I met Masha at the lowest point in my life.
She had warm eyes, a generous laugh and a sense of humour as black and tasteless as my own. She once described Italy to me as being “all unicorns shitting rainbows, and us rolling around in fields of dildos and daisies.”
I said, “Dildos?”
And she said, “Yeah, well, people seem to like dildos. I was just trying to think of something that people like.”
Sometimes I laughed so hard I thought my belly might rip open.
It was nice to laugh after crying so hard for so long. After a very awkward breakup and the death of my dad, I was wandering around Europe on a solo journey, looking for something to believe in again when I crossed paths with her in Cinque Terre, in the middle of the Italian summer.
The immediate connection between us was striking, as though we’d grown up together in the same twisted universe and had been separated for several lifetimes until that point.
Falling in friend love can be as exhilarating as a regular romantic meet-cute, because both kinds of love can have that thrilling rush early on as it dawns on you: Here is a person who might change my world.
It’s uncommon – especially in your thirties – to fall in new friend love. With age, we tend to keep our heads down and our friendship feelers tucked in, because open-mindedness is the antithesis to quick decision-making and we have shit to get done.
By thirty, you’re expected to have a reasonably solid understanding of who you are, what you stand for, who you’re standing with and where you’re going, and so, like a game of musical chairs, you take a seat when the music stops and that is where you tend to stay.
But my chair had been ripped out from under me.
Heartbroken in two places, I was now in free fall.
Masha was in her own kind of free fall. She was part way into a yearlong trip around the world when we met, and travelling in an unconventional way. She was walking her way around the world on blistered, deranged feet, tracing a series of religious pilgrimages, looking for something to believe in.
Everything she needed for her yearlong pilgrimage she carried in a heavy backpack, which clanked with trinkets and bits and bobs tied to the outside of the bag. Somehow, the weight of it didn’t seem to bother her. She carried it with such grace.
She wore a hot pink scarf covered in flowers and her long blonde hair in a plait over her shoulder. She laughed loudly and easily, and had such a lightness about her that her walk was almost a hover. Elephant-heavy with grief, I worried about weighing her down. Depression can do that to other people, I’d discovered.
“Why don’t you come walking with me?” she said not long after we met. “Join my pilgrimage. Even if just for a day or two.
It was so odd to me that she wasn’t afraid of my grief.
“Okay,” I said.
It wasn’t like I had anywhere else to be.
Dark shadows have a way of sneaking up on you. You get struck with a run of good fortune and arrogantly start to believe you’ve got life all worked out, that you’re ready to write a book called How All You Suckers Can Be As Happy and Successful As Me.
And then comes the blow, right out of left field, hitting as if its sole purpose was to humble you by making you realise you know pretty much nothing and probably never will.
I wanted to go to sleep forever. The sheer effort of recovering from loss can be so great, the mountain ahead so high, the blackness around your future so absolute, that the thought of curling into a ball and giving up can become a escape fantasy you keep tucked into your back pocket.
My sister said to me, “There will come a time in your future where you pop out the other side of this. It will happen one day, just like that. You’ll be walking along and all of a sudden, you’ll feel so light and exhilarated.”
Her boyfriend calls it The Hamburger Moment. After months in depression following a breakup, he was eating a hamburger when it surged one day: that overwhelming hit to the bloodstream of utter gratitude for the beauty of life, brought on for him that day by an particularly excellent hamburger.
God in a sesame seed bun.
I was a long way away from any such hamburger.
I started walking a long way with Masha, following the Via Francigena pilgrimage into the Italian countryside, through tomatoes fields and thick forests, over hillsides covered in fruit trees.
It’s uncommon – especially in your thirties – to meet people who are willing to listen to the uncensored truth of your private suffering. Everyone is too busy trying to survive their own lives and families.
People are more likely to take in lost dogs than lost people. They’re less trouble. The dogs pee on the carpet and chew your valuables, sure, but they don’t call you at 2 a.m. in a wave of excruciating existential panic, demanding answers to big questions.
A friend of mine, a psychologist, told me about how, after Trump was elected, patients began flooding to her office with fears and traumas around this political nightmare. “What am I suppose to tell them?” she said to me. “I’m terrified too!”
Nobody really knows the answers to the big stuff. We are all — all of us — 50 shades of crazy, held together only by the glue of societal duties, peer pressures and professional obligations. Nobody can conquer grief for you. It’s a solo expedition across a frozen landscape and must be journeyed alone. We all have to find our own way there.
What people can do to help, however, is not run away from those in a state of limbo, but that is no easy task. Being party to someone else’s depression can make you feel absurdly useless, like offering a desperately thirsty person a glass of water with no water in it.
To avoid this sense of impotence, people will try to talk you out of your sadness with optimistic sound bites. If that fails, they might find it easiest to just avoid you until you cheer up again.
Who can blame them? You’re being a total fucking downer.
But what you need isn’t fixing. You don’t even need cheering up, because cheering up means letting go and you’re not ready for that yet.
You simply need the permission to howl until your bones ache and there is a perfect impression of your imperfect face on their shoulder, left there by your make-up.
After my dad died, my ability to censor myself (which had never been all that great to begin with) disappeared completely.
With just the slightest prompt, too much information would come spilling out of me, and I kept finding myself oversharing terrible details to anyone who dared ask, “How are you doing?”
In order to avoid taboos, we’ve invented all these strange formalities around death, and somehow I never got the memo on how to act like a regular person in formal situations. I get nervous. When nervous, I ramble, and so, whenever someone asked, “How are you?” I’d start blabbing, not really knowing what I was saying until I looked up to see their face fixed in cold panic.
Only then would I become aware of the dark monologue spilling from my mouth—
“His breathing was a wet rattle, I suppose, like he was drowning in his own bodily fluids, and…“
Oh my god what am I telling this person! Stop, Torre! Stop it! CHANGE CONVERSATIONAL DIRECTION NOW!
“…it happened pretty quickly after that. He died in hospice. His mouth was wide open and…”
“I’m… I’m so sorry for your loss.”
That made me nervous too, because what is the formal reply to “I’m sorry for your loss”? One time I Googled this question and Google said, “You say Thank you.”
And so I said “Thank you,” but I couldn’t get away from feeling like we were performing a meaningless Victorian roll-play.
I didn’t want to roll-play. I wanted to feel connected to people at the loneliest time of my life. I wanted to ramble without terrifying the shit out of people.
I wanted to hear: “Hey, we’re all going to lose people in this lifetime and one day I’ll be in exactly the same place. Right now, I can’t understand the pain you’re in, but I lost a cat once named Barry and that hurt like hell. I loved Barry. He vomited up a lot of hairballs and tore up the sofa with his nails, because he was kind of a dick sometimes, but he was around a long time, you know? And losing a dad must be Barry times 1,000. Even more Barrys, maybe. I guess it’s not possible to measure the pain of a lost dad in units of Barry, but I’m saying it must hurt a lot. And I want you to know I’m here with you and you’re not alone.”
We don’t say that, though.
We say “My condolences, Beatrice.”
“Thank you for your concern, Margaret.”
And then everyone goes home alone.
But Masha was the kind of person who wasn’t afraid to talk about death in units of Barry. She wasn’t afraid of not always knowing what to say, of offering over a cup of water with no water in it now and then, of wearing my face impressed on her shoulder.
To be good at empathising, it can be so hard to get beyond our own awkwardness, guilt, busy schedules and need to self-protect. It’s much easier to send flowers and condolences, and check that obligation off a to-do list.
But in doing so, we miss an opportunity to plug in hard to the heart of another human at a time of elevated sentience. In a strange way, grief can be magic, because it’s a state of metamorphosis. You watch a person break down and rebuild themselves into something new, and that can be a beautiful thing to behold if you have the courage to stick around.
Masha had that courage.
For twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we walked together across the Italian landscape, looking for unicorns shitting rainbows in the forest and dildos in the daisies (there were none), while she gave the heavy, ugly mass of my sadness a space to belong for a while.
Somehow, the weight of it didn’t seem to bother her. She carried it with such grace.
I didn’t find any hamburgers in Italy, but I found God in a bowl of gnocchi more than once.
Have you ever had a friendship save your life? I want to hear your stories! Next week I’ll be inviting my blog readers to share their friendship love stories. I have three fun gift packs to give away!
Banner made by Sarah Steenland & Torre DeRoche
Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.