(Editor’s note: Writer, BEST guest blog contributor, and stroke survivor, Isaac Peterson, shares his memories and feelings for a beloved friend, while also coping with survivor’s guilt, as she copes with progressing dementia, in his latest personal essay. KT)
Back in 2004, I was chosen to be one of 15 journalists being sent to South Africa for a couple of weeks.
The things we saw were incredibly beautiful, both the landscape and the people. But it didn’t take long for me to feel like an outcast from the group. The others seemed to be little more than stenographers, while I was an investigative reporter, a whole different kind of journalism. Some of them treated me with distrust, as I later found out, because I never studied journalism, although I’d won several awards and had unshakable confidence in my ability to turn in consistently quality work. I had earned my place on that team.
But one night at dinner I sat next to a member of the group named Antigone, from Sacramento. She was a delightful and beautiful free spirit, and her tiny size made her seem kind of like a little pixie. We spent all our time together after that; it turned out that, up until that night at dinner, she had felt like an outcast as well. We were inseparable after that.
Although we haven’t seen each other in the last 15 years since we got back, we’ve kept in constant touch by telephone.
We spoke several times a month, and our conversations always left me feeling hopeful and optimistic, and provided a real lift to my spirit in some pretty dark days. We sent each other flowers on our birthdays sometimes. She always made me feel like the only reason the sun comes up is to brighten my day.
After some years, though, it was getting pretty exasperating trying to talk to her. She seemed to gradually become kind of scattered and incoherent. I couldn’t understand what was happening until one day her daughter contacted me and told me Antigone had been institutionalized with dementia.
I’ve kept in touch, and we still speak frequently, although it becomes more difficult all the time to communicate with her. I tried to speak with her recently, and it was excruciating. I hung up the phone in tears. I still have tears as I write this.
I’ve since learned she may have Alzheimer’s.
I find myself grieving for my dear friend. Although she is still with us, it seems the most essential part of her nature doesn’t exist any longer, the part of her that made herself, her.
I know she’s still in there somewhere, and that’s one of the things that makes it so hard for me, knowing she will never be the delightful friend who’s always meant so much to me, no matter how hard she might wish to not be in that condition.
I feel kind of ashamed that I was thinking if I had to choose between living with my brain injury and what Antigone is going through, I would choose the brain injury. Neither of us asked for what we got, but I feel that if I had the choice I’d trade places with Antigone. I know I will recover eventually, but I know Antigone never will. I think I’m feeling a kind of survivor’s guilt, even though my dear friend is still alive.
I know what she’d say to me about that feeling I get. She would tell me I have to live every day as much as I possibly can and live my life without regrets. She would tell me I’m extremely talented and I must live to share my talent with the world. She told me that all the time.
I’m feeling that discomfort that comes from wanting to do something, anything, and feeling frustrated knowing there is nothing I can do.
All I can do is never forget all the good times, and will never forget her.
Isaac Peterson grew up on an Air Force base near Cheyenne, Wyoming. After graduating from the University of Wyoming, he embarked on a career as an award-winning investigative journalist and as a semi-professional musician in the Twin Cities, the place he called home on and off for 35 years. He also doesn’t mind it at all if someone offers to pick up his restaurant tab. Peterson also welcomes reader comments. Email him at email@example.com.