SubscribeCurrent Magazine Cover

Moving On

We all like to think that friendships last forever-which is why it's so difficult when one ends for good.

Several years ago, I eliminated a friend from my life. I pressed delete many times to get rid of her, both literally and figuratively. I threw away old correspondence, deleted old emails, tossed old photos. A few months later, while cleaning up my desk or completing some other equally painful task, I’d run across more reminders and have to do the same—a process that has repeated itself until recently, when I realized she was finally darn near gone.

At first, all this cleanup work was done in hurt and bitterness. I was confused and angry at her, and at the world, and at the general situation of how and why a good, deep friendship could go so wrong. But later, it was done with a sense of wonder, odd as that sounds. I was taken with how the end of this friendship shook my spirit as well as elevated it at the same time. There was something transformative about it all, and finally, in the end, there was a fundamental clarity and soul-deep relief. The fact was, we had quit loving each other, in the way friends love each other, and acknowledging that was an honest and true move on my part. Which is why, perhaps, it felt so right.

Yesterday, I came across another old letter from her, which she sent to me when I was in graduate school. I started to toss it, then tucked it into a folder to keep, and then flung it in the air toward the recycle bin. It occurred to me, right as it was flying through the air, that she’d probably done the same with all the stuff I gave her. Ouch. And how strange! This tangible evidence of an intangible feeling: I could see it heading for the recycle bin, I could see that loss. But I couldn’t, of course, see where the fondness and laughter and warmth had gone. It had dissipated, I guess, into thin air.

The paper landed in the bin, settled there, and I looked around my office, as if looking for other evidence, looking for the invisible.

What had happened to us? We’d been friends for decades, gone through plenty of major and minor life events together, and we’d tried to be honest and trustworthy and true. And for a long time, we’d succeeded.

But then, it seems that irritations turned to judgments. Judgments became anger. Silence felt like it was purposeful and mean. Then it became obvious that the silence was purposeful and mean. And since we had often talked about it—silence is the meanest thing you can do to another human, it’s the meanest thing on Earth, we’ll never do that to one another—it became the one thing I couldn’t forgive, and probably never will, even when I recognize that she had her own side to the story.

When the end came, I mourned. But as I stared at the air in my office recently, I tried to recall how that had started to change. First it was bit by bit, but then it came in huge swooping feelings. I was so relieved! Cliché or not, I felt the burden lift from my shoulders, an actual sensation that made me feel lighter. I remember thinking, holy cow, how could I not have seen how unhealthy this friendship actually was before?

Now, with the benefit of even more time gone, that seems only more obvious. We were sick. Not, perhaps, in a cancerous, horrible way (not until the end, at least), but for years it had been like a mild cough kind of sick. Quiet little stabs at one another. Jokes that revealed judgments. Teasing that got a little mean. Comparisons and competitiveness that were just plain weird. Evolving politics, obligations, preferences on how to spend time and money. Then a sort of slipping away until the random call was so far-flung and awkward that neither of us knew what to do with the space. And then: silence. She couldn’t quite be herself around me, I realize now, and I couldn’t be myself around her. And that does not a good friendship make.

It’s popular in our culture, I think, for us to believe that friends are supposed to last forever, and if they don’t there’s something wrong with us. Sometimes friends aren’t fun, and, of course, sticking with someone during tough times is part of the friendship deal. But there’s a line between that and hanging on to something that’s fundamentally wrong. The line, it seems to me, can be so thin that it nearly can’t be seen.

In the book Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend, Irene S. Levine notes that best friends rarely last forever. The fact is that most friendships fracture; for many of us, BFFs really aren’t BFFs. Lost friendships are a part of life. And, moreover, we may not always be able to forgive people. Sometimes friendships can be salvaged, and sometimes there’s been what Levine calls “a friendship felony,” and it’s better to face that fact and move on.

Levine reminded me of a valuable truth, which is to realize that while all friends have occasional conflicts, a toxic relationship is one that consistently feels demanding, stress-inducing, demeaning, and unsupportive. The conflict may be unintentional; it may be the responsibility of both parties; it may be difficult to recognize; and it may be sad. But, even so, it’s still dangerous, and it’s better to let it go.

There have been times I’ve missed her, the person who had, for a decade, been my closest confidante. But then I remind myself that I was missing the old her, the person she used to be, and that we’ve both changed, and that is what people do. And in the end, we’re both fallible human beings doing our best to live with courage and honesty and goodness.

So when I took out the recycle bin today, I realized it was over—really over—and knowing that felt good. Not in the mean I’ll-stick-it-to-you sense, and not in a selfish sense. But in a genuine, healthy, happy, nonjudgmental, and loving way, I felt good.

And then I thought of the friends I now have in my life. We all want someone to see the hurt done to us by this world, and we want that someone to care. We want someone to see our joys, and we want someone to care. That’s what a friend is. And maybe that person lasts till the end. And maybe she doesn’t. Maybe it’s best to be as observant and caring as we can, and embrace it with love while it lasts.

Laura Pritchett is a 5280 contributing editor and author whose latest book, Going Green, was published in 2009. Email her at

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

All things Colorado delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign Up

Moving On

Last year, a tornado decimated a small Colorado town and one unfortunate family. Now the residents of Holly are slowly rebuilding their homes and lives the only way they know how—by looking ahead instead of revisiting the past.

Click here for a slideshow with commentary from survivor Gus Puga.

Gus Puga opened his eyes to blackness, the raw scrape of a tree against his skin, and the intense chill of settling turmoil. Suddenly suspended eight feet above the ground, he heard the cries of his three-year-old daughter, Noelia, and reached out to feel his wife, Rosemary, beside him. He could see nothing, but he remembered, seconds earlier, the terrifying rushing noise, like multiple trains bearing down on his family. Noelia had been asleep when the storm came. He’d grabbed her and Rosemary, wrapped them in his arms, and curled into a ball on the living room floor.

When the fury passed, Gus dragged himself down from the perch near what, moments earlier, had been his family’s house. The tornado had lifted the entire frame of the mobile home from the ground and hurled it into the tree. On the ground, battered and bleeding, Gus called out to no one as his daughter’s screams pierced the night. She remained trapped in the branches next to her unconscious mother, who was pinned by the metal framework that wrapped around the gnarled tree. “My wife,” he mumbled. “Help my wife.”

Half a block away, Rodney Anderson stepped outside his house. The power had gone out as he and his partner, Sherie Phillips, heard the ominous roar. The wind knocked a travel-trailer through a wall of their sturdy World War II era house, but they escaped unharmed. Scanning the ravaged neighborhood, Anderson heard crying. Without thinking, he took a flashlight from a neighbor and stumbled down an alley toward the sound.

Anderson quickly reached Gus, who was hurt, incoherent, and unable to help. Shining the light upward, he found the source of the screams and started up the stout trunk to get Noelia. After securing her, he climbed down and tried to hand the terrified child, covered in blood, to her father. But Gus, injured and in shock, couldn’t take her. “He was gone…lost,” Gus’ mother, Aurelia, would say later.

Anderson left Noelia with a neighbor who’d arrived to help and climbed back into the mangled branches, around metal shards, shredded insulation, and railroad spikes that had been ripped from nearby train tracks. Rosemary dangled upside down, her leg trapped by the metal house frame. Shaking, Anderson braced himself, his legs against one branch, his back against another, and held Rosemary’s head in his lap. There was nothing to do but wait. When a local firefighter finally reached the scene, it took 90 minutes for the two men to free Rosemary. All three Pugas were taken to a hospital in nearby Lamar before being airlifted to Colorado Springs; Gus and Noelia were released several days later. Surgeons operated on Rosemary for four hours before she succumbed to internal injuries the following morning. Anderson went to her funeral a week later. There were so many people at the small church that he couldn’t get in.

Rosemary Puga was one of two fatalities caused by the tornado that ripped through Holly, a southeastern Colorado agricultural community of about 1,000 people, on March 28, 2007. Around 8 p.m.—the lazy stretch between dinner and bedtime good for flipping channels and playing board games—the twister touched down. Within two minutes, 150 mph winds damaged and destroyed homes, crushed cars, and severed power lines before churning beyond town limits and eventually dissipating into the plains.

Today, a simple homemade memorial, adorned with colorful flowers and a cast of the Virgin Mary, marks the spot where the tree beside the Puga home once stood—a tree that held so much pain for the family that they had it bulldozed within days after the tornado. Repaired railroad tracks lie across the uneven street, the only border between the town and the rolling plains that stretch to the southern horizon, where the twister tore through the open fields, gathering its deadly momentum. Overgrown brush has cropped up behind the small altar, sitting 20 feet from the still-outlined foundation of the Puga home.

Renewal and rebirth have become the focal points of Holly’s recovery mission, but its remoteness has hindered progress. The town has one grocery market, one convenience store, and two taverns, and folks drive the half-hour west to Lamar or 20 minutes east to Syracuse, Kansas, to dine out, shop, or see their doctor. Holly’s lone claim to fame is as the hometown of former Governor Roy Romer.

If Holly ever had a boom, it came and went with the Gateway racetrack, where horse racing once drew reasonable revenue before the state lottery arrived. Once gambling became as easy as walking to the corner store, the track shut down. Anderson, 43, is one of several horse trainers who live in the area but travel frequently to wherever the races dictate. “This place is like a black hole,” he says. “All the radars pretty much miss it.”

Some Holly residents are ready to push forward; others can’t get past what used to be and remain skeptical about a comeback. The tornado was, after all, just another setback, coming soon after the biblical December blizzards that hurt the area’s cattle supply and much of the region’s economy. “We are isolated,” says town administrator Marcia Willhite, a farmer’s daughter herself. “It’s sometimes hard for people to grasp what is possible for us. They’ve just learned to do with what they have for so many years.”

The Holly Recovery Task Force, formed after the storm, organizes relief efforts, provides mental health services, and coordinates low-interest loans for residential victims. The tornado destroyed 48 structures, damaged another 114 buildings, and temporarily displaced 58 families. As of press time, 10 of those families had left Holly to start over in Lamar or Kansas. Sixteen families still were waiting to return to permanent dwellings, either living in FEMA trailers or staying with family. “People are still willing to stay here, even through the hard times,” says Mary Rushton, a task force case manager. “It’s been slow for some, but they just keep saying, ‘We’re gonna make it.'”

Colorado’s Department of Local Affairs, helped by grants and corporate and private donations, is funding about $7 million of new projects. These include water and sewer pipe repairs, new zoning regulations, moving the Main Street electrical system underground so streetlights won’t have wires hanging overhead, and a first-ever building code that recommends storm shelters for certain public facilities. Willhite empathizes with residents who are frustrated by the state’s response time. “It’s amazing how quickly we’ve moved forward, but the public doesn’t know all this,” she says. “It takes time for everything to come into play, get approved, and be engineered. The bureaucracy at the state level got a little overwhelming. It was horrifying—it didn’t move. Every day people aren’t in their houses, they’re making plans to leave Holly. And in a little town, you lose one family and you notice.”

With a shy smile, four-year-old Noelia Puga lifts her arms in the air, prompting Gus to scoop her up off the floor of his mother’s living room. After the tornado, the Pugas—Gus, Noelia, and Gus Jr.—moved into the modest one-story house down the street from where their own home once stood. Gus’s mother, Aurelia, and eight-year-old Gus Jr. weathered the twister here; though some windows shattered, both escaped unharmed. Noelia, with her long, dark hair and mischievous brown eyes, the picture of childlike giddiness, squirms out of her dad’s grasp and skips into the other room, giggling.

Gus remains silent, his brown eyes glazed with a faraway look as his family members recount their struggles and small victories since the tornado. Gus’ brother Jorge—in town from San Diego just before Christmas for the funeral of their father, Pablo—recalls how quickly the community and its neighbors cleaned up the debris, and Aurelia frets about Gus Jr.’s newly developed fear of rain and wind. Her two beloved parakeets, roosting in a cloth-draped cage in the corner, chirp away obliviously. They’d been right next to one of the windows that was destroyed, but nary a feather was touched.

Sitting across from a photograph hanging on the opposite wall—a framed memory of smiles, two parents and two kids against the portrait-blue background—Gus perks up at the mention of Rosemary. He struggles to describe the months following the storm before finally managing, “I still wasn’t used to her being gone. I couldn’t accept it. Come 3:30 every day, I’d turn and look at the door and expect her to be walking in from work.”

Though Gus can’t avoid driving by his old house, until recently he’d never stopped there. He’d rather not think about that night, things he’s blocked out so he can resume his daily routine: waking at 3 a.m., driving his truck sometimes as far as Nebraska, and returning home, every evening, by dinnertime. He’s made no attempt to replace his old home, the will to start over stalling under the sheer burden of the effort. That, however, began to change after his children saw workers rebuilding on the lot behind Aurelia’s house. “The kids thought it was for them,” Gus says almost guiltily.

He lifts his shirt to reveal tan skin branded with a pattern of angry-looking scars, cruel reminders of the jagged tree branches and shrapnel from his own home that lashed his back as he clung to the tree. The scars are finally fading along with his recollections of the tragedy. While he may never be able to completely face the memories, Gus is getting by, continuing his work, and providing his children a good life—and eventually maybe even a new home. “My son wants his own room again,” he says of rebuilding. “It’s not so much that I want it, but for them.”

Gravel crunches beneath the wheels as Rodney Anderson swings his white Ford pickup toward Holly’s park, the harsh winter light casting a desolate glow on its deserted swing set and picnic shelter. Thick Chinese elm trees are planted in soldier-like rows down the four-block-long expanse of green. The forked branches once supported shady canopies, but now the treetops look like they’ve been buzz-sawed in one clean swoop.

The storm’s path of destruction is easily traceable from the south side of town by the Pugas’ home, through the park, and out toward a corner of Holly where an entire street bursts with new development. This is no brand-new neighborhood, no hopeful sign of an economic boom; all but two houses there were demolished by the tornado, and they’re being rebuilt—all of them, this time with basements.

Driving the streets with the ease of habit, Anderson and Phillips check on their old neighbors’ recovery efforts, noticing, at their old house, that the landlord has finally fixed the living room wall where the trailer hit. Phillips now lives in Syracuse, Kansas, where Anderson joins her between race-training stints. Thinking back to that night, he hesitates. Though he never doubted his actions, he says the aftermath took a toll on his faith. “You start to question yourself a lot,” he says. “Could I have gotten her down sooner?” He’s received counseling, and a nomination for a bravery citation, from the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, a group of traveling chaplains that aids trauma victims in horse communities.

Yet Anderson may never get to close the circle on that harrowing night: A year after the tornado, Anderson and Gus Puga—two men forever linked by a moment of chaos and loss—have yet to meet again. “I haven’t even talked to him,” Gus says. “I really didn’t know him, [even though] he was one of the first ones to actually show up.”

In the cab of the pickup, Anderson turns his gaze from his old house. “Everyone was saying, ‘You’re a hero,'” he says. “No. I was just the first guy there. I’d like to think anyone else would’ve done the same.” His kind, serious eyes wander toward Aurelia’s house. “I’ve still never met Gus,” he says a bit wistfully. “It doesn’t really cross my mind. They’ve never sought me out, even though I lived a few houses down for two months after.”

Tornadoes devour everything in their path before spitting them out again, forcing their victims to overcome the upheaval any way they can. For Anderson, this means focusing on work and maintaining his faith. For Gus, it’s about facing ongoing reminders of the tornado’s aftermath, including such indignities as a recently settled red-tape dispute with the town about the size of Rosemary’s headstone, and fighting the sick feeling, the anger, when his son came home from school to tell him about classmates wearing T-shirts that bragged, “I survived the tornado.”

It would be easy, even justified, for Puga, Anderson, and all of Holly’s residents to feel victimized. Instead, they’re making sense of a senseless tragedy by putting things behind them—sometimes even the very people who helped them through the ordeal. On this battered and unforgiving landscape, they plug away in the hope that change, however slow moving, remains possible.

Small signs of renewal are cropping up around town, even at the site of Gus Puga’s old house. When the storm hit, a semi trailer filled with corn sat where he had parked it. The angry gusts tipped it over, spilling kernels across the street and lawn. Now, in the unlikely area where dirt and pavement meet, shriveled stalks of corn whip around in the biting wind, a reminder of the unplanned growth that arose from one horrible night. m

Julie Dugdale is an assistant editor at 5280. E-mail her at