no matter what they have done to you in the past, they are forgiven due to the fact they will soon be gone.
I felt like a hypocrite at the funeral. There were over 200 people there. Two hundred people who saw good things in Etta I didn’t see. Two hundred people who knew stories about lipstick and banana cake and old songs split into three part harmonies.
As I sat listening to them reminisce, recounting amusing tales from the past, describing a woman completely opposite to the one I knew; I realised of how many parts a person is made. And often not every part is revealed to each person we meet. Most of us hold at least one thing back until we can be sure of acceptance, of being treated with care.
I am sorry Etta is gone. I am sorry for her sons, her husband, her wonderful sisters, her friends with their hilarious anecdotes. But most of all I am sorry that in fifteen years I never got the chance to know her as she really was.