How do you know when it’s time to let go of something? It’s the start of a new year, and my old cell phone is getting rickety and cranky—slow to wake up, slow to get around the internet, and it won’t respond to my swipes. My husband is ready—has been ready for months—to give me his old cell phone, which is newer than my old phone and has a camera I envy. So it seems like the right time. Seems pretty straightforward. Seems easy. Except for one thing—my old phone has something I can’t take with me: a bunch of voicemails from a friend.
For a long time, this friend was my voice of reason. She told me when I should stop getting my panties in a wad—only she said it kindly—and when I should stop being irrational, or frightened, or when I was making a big deal out of nothing. She never made me feel stupid for the things I said, even when I said stupid things. She would tell me when I wore something that looked bad, or when my hair needed help. When I first got some strands of grey, she told me she would tell me when I needed to start coloring it. Sure enough, a year or two later, she said, “Okay, it’s time” and marched me to a pharmacy to buy some gentle wash-in coloring.
Here are some things we had in common: we both liked to dream about—and research—jobs we might have in distant places, especially across the ocean, even if there was little chance we’d actually ever apply for them. We both liked to cook simple and healthful dishes, but she was more in tune with the colors on a plate and making sure there was an array of orange and green and yellow. She regularly gave me recipes—baked chicken with parsnips, quinoa salad. And we both had a habit that other people found annoying: of leaving long—very, very long—rambling voicemail messages. Except we each loved receiving them from the other. When we could not get a hold of each other, we left voicemails instead, filling each other in on our days, our thoughts, our habits that we were sure the other one would care to know about. Often, our cell phone systems would cut off our messages, and we would have to redial and leave a second message just to get in everything we wanted to say. Those voicemails were a part of a greater, more expansive conversation, one we never really finished, even after we’d hung up. We knew there would be more to say, and we would say it.
Still, for years, though I did not keep many other people’s voicemails, I kept hers, without thought as to why. Subconsciously I must have been holding on.
She taught me some basic feng shui, and since she knew I wanted one day to find love again and marry, she told me not to put one object—solo, alone—in my love corner. “You can’t have just this one thing here,” she said, pointing, and I went and got myself pairs of things—I can’t remember now if they were the two little pottery dishes I now keep in my kitchen, or two matching candlesticks. All I know is I had two of everything in that corner, and it was because of her that I painted my bedroom a salmon pink (a good color for the love corner, a loud and obnoxious color, but one I loved), and that in the year that followed I met my husband. Who knows if it was the feng shui and the energy it brought, or it was just the fact that she gave me renewed hope? Whatever it was, it worked. She rearranged my book shelves and helped me realize empty space had just as much, if not more, value than clutter. The same is true of relationships. I think we both already knew that, but we reinforced that in each other.
My friend had few things in her home, few keepsakes, and the last time I went to see her—though I did not know it was the last and was sure I would see her at least once more—she kept asking me to choose something of hers to have after she died of cancer in the weeks to come. “I don't want anything,” I kept telling her.
But what I meant was: I only want you, not something that reminds me of you.
Still, she insisted. Eventually, I chose a blue and fat hippo she kept at her front door, mostly because it did what she did: made me smile when I saw it. I like having it now. I like that it reminds of her open door to her sunny apartment, which was full of plants. She was good at growing things, just like she was good at helping me grow. She was one of those rare people who reveled in my joys, even when the joy was something she wanted but did not have. Even when she was really sick, and really tired, she wanted to hear about my good days. And she wanted to listen to me read—out loud—my writing. I read so many pieces to her over the phone.
“Write about me,” she said one day, during the last few months of her life. I did, and that essay won a prize, but by then she was gone. I’d like to think that she won the prize, too, maybe even more than I did.
I still think of her when I am confronted with a crisis, however small. I think of her advice, her kind and motherly chiding. She would hate that I’ve let my hair go grey, but she would love that I’m at peace with it. She would be happy that I am still writing, and when I become disheartened at rejections, I know she would tell me to move on. And I do.
I’d like to think she would want me to let go of those old voicemails. She would probably remind that there is value in empty space. She would ask if those voicemails still bring me joy. What brings me joy are the things I remember about her. More than the hippo. More than the photo I keep of her. More than the wedding gifts she gave me, which I still have.
And more—way more—than any single one of those voicemails, or the whole lot of them.
What brings me joy is that I knew her at all. That even now, two years after she died, she lingers in so many things in my life.
I think—I hope—she would tell me to move on. And so I do.