My friend Stacy, who lives in Massachusetts, recently awoke in the middle of the night to a loud pounding. She went downstairs to see a light coming through a hole where a man had taken a hammer and had already burst a hole in her door. She yelled that she was going to call the police. He ran. Two officers arrived eight minutes later and talked with her, could not find any sign of the intruder and so they left. And there she was, alone again.
For three days she did not tell me about this. When she did, she gave me a fleeting description and said she could tell me more if I wanted to know. She had not wanted to call up a past trauma of forty-five years ago when we were in college and I was sexually assaulted: jerked awake at knife point out of a sound sleep in the middle of a DC afternoon.
And in her consideration, in her memory, I understood the power of long, patient friendship. I understood too, why the thought of her left alone after the cops stopped in, frightened me. There is a way we imagine ourselves into the bodies and places of those we love. It is why I often want to visit old friends when they move. I want to know what Stacy’s kitchen with its northern light and its earthen orange walls looks like. I want to see where Mary plays her piano now that she has moved to the cities. And while I feel this way about newer friends as well, loving to be present in their rooms, it is friends who have weathered years of change and grief and happiness that call up the visual in me, the desire to picture precisely where they make coffee, where they watch t.v. or write poems. Imagining her left in her house was so real for me.
Because my friend lived with my grief of years, because she understood the way trauma has become embedded in my muscle and nerves, she paused before describing her break-in, so similar to the one I survived. . We do not talk about this event, about how my classmates made room for me to come and live in their apartment in Georgetown, about how they gathered around me each in her unique way: bringing tea, cooking eggs, driving to an arraignment with me. It is simply one of those times when they, along with my soon to be husband, accompanied me. That is all they could do.
And they accompany me still. They are the ones who lived through the hours and days and weeks afterward. They too have this trauma, second-hand though it was, embedded in their memories.
There is a lot of talk about how to create safe places for those who have been hurt to find support; structuring ways to have discussions about vulnerabilities, fears, or anger. I believe we can do this as teachers, as friends.
I also know I need structural assurances. Since I moved to a downtown loft in an industrial building where the large door to our unit is made of steel, and where the garage is controlled with a remote, I feel safer than I have felt in my life. I don’t know what this implies or why I need such protection at age sixty-seven, yet every day I appreciate it. I am a person who walks in the morning, either alone or with my husband. I go out at night alone and I park in ramps. It has taken forty years for me to be able to park in them.
In an age of instant messages: tweets and texts and even emails, the value of layered friendship, respect for the power of memory and the time it takes to accompany each other through grief or loss, seems almost antiquated. It is as though I am writing about a way of living that is irrelevant. I do know that without the grace of those who have confided in me, in whom I have confided, on those infrequent days when something calls it all back, I would not live the joy of abundant friendships and love I live now.
I wonder if we need, at the very least, to acknowledge that creating safety takes time, takes much more than that steel door or that escort to our car, while those are much appreciated. It takes respect for what changes, what will never be the same, and the grief that comes with that. It takes asking each other, “Do you want to know? Shall I tell you?” The safety, then, is in the questions, the necessary hesitation, the history we have together.