There are moments I still think I see her in Target.
I’ll be comparing ingredients on boxes of granola bars in the cereal aisle or blissfully rummaging through bins of Dollar Section treasures, when out of the corner of my eye, I will suddenly catch a glimpse of a blonde-haired profile and for just a second, be buoyed by a powerful rush of hope.
It’s just as swiftly annulled by the bitter blow of disappointment. And then, invariably, the regret. Always the regret.
Despite the fact that Kathy has been gone from this Earth for two years now — and absent from my life for several more before that — I’ll be damned if I don’t still expect to find her fluffing throw pillows in the Home section or perusing powders in Cosmetics.
I’ve had a scant number of best friends throughout my adulthood; I can count them on one hand. And Kathy, without a doubt, ranks among them.
We both moved our families onto a quiet cul-de-sac in a newly built condominium complex the same scorching July weekend; I was fresh off a divorce and raising two young sons, she was a Marine officer’s wife with two boys of her own. Although she was a bit standoffish at first, our collective brood of testosterone-teeming offspring morphed into an on-the-spot alliance.
The newly formed brotherhood bonded over the weeks of summer, spending countless hours swapping Pokemon cards, constructing elaborate Lego communities, and reveling in the intricate staging of G.I. Joe battlefields. When school started, those old enough to be burdened by homework learned to complete their assignments quickly so they could once again converge on the tarmac between our homes.
Kathy and I became equally inseparable, initially forging a neighborly acquaintance-ship that quickly blossomed into a deep camaraderie — in part due to her husband’s recurring deployments to Iraq and my simultaneous quest to carve out a new definition of family.
We were two single moms, born of separate circumstances.
As I ventured hesitantly into the sketchy world of post-divorce dating, Kathy suffered vicariously by my side. We laughed until we were both in tears as I recounted Match.com dates gone horribly awry. Then, after my first painful breakup, it was Kathy who soothed my heartache with her grounding encouragement and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
Meanwhile, as she launched an interior design business, I created flyers and business cards, helping her hone in on prospective marketing opportunities.
I also tried to assuage the trepidation she endured knowing her husband was scaling rooftops in the war zones of Baghdad. One night during his first deployment she asked me matter-of-factly for a favor — if I ever saw a military car pull up, could I come quickly, because she would need me. I had no idea what such a vehicle might look like, only that I would be there.
A self-professed introvert, Kathy often went through brief periods where she would essentially retreat from the rest of the world. She even had a term for it: “cocooning.” One week we might spend hours strolling leisurely through Target, taking our brood out for meals, and poring over interior design magazines together. The next, I might see her only in passing, a quick wave as we shuttled kids to and from school. As the spouse of a high-ranking Marine, Kathy was routinely tasked with leadership duties that cast her into the limelight, a responsibility she handled with grace despite the fact that it visibly drained her.
A couple of years after becoming neighbors, the real estate market turned upward, and I jumped at the chance to cash in on my condo’s swift appreciation. I bought a larger house, and while a mere 4 miles away, it might as well have been 400, considering the effect it had on our friendship.
No longer separated by just a couple dozen paces, it was as if Kathy suddenly dropped off the planet. She hardly ever returned a phone call or an email. I couldn’t get her to commit to anything. I was baffled.
The more unresponsive she became, the more I tortured myself wondering what I had done, why she no longer wanted to be my friend. I replayed conversations over and over in my mind, struggling to decipher the wrong words I must have said, or the essential ones I had unknowingly left silent. But despite my confusion — and pride — I continued to reach out.
Months passed, and she kept in touch just enough for me to know that her husband was being transferred to the East Coast. I was surprised when Kathy agreed to meet for lunch the day before they were scheduled to leave. As we embraced outside the restaurant, her eyes flooded with tears. “Can you ever forgive me for being such a horrible friend?” she asked. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am.”
And in that moment, it was as if no time had passed between us. She spent much of the meal apologizing profusely for shutting me out during her extended periods of intense cocooning. As we parted, the love was palpable. I had no doubt about the strength of our friendship.
We made promises to visit, vows to keep in touch. And our lives went on.
I eventually beat the online dating odds and fell in love, ultimately remarrying and moving to a new home. Periodically, I would update Kathy on the latest happenings in an email or voice message, but just like before, almost every outreach went unanswered. I still missed her terribly, and longed to share my new life with her.
Again, I found myself playing back our conversations, the secrets we’d shared, certain that I had unwittingly done something to drive her away.
And then one November day, about three years after they had moved East, I ran into Kathy’s husband in a grocery store parking lot just blocks from our old condominium complex. I assumed he was visiting for work. “Didn’t Kathy tell you?” he asked. “We moved back here a few months ago. Give her a call! I know she’d love to hear from you!” he said earnestly, jotting down their new contact information.
Although crushed by the all-too-familiar weight of rejection, I nonetheless mailed a Christmas card to the address he gave me, and then I waited, hopeful. But there was no card, no phone call, no email in return.
I was devastated. And tired. And angry. How many times did I have to chase her down? Should I really have to beg for her friendship? I appreciated her need to cocoon, but where was the beautiful butterfly that had been my best friend? Discouraged, I finally vowed to stop reaching out.
But I was certain that at some point, we would undoubtedly run into one another in Target. The odds were in our favor, considering how much time we both spent there. And I knew, inherently, that we would smile, and give each other the warmest hug. She would apologize for not reaching out to me, and we would set a date to get together. It would be as if all the years had never passed, it would be as easy as when we were back in our quiet little cul-de-sac, nursing our wounds and our loneliness, encouraging one another’s endeavors, consuming her chocolate chip cookies. The fantasy played in my mind like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy; just as Meredith had Cristina, Kathy was “my person.”
So not surprisingly, at least once a month, I’d glance up from the granola bars, spot some unsuspecting blonde, and give chase through the maze of Target aisles, only to come upon a total stranger who would eye me suspiciously until I veered off into the toilet paper section, navigating my stalker shopping cart beyond her view.
A year passed, and despite near weekly trips to the mega store, I never encountered Kathy. Then one day I received an email from a mutual friend, who, I learned, had also been estranged from Kathy over the past several years. In fact, I discovered later, our experiences were eerily similar.
“Did you hear about Kathy?” was all the email said.
I hadn’t heard, of course. But instinctively, I was certain I didn’t want to.
It turned out to be Stage 4 cancer.
And in the instant I learned, the chasm of time between us evaporated again. The sting of rejection became irrelevant, the lingering disappointment and uncertainty washed away.
Because the only thing I cared about was being there for her. All I wanted was to help. To hug her, run her errands, hold her hand, be her confidante. To be all the things I had once been for her, and she for me.
So the next morning, I bought a card and poured my heart out onto the paper, struggling — despite my profession as a writer — to form every word. I baked Kathy a batch of cookies. (Looking back, I still scold myself for not taking flowers instead. Who offers sugar-laden baked goods to someone battling cancer? It occurs to me now that perhaps I unconsciously sought to comfort her in the same manner she had soothed me so many times, with her homemade treats.)
Searching my planner for the address her husband had given me years before, which I’d nearly discarded multiple times, I summoned every ounce of courage I had, got into my car, and started driving. As I sat paralyzed outside her house, a thousand questions see-sawed in my brain: What would I say? Would she be happy to see me? Would she think it rude to show up unannounced? Would I be intruding? Would she welcome me in? (Please, please welcome me in!)
I would never know, because nobody answered the doorbell.
I left the note and cookies on the front porch and drove home, unequivocally dejected. And then I waited. Hoping, praying, then hoping some more for a phone call. An email. A text message. A note in the mail.
But none ever came.
And several months later, I learned of Kathy’s passing on her son’s Facebook page.
The finality of it all, the certainty of knowing I will never see her again — no matter how many times I visit Target — continues to haunt me. The lack of resolution gnaws at my heart, leaving tiny bands of scar tissue.
The one thing I have come to know with certainty is that Kathy was always most comfortable encased within her private cocoon. As an extrovert myself, her introversion was something I neither fully understood nor appreciated. But I believe that the public role she embraced as a military wife simultaneously drained her, sometimes to the point where she had nothing left to give, no energy to even receive.
This truth, which has taken years for me to fully acknowledge, has helped free me from continuing to blame myself for the friendship that slipped away. But sadly, that wisdom does little to abate the lingering loss, the nagging regret, left in the shadows in the absence of goodbye.
I can only hope that someday, the loss will at least stop traipsing along beside me, giving me unfounded hope, as I make my way through the aisles of Target.