05/11/2014 07:53 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

Why Nothing Can Ever Replace An Old Friendship

The voice on the phone sounded tenuous, a bit familiar. "Stan?" she asked.

"Yes, it's me."

"It's Pat, Pat Rolls." There was a slight chuckle.

"Amazing! How great to hear from you."

"Am I disturbing you?"

"You couldn't possibly be. Where are you?"

"In St. Paul, you know."

"I remember."

"I got your card, and..." Was I mistaken or was she working to keep her voice from breaking?

"I wasn't sure you'd want to hear from me."

"Oh yes," she said emphatically. "Don't you know... your friendship meant so much to me."

Reaching 60 and then 65, I got jolted with the urge to reconnect with old friends from college. I called the alumni office, said who I was and my graduation year ("Really?" said an amazed young voice), and asked the address of Pat Rolls.

I had made a jump from Texas. Pat had traveled east from a small town in Minnesota. In Spanish classes we commiserated over reading Siglo de Oro dramas. Between classes we met for coffee and took walks by the lake. We became part of each other's lives.

Pat was many times more cultured than I -- an unpolished southerner. I relished hearing her use expressions like, "I suppose so." Texans never said, "I suppose so." She was tall and slender with shiny dark brown hair worn with bangs that gave her a dash of fun. Her elegance helped elevate me to elegant. She was Catholic. I was Jewish. Who cared?

Now, it was half a century since I'd seen or spoken to Pat. I was surprised that our friendship had meant so much -- that she must have sensed early on that I was no candidate for marriage -- that our romance was temporary and chaste, and it would be no more than a nice interlude until she met the guy who was a candidate for marriage. With many intervening decades and changes in her life, I thought those days as undergraduates were mostly erased. It was wonderful to find the friendship not forgotten.

Pat' s first phone call turned into three or four. Always unpredicted. I learned about Walt, now a retired attorney, their two sons, and grandchildren. Winter getaways to Florida. Good volunteer work. She had read my first book and said she didn't realize that I was a gay man. "Well," I said, "in those days I wasn't gay, exactly. Maybe you didn't like that that how a guy you once dated turned out."

"No, that's not it. I... well, your friendship meant so much to me."

On the fourth or fifth call, Pat suddenly blurted out, "Stan, I have cancer."

Oh. OHH! "I'm so sorry." What were we by then... acquaintances, friends, former friends? What else should I say? "I'm really sorry, and I hope you'll be alright."

"Thanks," she said, grateful but unsure. "I get treated at the Mayo Clinic, not far from here."

Then followed a couple more phone calls. In one i dared to say, "Believe that I'm there giving you a warm hug meant to make you better."

Her voice sounded half-teary, but I wasn't sure it was because of the cancer. I wondered if there was more she wanted to say, but didn't. Something kept me from calling her.

Nine or ten months passed. Perhaps the treatments at Mayo had killed the cancer, and she was home free. I doubted it. I searched the university alumni bulletins which listed deaths by graduation year and I breathed easy when I didn't see her name. Maybe it would have been better if I'd never tried to reestablish contact and when I turned 80 just came across her name in the school's obituaries. The loss might seem less hurtful. But if I'd never written her, I'd have no idea of what my friendship meant long ago.

Two years after Pat's last call, I found her name among the death notices. I wrote a note to Walt: "I'm an old college friend of Pat's, and I read of her passing." We spoke a little on the phone recently. "I hope her end was peaceful, and I'd like you to accept my sincere condolences. What an elegant lady she was. I still remember half a century later."

Walt answered quickly with a handwritten note. I had "gotten it right" about Pat, he wrote. She handled her disease with dignity and grace. And yes, he had surely heard of me!

And now, a while later, Walt has surely moved on, maybe remarried; their grandchildren growing. We've had no more contact.

I would wish this were not the end of the story, but it is. Still, I am bolstered in the thought that although young and maybe playing at romance, Pat and I offered each other support and genuine affection, enough that fragments were still alive years later.

We never had a love affair, but love can surely exist without the affair.

. . .
Stanley Ely writes more about Pat in his new book, "Life Up Close," in paperback and ebook.

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