It all started because Mrs. Sunshine cut her finger off while trimming a hedge.
I looked out the window of the bungalow my family had just moved into and there was a swarm of children combing through the hedge separating our house from the Sunshines.
"We're looking for the finger!" they said. I helped them with their enthusiastic search, hoping I'd be the one to find the bloody appendage and at the same time hoping I wouldn't because, ew, it was totally gross.
No one found the finger (turns out it was just a fingertip, not the whole enchilada) but I did find a lifelong friend. Mark Champion's house was kitty corner across the street. He was my age (only a month apart), he looked like me (people thought we were brother and sister) and we got along like gangbusters.
He was the best kind of best friend. Loyal. Caring. Intelligent. Funny. We walked to school together and argued about politics, we played Kick the Can until the streetlights came on, we made prank phone calls to people asking if their refrigerators were running ("you better run and catch them, then"). The only time we were apart was summer, when our family went up north to the cottage. There were no cell phones back then. No internet. The only way to keep in touch was through letter-writing. Mark was a faithful and avid letter writer, sending me many and getting mad when I didn't reply as often as he thought I should. I loved getting those letters. He sent them on fish-covered stationery and addressed them to the general delivery post office closest to our cottage.
Our parents used to think that we'd grow up and get married but it wasn't like that. We grew up alright, but our lives went separate ways even as they followed parallel paths. I got married, he got married. I got pregnant, his wife got pregnant a few months later. I had two boys, they had two girls. I got divorced, he got divorced. But through it all we hardly saw each other. I was a country bumpkin at heart and felt happiest up north. Mark was happy in the city. I was basically content with low paying newspaper jobs. Mark climbed the corporate ladder. After a while it was hard to believe we ever had anything in common – we seemed so different.
When I decided to run this Letters from a Friend series, I knew I couldn't do it without asking for a letter from Mark. He inspired this series, his letters.
His e-mail arrived in my inbox while I was at work. I opened it and gawd if I didn't start bawling like a baby. Hard, ugly sobbing. People asked what the hell was wrong with me. "Nothing," I said, "I just got a letter from a friend."
His letter, as you're about to see, is deeply personal and incredibly brave. Not everyone is willing to share this kind of introspection. It is a sign of a brave and sensitive man.
What makes it even more special is he enclosed a picture of a gold coloured fish and addressed the letter as if it were the mid-1970s again and he was sending it to the cottage. That's what started the tears – but it was his revelations about his own life that really made the waterworks flow. If you ever receive a letter like this, you are a lucky, lucky person. If you ever have a friend like Mark, you're even luckier.
Oh, and if you're wondering who Cathy Robb is? That's my maiden name. God knows, it's easy to be confused. I've had almost as many names as Elizabeth Taylor. But enough about me – here is Mark's magnificent letter.
I’ve been waiting so long for your reply to my last letter. It hardly seems reasonable to ask what’s new, when the answer is a lifetime.
I am starting this letter at work, and trying to think while the Hackasaurus in the next cube mists us with her latest virus. Let’s call her Misty. Misty who missed her flu shot. Misty who hasn’t missed a day’s work in 16 years. Fuck you, Misty.
Fortunately I have a singleton cube and don’t have to share with Misty. As luxurious as that may sound it’s a big step down from my last position where I enjoyed the divine isolation of a corner suite in an office at the corner of University & Dundas. My former office could have housed 8 of my current cubes and had a door to lock out the parasitic droplets dispersed by the likes of Misty. Times change. Careers tumble. I’ve changed a bit, Cathy.
Aside from the likely things like larger, grayer and more wrinkly, I’m less stylish. Somewhere along the way my new frugality and limited shopping schedule has resulted in me looking at clothes as less of a way to ornament myself and more of a way to shield the world from my nakedness. I shop for the kids constantly, but when I shop for me I try to find something of quality at a bargain … or when my bargain priced quality items have given up the ghost from constant wear … I resort to the clothing section of the grocery store where the clothes are so cheap I don’t even bother to try them on. If they don’t suit they can always become a dish rag. In so doing I become what most women expect their husbands would be if they weren’t around to dress them. Even my old, nearly blind, bedridden mother has offered to buy me clothes.
Yet, while I might like to spruce myself up a bit, I don’t think I’d change where I am at. Somehow I had found myself wearing a corporate ladder, a Volvo, 2700 Sq Feet and a Swimming Pool and it obscured some of the things that you might have known me to be. I think I am more myself today, Cathy… I think I may be more myself than I was before. I’m more patient, more laid back. I am certainly more liberal which I think is unusual in a man crossing 50. I am less interested in things and more interested in people and experiences. I am less inclined to desire luxury and more in search of the unique and the authentic, the intimate … the things that enrich us instead of the riches. I like that I have put the kids first in my life. I like that we have a dog and two cats. I like watching the kids grow, even the painful parts. I like getting to know them and sharing experiences with them. I’m happy to replace the day to day excess with some time.
Take care Cathy, dear friend, I hope to hear from you soon.