Eddie was all jazzed up, ready to go burn the turf at the district-wide track meet after school today. He had been going to track practice and running his soccer drills with his soccer team for weeks now. This was for real. So we pulled up to the school hosting the event and it was abuzz with parents, coaches, kids in their school colors, strollers, leashed dogs swarming all over the track and field. One coach was yelling through a megaphone but getting through to no-one. To be fair, the ‘mega’ part of the phone was pretty chintzy. It was the quintessential unorganized, haphazard elementary school event. Everyone was excited – kids running around “warming up” while parents were either trying to figure out what the heck was going on or chit-chatting amongst themselves.
Eddie decided to warm up at the standing long jump where a pack of old friends and acquaintances were doing the same. But something felt a bit off. I noticed that kids would try to nudge and say hello, but he just stared off into the distance waiting his turn. And then, Sue grabbed my attention with her general naughtiness and I had to chase her down. A few moments later, away from the standing long jump, I saw Eddie make his way toward another side of the field. (Look a squirrel…nope, just Sue running off again on her fat toddler legs.) I looked up again, after I caught my “squirrel” and noticed that Eddie was surrounded by a group of familiar kids from his old school and a parent. He had his back turned to the parent (who I have known as an acquaintance for a few years), staring off somewhere….I don’t know. Then my stomach dropped. Something was off, there was no smiling and no “happy to see you again” gestures. Everyone seemed troubled and tense. We saw it at the same time and my husband and I darted over in the same split second to try to figure out what was going on.
As we circled around, I overheard a little girl that Eddie had an enormous crush on say, “…what do you MEAN you don’t remember who I am? We sat together at lunch every day last year!” That is what her words said, but her tone meant – “Wasn’t I important enough for you to remember me even though we haven’t seen each other for a while?” She was hurt. The group thought he was just being a jerk. And I wasn’t prepared for this. I never am in these situations. The father was trying to coax something polite out of Eddie. But all Eddie knew was that he was surrounded by people he had never seen before in his life. And these strangers had expectations of him he could not fulfill. He knew he should know, but nothing was coming to him. I could see his embarrassment and uncertainty.
So I had to speak up, he really really wasn’t trying to be rude or hurt anybody. But hurt, confused and upset they were. Rightfully so.
Stop for a second: imagine walking up to a friend (or even in our case sometimes – a relative) you have known for years, spent meaningful time with, or even shared your every day life with. You spot the person after a prolonged absence and run up to say hello, glad to see them…only to find he or she has no idea who you are. It would be very difficult to believe. I mean shoot, our brains are wired to be able to remember every face we ever see. We may forget their names or where we know them from, but it is rare that people actually forget faces. Not so for Eddie. Everything from his side of their friendship has vanished.
Blank. Dark. Empty. Nothing. Nada.
Anyway, I had to speak up so his old flame would know. I didn’t even know what to say. So I did the best I could, something like, “Oh honey, it isn’t you. He really doesn’t remember you. [Eddie walks away to another part of the field] His brain cannot remember people or places if he doesn’t see you every day. He can’t help it. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t enjoy being your friend when you were with him every day.” How in the world to help her understand? I felt terrible. I sounded so unnatural and unoriginal. Her father is a nice man and we talked some more for a while and he was as understanding as he could be under the weirdness of it all. I could see the effort to grasp what I could possibly be talking about but she was just as confused as she initially was. I pray she understood he was not trying to be mean to her.
But I wonder…if her face and their shared experiences are erased from his memory, are they still friends? Can that chasm be bridged? It is so complicated. Friendships are complicated. What does it really mean to BE friends. If he does not return the affection, the memories, the commonalities of the past between them, then where the heck does that leave her? These things don’t really occur to you until there is a sudden void. It is all gone BETWEEN them. She still has those things but they no longer share it. No recognition – she is not reflected in his averted gaze anymore.
And my heart broke for them both and it leaves a pit in my stomach. The FIRST girl he had a crush on, he will never remember. These are things we are supposed to carry with us into adulthood. Things to wax nostalgic about when he runs into her sometime in his late 20s. Or something like that. For her, this friend she cared for and laughed with (and AT, believe me!), is gone. But not GONE, gone. Not dead. Its so bizarre even trying to explain it. This is not the first or last time someone has been or will be hurt because Eddie forgets a person he truly cared about. They will have to start over. And over again.
And then my egocentric mother-worry my mind spiraled…how long would it take for him to forget my face if we parted for a very long time without any contact? Chances are, he will be living in my basement until death do us part, so I don’t have to worry. My friends, my family that I have not seen in person for years, I can’t fathom not knowing them – that they would be lost to me and I wouldn’t know it. I am grateful for each person I have shared some part of my life with now more than ever.
Later, as I looked on, his coach and teammates cheering him – the ones he remembers for the time being – as he won his 75 meter dash, and I couldn’t stop my aching, clenched jaw and hot tears. Because there is no such thing as a one-sided relationship. And it isn’t fair.