Keep in touch

I was worried that I wouldn’t know Deborah but the minute our bus pulled into Milan Central Station from Malpensa Airport, I saw her. Tall and blonde, she stood out immediately from the crowd of dark-haired Italians milling around her. As I got off the bus, we caught each others’ eyes and smiled. I met Deborah when we were four years old and our back gardens abutted in our Glasgow neighborhood. When I stepped off the bus Sunday afternoon, we hadn’t seen each other for 16 years. I knew it would take us a little while to find a comfortable stride with one another and for her to get to know Chris, but we had the distraction of Milan help us along. After dropping our luggage at her flat, the three of us embarked on an inaugural and lengthy walk around the center of the city. We strolled past the Natural History Museum and down cobblestone side streets boasting the best brands in international fashion. We emerged from the busy shopping streets to see the back of the unmistakable, white Duomo – like intricate lace or complex formations of wedding cake icing – rising in between two modern buildings.

The streets around the Duomo were packed with parents toting children dressed in costumes for Carnival and the bright shapes of paper confetti covered the pavement. We paid 6 Euros to take the lift up to the top of the Duomo (declining the 2 euro savings to hoof it up)/ It's a magnificent place up there, where we crawled across the marble slab roof tiles, snaked through narrow and ornate doorways to catch glimpses of the Escher-like lines and walls of the grand structure. From the top, we stared down at the masses on the streets below, milling around in groups, wandering like tiny, colorful ants making their way hither and yon.

Afterwards, we made our way inside the church, where mass was being held. Tourists milled around the back of the dark, cavernous interior beholding the giant stained glass windows, the ancient panels depicting biblical scenes and squinting through the heavy incense smoke. A few people waited patiently on a wooden bench to take confession while still others lit candles aglow. We came back out of the Duomo into the Piazza del Duomo, which was packed with folk enjoying a relatively warm and sunny Sunday afternoon and wandered through the glorious Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, its gaping antique archways and domed glass ceiling bearing light down on shoppers at Louis Vuitton and Prada and those taking coffee at the indoor “sidewalk” cafes.

On the other side, we emerged onto Piazza della Scala, where a giant sculpture of Leonardo da Vinci paid homage to one of Italy’s proudest sons. At the edge of the square sits La Scala and after being raised in an opera family with the near-mystical idea of one of the world’s greatest opera houses, I must say its façade is underwhelming nearly to the point of disappointment.

And we wandered more, and talked, and found ourselves circling the exterior of the Castello Sforzesco before succumbing to the ache of our feet and taking a beautiful old-fashioned wooden tram back towards Deborah’s flat to rest before dinner.

Milan, as seen from our plane, the windows of our bus and tram and even on foot, is perhaps not the Italy you think of if you’ve seen all the romantic movies and picturesque postcards. It is, first and foremost, an industrial town and the view from the top of the Duomo requires you to look hard to find the architectural gems vying for attention with commercial and industrial buildings.

Even at ground level, it’s initially hard to get past the graffiti, as it seems virtually no building is left unmarred. But if you keep your eyes upward, Milan has some beautiful rewards. There’s no end of gorgeous buildings with grand archways, ornate facades, elegant architectural details, quaint balconies or walkways leading to beautiful interior court yards.

And the point of the trip, after all, was mainly to see Deborah, who took us Sunday evening to Trattoria Toscana K2, an exceptional little restaurant with fabulous food and cheap prices. We slept so soundly in her bed that night – she insisted on taking the couch – that she was long gone to work Monday morning when I finally got going. Exhausted from so many days of travel, from trying to orient ourselves to three different cities in the past week, Chris and I decided just to walk more.

We did, more slowly exploring the areas we’d been the day before and stopping into the museum at La Scala. The window-shopping alone in Milan is an experience, even if I could fit into or afford anything the stores have to offer. Our feet were aching by the time late afternoon rolled around and we enjoyed a couple of cappuccinos at a café before heading back to Deb’s flat to rest.

I checked my email upon our return and received the dismaying news that my friend S. was found dead Saturday morning in St. Louis. It’s difficult to describe the shock I felt – and still feel – at the news. I met S. nine years ago in our recovery community and our similar no-nonsense styles attracted one another almost immediately. Although we were very different in so many ways, S. and I became very good friends. Not the kind that spend a great deal of time together, but the kind who were close no matter how much time passed between sightings.

Over the past nine years, she and I crossed paths time and again, rekindling our instant connection, even as our meeting schedules and busy lives seemed to keep us apart. She was one of only a small number of people to attend our wedding in 2001. And although we’d fallen out of touch again, she took me to lunch after my mother died and was so kind and supportive of me.

Again, life intervened and the last time I saw S. was probably more than a year ago. I heard she had some medical problems and I tried to email her, but the address bounced. I tried to call but got a strange, screechy sound on her answering machine. And then I meant to get back in touch. But I didn’t. We had friends in common and I knew we were both moving in nearby circles. I knew that she was having a rough time of life lately but felt comforted that she was going to meetings and reaching out to our mutual friends.

It’s impossible to describe the sadness I feel that S. is gone. There is, of course, selfish regret, the nagging and natural feeling that I simply should have been a better friend. (After all, last time we had lunch didn’t she say – despite the infrequency of our contact – that I was her “best friend”?) It’s both naïve and egotistical to wonder if she might still be alive if I hadn’t moved to Ann Arbor, if I’d been more present in her life, if I’d only somehow known….

The circumstances of S.’s death are still a mystery to me. I’m writing this from Amsterdam and relying on what tidbits I can get in emails from home. I know that she died Thursday night and that her daughters found her on Saturday. I didn’t know – until after her death – that she was in the process of getting a divorce. I know that she had been having some physical pain and was taking pain killers. And I know that she’s dead.

It’s difficult to explain how distance compounds the confusion of grief. How do you possibly make sense of any of it if you’re not there? Of course, I know this is a false notion because geography did nothing to help me process my mother’s death, of which S.’s death is a painful reminder. Both died suddenly, unexpectedly and entirely too young.

It was thoughts of S. I carried with me all day yesterday, as Chris and I took a train to beautiful Verona for the day. Such a romantic and beautiful city, rich with the Shakespearean lore of Romeo and Juliet (complete with statues and a tour through Juliet’s house). But through it all, the sadness nagged at me. For minutes at a time, a cobblestone street or first-century monument or fresco would distract me just long enough and then it would come rushing back – S.’s death. How could it…? What….? Why…?

It caught up with me on the train ride home, as I took my seat on an old rickety train, depressingly dirty. It seemed to have a tenuous relationship with the tracks and with the mountain background fading into the dusk sky, it was hard to focus on anything but the desolate railroad tracks, barren vineyards and industrial wasteland encroaching on the countryside. Every bump of the train seemed to fill me up with more sadness.

It struck me as more important than ever to value my last night in Milan with Deb and I did that over a fair seafood dinner and some girl chat until well past midnight. Then I went to bed and slept fitfully until we arose entirely too early to take a plane back to Amsterdam. At the airport, Deb and I said our goodbyes and made jokes about not taking 16 years to get back in touch. I looked at her and wondered how on earth my childhood playmate, my first best friend, and I got to be in our mid-thirties. Where did our lives go? Who have we become and how far is that, really, from who we were when last we knew each other?

I don’t know that answer to any of that. I know only that by this evening, Deborah had made the first move, sending me an email from Milan to say how much she enjoyed our visit. I’m achingly aware that staying in touch with someone is a chance that you’re given, and it’s your choice to take it. And since I don’t know what else to do, since the rest of the world is out of my control, the only thing I know to do is this: write back.