‘She helped me believe it was all going to be OK’: Elizabeth Day on the friend who turned her life around
We hold certain beliefs when it comes to how we make friends in adulthood. We imagine our bond will be forged through a shared interest – a hobby, maybe, like a book club or finding each other in the local yoga class every Saturday. Or it’s a life-phase thing – children at the same school, working in the same office or living in the same part of town. But part of the joy of friendship is its indefinable quality. There is simply no predicting when you might meet a kindred spirit. Some of the most beautiful friendships might also be the most unexpected. This was certainly my experience when, at one of the lowest points of my life, I made one of my closest friends.
Let me take you back. It was 2014. I was trying and failing to get pregnant with my now ex-husband. The specialist I was referred to told me it was “unexplained infertility”. This was such an unhelpfully vague diagnosis it seemed to raise the question of whether it was a diagnosis at all. There was no clear course of action, but the male consultant thought we “might as well give IVF a go”.
I was used to doing what men in positions of power told me to do, so a go I obediently gave it. In January, I embarked on my first round, producing a single egg and one embryo, which failed to implant. I went almost immediately into a second attempt, this time with a longer drug protocol and higher dosages. Seven eggs. Five fertilised. Two were deemed of a high enough quality to transfer back into my womb. Neither of them stuck.
The male consultant told me in the follow-up appointment that doing another round would be “like trying to stick the tail on the donkey”. I think he was pleased with his metaphor of a blindfolded children’s party game, but I found it misjudged. I didn’t say anything. The hormones were still coursing through my body and mute acceptance seemed to offer the path of least resistance.
Months passed. In October, I was back at the same hospital, this time being wheeled to a private room on the maternity ward. I had – astonishingly – become pregnant naturally over the summer. But instead of turning left down the corridor to join all the happy, exhausted new mothers and their mewling newborns, we peeled off to the right. I was miscarrying at three months. It felt like those renaissance murals painted in Italian churches depicting Judgment Day: at the right hand of God, the fertile women successfully giving birth; at the left, the ones who were losing their pregnancies.
I was in hospital over the weekend. When I was discharged, it felt as though I were viewing the world through the bottom of an emptied pint glass. The horizon was distorted. Noises were muted. My marriage started to disintegrate. Seeing babies being pushed along the street in buggies caused me a stab of psychic pain.
And then, out of the blue, I was offered a free trip to Las Vegas. It came courtesy of an organisation called the British-American Project, which every year nominates several individuals under the age of 40 from both the UK and the US to attend a conference intended to foster “the special relationship”. I did the interview process and was selected as one of the 2014 intake.
In November, I found myself on a flight to Vegas. It happened to be my birthday while we were there and that evening the other delegates started plying me with vodka tonics. We’d somehow worked out that, because of the eight-hour time difference, I should probably start celebrating earlier (this is actually not how time works, but by that stage, we were too drunk to notice).
There was a charity auction that night and, in my tipsy state, I started bidding on one of the lots. It was a week’s accommodation in Los Angeles, at the home of a BAP fellow called Joan Harrison. I kept raising my arm. After a few minutes, the gavel descended. I had won. I put the $700 on my credit card and promptly forgot about it.
I returned to London with a hangover. Over Christmas, my husband and I argued. He couldn’t understand why I was still upset over the miscarriage and I failed to understand why he couldn’t. By February, our marriage was over. I moved out, taking two bags of clothes. I didn’t know what I was doing, but some instinct told me I had to do it.
Then I remembered my auction lot. I had been given Joan’s email address so I wrote to her and asked if I could come and stay. She replied immediately and with such kindness it stung my eyes to read. Not only would she and her husband, Michael, be delighted to welcome me, but they’d love to throw me a small party to introduce me to their friends and would I like to go for brunch and a blow-dry – Joan’s treat – because she knew this great little place…
I didn’t need much persuading. I booked my flight. I turned up on Joan and Michael’s West Hollywood doorstep late one March night, trailing my suitcase and substantially more emotional baggage in my wake. I was 35 and shattered – by my marital separation, by the fertility treatment, by the jet lag. I sat at their kitchen counter, dark-eyed and pale-faced, and Joan poured me a glass of full-bodied red wine. And that was how two of my greatest platonic love affairs started: with Joan, and with Californian Pinot Noir.
It was a serendipitous meeting. Joan was exactly who I needed at that time and it felt as though the universe had looped together an elaborate paper chain of events purely to ensure our paths crossed. That night, we chatted a bit about what had brought me to LA and Joan was an attentive listener. She really listened – both to what I was saying and what I might not be. She asked perceptive questions. Quite quickly, she established that what I needed was reassurance that I had done the right thing by ending my marriage and to believe, once again, in the possibility of life after divorce.
It helped that Joan was 20 years older than me, although she didn’t look it. She was brunette, beautiful, with a smile that was pure sunlight. She had an elegance to the way she carried herself. I recently referred to her as “ballerina-like”.
“Really?” she said, incredulous. “I don’t see myself like that.”
So, yes, she was modest, too.
We became deep friends straight away. She felt like a big sister, one who had walked a similar path to my own. Over brunch a few days after I arrived, she told me she had broken off a serious relationship with her then-fiancé, before finding happiness with Michael slightly later in life. They, too, had gone through fertility treatment to try to have a baby. It hadn’t worked. But, she told me, their existence was fulfilled and happy and meaningful. Joan had a thriving career as a TV executive. Michael had been a bureau chief for the New York Times and was now a freelance journalist. Their relationship was one of mutually respectful equals, who shared a lot of laughs. I loved their love for each other. And I loved that they showed me a different way of being. Back home, almost everyone seemed to be pursuing the dream of kids and terraced houses in the requisite primary school catchment area. Joan gave me another option.
“If you want to be a mother, Elizabeth, you will find a way,” she said. “And if it doesn’t happen, you can, in the fullness of time, be at peace with that, too.”
Hearing her say this, I felt I could breathe for the first time in months. I allowed myself to believe that it was going to be OK.
I spent a week with Joan and Michael, sleeping in their spare room. During the days I’d hike up the Hollywood Hills in glorious spring sunshine or visit an art gallery or catch a movie, and, then in the evenings, Joan and I would often have dinner together or sit in the backyard hot tub sipping bellinis and talking about our childhoods, our hopes, our fears, our shared taste in books. By the end of those seven days, I’d made one of my dearest friends.
I’ve been back to LA most years since then and every time I go, I will see Joan. She’s taken me to open-air concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and for steak at Musso & Frank’s and she’s made me the most perfect martinis (her secret is adding a dash of sparkling water to the cocktail shaker – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). In my single years, she set me up on dates and we’d debrief over coffee and laughter the next morning.
Our friendship is informed by the age gap between us. Her wisdom is invaluable to me, but so is the life she has chosen for herself. It shows me a way forward. And she always has so much faith in me, that it helps when I lack it for myself. She really believed in my writing, way before any of my books graced the bestseller lists.
In the time since Joan and I first met, my life has changed substantially for the better. I have married a wonderful man whom Joan adores and who adores her right back. We’ve shared a lot of lovely times together, but the depth of our friendship means she is also there, with exactly the right words, when things go wrong. When my husband and I went through two more miscarriages, Joan acknowledged our loss. Very few people know what to say in those circumstances. Joan did, partly because she had walked a similar path. Her grace and compassion made us cry because of how understood we felt. She got our devastation. She never once questioned it.
It’s such a unique friendship that when it came to writing my new book, Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict, I knew I had to include it. Joan has taught me so much about life, but also about what true friendship really is. It doesn’t matter that we live thousands of miles apart, or that we are separated by two decades, or that sometimes we will go months without speaking. Her friendship is offered without obligation or expectation. We offer each other generosity of spirit, no matter the circumstances. I always know she will think the best of me, and there’s a beauty to that when so many friendships become dulled by a sense of misplaced duty.
Joan herself also has an age-difference friendship, with an older man called Max, now in his 90s. She said, when I asked her about it, that Max was who she turned to whenever she was “deeply troubled”. Max escaped the Holocaust and his son married a 9/11 widow so, in Joan’s words, “he has seen it all”. When Donald Trump was elected president, Max was the first person Joan (a lifelong Democrat) called. She said she always sought his counsel in those moments, at “the hinges of history”.
I liked that phrase, because Joan is who I turn to at the hinges of my own personal history. She has journeyed with me through it all with endless reserves of compassion and kindness. I feel so grateful that the darkest point in my life brought me here, to one of the brightest friendships.
Friendaholic – Confessions of a Friendship Addict by Elizabeth Day is published by Fourth Estate at £16.99. Buy it for £14.95 from guardianbookshop.com
Styling by Beatrice Kight; hair and makeup by Emma Rankin