When I was a teenager, I had a friend named Bianca, from Romania. Despite only being a few years older than me, it seemed like she carried this old-world wisdom that made her seem so much brighter, more outgoing, and more fun than me.
We talked daily on an online game that we played (this was before I discovered motorcycles or was even old enough to get a license). One day I had asked her to be my “in-game wife” – we were best friends anyway, so why not? I got rejected. She was already a woman, but I was still a silly kid. I figuratively picked up my ball and went to go play elsewhere.
Bianca didn’t give up on me
She saw me going down a lonely dark path, so one day she reached out to me. She sent me a message on IRC (we were using that back in the day) and said:
“When two people are traveling alone through the woods, there may be times that they fall silent, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be traveling together. I know you, I know what you’re doing. You got hurt, so you’re hiding.”
At this point my inner-child came out, trying to tell me that she’s wrong and everything is fine:
I believe I was 15, and she was 18. It was only three years, but she had made the most of them, and she had what felt like infinite life experience over me. There was no bullshitting her.
“Look,” she said. “Think of the world as one big ocean we’re all in. Sometimes when we swim alone it feels like we’re always going against the current. Sometimes when we swim together, just having someone else with you for encouragement makes you feel like the tide is changing and carrying you forward.” This was the good part.
“But sometimes the tide comes between you and a friend. Sometimes it comes and tries to pull that person away from you.” She said. “Then you have three options:
- You get the hell away from there because that’s a bad tide and you don’t want to get wrapped up in it. You each go your own way.
- You hold your ground and you watch your friend slowly get dragged away, and their role in your life get’s smaller and smaller as they go further.
- You swim towards them. Hard. As hard as you can. You reach out. You try to grab them, and you try to bring them back to you, back to better water.”
“I’m not letting some tide take you away from me. You’re vital to me.” She concluded.
She chased away the storm
We went back to our daily chats. We shared our stories about life, our friends, our parents, drugs, drives in Mercedes-Benzes, and whatever else two teenagers at the turn of the millennium thought being cool meant.
I would say that those were formative years for me, but really, when you’ve only just dipped your toes into your thirties, is there any half-decade period of your life that isn’t? Bianca gave me the kind of wisdom I would have gotten from an older sister, if I had one, but with the kind of daily zest for talking you can only get from a friend. She had my back, and I had hers. Mulțumesc, Bia, I owe you one.
Fast-forward a decade… I’m up at 6:10 AM worrying about a friend of mine. I’ll call her “Rose”, after my grandmother Rosa. I’m up worrying about my friend, that I’m renaming Rose, after my grandmother, because they’re both kick-ass women.
When my grandmother was growing up there was always something clearly a little remarkable about her. She got to take school for an extra year or two more than the other kids her age, a luxury that could only be justified if your child was exceptional. Especially if your child was a girl. After all, this was in the late 1930s in rural southern Italy. The Second World War was about to kick off.
My grandmother’s entire life was that of a fighter, and a survivor. She was the strongest person I know. She lost her husband to cancer only a decade after immigrating to Canada, leaving her with six children to raise alone, in a place far from home. She signed herself up for free English Second Language classes and didn’t look back. She didn’t have a lot of money, but she had a big house full of love and stories to share.
My friend, “Rose”
Now let’s talk about my friend, Rose. She’s a fighter too. She grew up in community housing, where she was the muscle who regularly stood up and raised her younger siblings. At the age of 14 she moved out. That was over a decade ago. She’s been supporting herself ever since.
Rose has wrestled her way through events and circumstances that would have made others just throw in the towel, given up, and looked for an easy way out. She prides herself on her strength, her self-sufficiency, and her ability to overcome and any all challenges.
On their own, these are great traits. They’re part of why I think so highly of her. All three women that I’ve mentioned on here, Bianca, my grandmother Rosa, and Rose, I hold in high esteem. But those traits are making Rose a serious pain in my ass right now.
Back into the ocean
I find myself back in the ocean that Bianca described. I see Rose there, but she doesn’t look happy. When I look back at her dark clouds have rolled in, she seems a little further away. One of us is being pulled away. Is it her or me? I glance around. This time it’s not me. This time I’m the older one, and my friend isn’t doing well, and it’s on me to reach out, lead, and protect.
But the things that make Rose great are proving to be a real pain in the ass to get through. Her strength, her drive for self-sufficiency, her ability to overcome challenges on her own, they’re all making her too stubborn to take my help. Whether I try to appeal to her logical side, her emotional side, or just dangle a carrot in front of her, she’s not having any of it.
I think back to that conversation with Bianca half a lifetime ago, when I was going into a dark place… Three options: leave for better water, stay where I am and watch her drift out of my life and into darkness, or swim after her. I can almost hear a soft voice, with a British-Romanian accent, Bianca’s voice, saying, “Swim, idiot! Go out and get her. Don’t let her get away.”
What do we say when the world tries to take people away from us? The same thing we say to Death:
Bianca calling me vital made me realize that sometimes you bring more value to someone’s life than you realize. I changed my in-game name to “vital” and our team went on to win a game against literally thousands of other players. Bianca finished #1, I believe I finished around #17. I still talk to some of the people we used to play with. Bianca’s life is a lot more offline now, which is probably a good thing. We don’t speak, but I’m not worried about her. She’ll be just fine.
My grandmother, Rosa, passed away in August. They don’t make ‘em like her anymore, and even back then she was a limited numbered edition. My house backs onto the cemetery she’s in, so she gets frequent visits.
Rose… Well, I just called her. It went to her voicemail. So I’ll keep fighting.
Oh, and for those who didn’t get the Game of Thrones reference: