The first time I read Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, I was in my final literature class for college. I say that like it was a long time ago, even though it must have been in March, maybe late February? I think March. I’m a class of 2020 graduate, which of course kind of sucks. There are things that suck more.
(Have you ever thought about how inapproapriate the connotations of “sucks” or “suck” are? Eep.)
My mom died less than two weeks ago. I bought my mom a copy of The Friend sometime in April or May as a Mother’s Day gift or early Mother’s Day gift. With everything she’d gone through during her life (everything we’d gone through, loss/death wise), I thought that the book would be a good, helpful read for her. Nunez’s book is metafiction, as in it’s not just fiction or one genre of fiction. Metafiction can, as I remember my professor saying, bridge genres and pass between walls as thick as the one separating fiction and nonfiction. The book reflects Nunez’s experience of loss over a year. Her friend died unexpectedly (again, as I remember, and it’s been a while), and he was a friend, colleague, and past teacher she was in love with. He was married, and his wife, not long after his passing, asked the narrator/Nunez to become the new owner of his dog. The narrator/Nunes comes to see the dog as her friend, or an extension of her friend. Maybe even as an extension of her friend’s life and their time together. There are many introspective tangents in the book, and literary references, and realizations Nunez subtlety explores.
I originally loved the book because I realized I would be a lot like the narrator if the guy I’ve been talking to for over two years now (older, sometimes a teacher in a way, but very guy-ish, and a respectable ladies man, like the lost friend) suddenly dropped dead, what with all the things we’ve never talked about. Now, after losing my mom, I feel a newfound appreciation for Nunez’s metafiction.
All those times she referenced literary things or life experiences, she was capturing what grief can feel like.
Since the morning of my mom’s death, when I knew I would be responsible for letting her go and would need to take over basically every aspect of our household, I’ve been keeping detailed notes on my phone of what I think and feel and reflect upon (the household was just me, her, and the dog… we’ll talk about the dog soon… my father died about a decade ago). My notes look a little, uh, off-putting. Some of them are random song lyrics. There are memories and realizations and reflections on my own efforts to pull away from my mom the past two years, since recognizing how emotionally dependent she was on me and also talking to that guy I mentioned. When Nunez was writing The Friend, I wonder if she had notes like mine kept in a journal. I wonder if she took those strange snippets from her mind and transferred them over to the book, arranging them carefully when needed, but mostly trying to preserve her own honesty-- her emotional honesty. I wonder if I would be able to look back at my notes and remove nonsensical things or rearrange jagged sentences, or if I would need to preserve my emotional honesty for myself.
I see my mom in my dog. My mom’s borthday was in November. She turned sixty-seven-years-old. I’m twenty-two. My dog is twelve. My dog, Megan, is now my baby, and the only immediate family member I really have left. Megan has health issues, and once in a while my mind has gone back and forth between these two thoughts:
I’m so happy I have her.
What if I only get a year with her, one more year?
The narrator/Nunez only had a year with the friend’s dog (the dog, who is also the friend and/or an extension of the deceased friend), and the dog reminded of what she had lost in many ways because pets usually reflect their owners in some way. My dog reflects my mom. They were little old ladies who basically lived on their own while I was away at school. When my dog stretches or sits she does it as my cat would have, my cat who died last December. Every time Megan has trouble getting up, I’m reminded of how my mom’s knees were bone-on-bone for years. My dog is diabetic, my mom was possibly pre-diabetic when she died. Sometimes I think my dog looks like my mom, or looks at me like my mom would.
I admire the accuracy with which Nunez captured her own grief and how the mind will slip into memories and reflections and sparkling realizations while mourning.