Off the beat: Finding home far from it

Meg Elison

My phone rang in the middle of the afternoon. It was a little unusual; none of my friends call each other. We text, we email and we message on various platforms. Phone calls mean bad news.

“I’m glad I got to see her before she died. I knew this was coming, and I tried to convince everybody to pay a last visit.” My friend choked on her words.

Grandparents die. We expect it to happen, and it’s often a relief. Chronic pain and terrible suffering come to an end, and the family can honor and remember what was good. I’ve had that conversation half a dozen times this year. College seems to be the time when bad things happen back home, while you’re away. None of this was unexpected, but what she said next caught my full attention.

“I’ve been calling people to break the news, and it’s not the news that makes me cry. It’s the way everyone reacts to it. Turns out my younger sister is in jail, my mom would barely talk to me. My brother just said he was at work and he couldn’t deal with this right now. So cold. They’re so angry, and they hate their lives so much. I just needed to talk to someone who can remind me that we can be different from our roots.”

It took me a minute to gather myself and answer her. “We are different. You’re all grieving the same loss, but you get to grieve in your own way.”

I gave her my condolences and the standard reminder that if she needed anything, she could always call or show up at my house. It’s what friends do.

I’ve been thinking all this season about what my friends do, and what keeps us together. None of us went home for Thanksgiving. We had Friendsgiving around a big table in Oakland. We shared food and drinks, and nobody made shocking revelations or uncomfortable remarks about our gay cousins. We were thankful, and there wasn’t any pressure at all.

I looked around the table at Friendsgiving, and I tried to decide what it was that kept the same core of people coming back over the past five years. Some of us, but not all, went to high school together. Some of us, but not all, have college degrees. Some of us are artists and writers, but others work in retail and at coffee counters. None of us have kids. Nothing seemed to answer the question completely, and then someone distracted me with a slice of pecan pie and two fingers of whiskey. I let it go.

A month has passed, and we’re planning to do the same thing for Christmas. Nobody is going home, and we’re setting up again, this time a big Christmas dinner of handmade pasta at my house. No guilt, no questions about when we’re going to get serious about our lives. Just a group of friends and a few bottles of wine and enough time to tell stories.

On the phone with my friend, listening to her hope in grief, I realized what it really was. All of us came out of bad places and hard times: We’ve survived cancer and suicides, and we’ve clawed our way out of poverty and abusive relationships. This is not a simple sit-around-and-hate-your-parents circle of angst. Most of us still love our parents and talk to them on a regular basis, and many of us will go home at another time. None of the people grouped around this table became who they were by inertia or default. We’ve changed our names and redefined words like family, gender and success. None of us is interested in assigning blame for the way that we got here — we are all grateful for the lives we have. Each of us knows that what we have learned up to this point has made us who we are. Holidays and deaths bring us back to those roots. We get to keep what works, reclaim what was ruined and make it our own.

Major holidays work strangely on the heart and the mind. We crave the familiar and the simple; we turn defensive and clannish. We’ll get our hit of nostalgia and simplicity any way we can. Death works just as strangely, but the palliative is not is not as easy to come by. There are no substitutes for the people we have lost. Photographs can be cold comfort or sharp and hurtful reminders of what might have been. When a friend is grieving, planning Christmas dinner is not enough.

What my friend lit upon, the little silver hook with which she caught my heart, was our tribe. We are not a tribe of blood or even of circumstance. We are a tribe of shape-shifters. Runaways. We are the island of misfit toys. What comforted her in grief was the proof her friends provide that we can be different from what we came from and that we are always in the business of making and remaking ourselves. What comforts me this holiday season is the same thing. We celebrate, we mourn and we gather together. We end one year and begin another; we toss dusty traditions and worn-out realities and replace them with our own.

Condolences, Happy Holidays and a beautiful New Year from my tribe to yours.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.

Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].