Let us speak of friendship.
No, not friendship. Friends.
Rare friends. Women who are real. Intimate. Thoughtful. Trusted. Caring. Generous. Challenging. Competitive. Competent. Insightful. Supportive. Intelligent. Fun. Loving.
I lost one of the few I have to ovarian cancer about six weeks ago, so I have been thinking a lot about what she meant to me as a friend. I have also been wondering why it took me so long to fully appreciate the myriad gifts good friends bestow upon our lives, why I didn’t do more, sooner, to develop and foster good relationships with women, and how I can remedy that lapse now.
I actually know why I didn’t have time for friends when I was younger: I had four children and, occasionally, a job, too, and a work-obsessed husband, parents and in-laws to tend to, a home to make, a house to keep, and volunteer assignments and ambitions. You know the drill: I had things to do. I went back to work the first time things calmed down enough for me to sit around someone’s kitchen table kvetching over coffee; it bored me. And I went back to work the second time when I found had time to “go to lunch”; that just wasn’t my cup of tea, either. To be sure, I welcomed the adult conversation of other young mothers at the playground and on the soccer sidelines – when it was adult – *(How do you say “judgmental”?)* – but I didn’t find in it the sustenance I needed at the time. And even when I tried, when I joined a book club or a bridge club, or a supper club, it always felt like I was “stealing” time away from my family whenever I stepped out with “the girls.” It’s hard to have fun, believe me, when you’re feeling guilty. So I think I stopped trying. Note to self: Fun is one of the great gifts a Friend (capital F) provides.
I finally learned how we women friends can (and do) support each other when I began to outgrow, i.e., mature beyond, my innate competitiveness and obsession with being a perfect parent in a picture-perfect-this-is-how-it’s-supposed-to-be family, when I tearfully confessed to two women I hoped I could trust that one of my kids was in crisis and how scared I was. They wept with me – for me, and with me. They knew exactly how I felt, how terrified, how ashamed, how failed, how willing to lay my life down for that child over and over and over again if only I could make it better. My husband had been great and supportive and willing to work on all the issues involved with me – but by appointment only, and he simply could not understand the emotional hit it was to me, how I couldn’t stop thinking about it, or talking about it. These women could. I needed them. With that powerful realization, I started taking baby steps toward friends – making more time, finding more opportunities to spend time together.
When the kids all left for school, I found more time, and even greater comfort in our shared experiences, experiences we didn’t have to explain, experiences we could affirm for each other, and even those we could enjoy vicariously or with which we could empathize – her ocean, my mountains; her design project, my writing; her mother’s health, my dad’s; her dissatisfaction with her job, my mourning spent motherhood; and a common yearning to figure out what we would become next, in this new, relatively uncharted stage of our lives, the yearning in unison, in fact, which sparked this online journal, *The Third Third*.
Still, I confess, I did not fully appreciate the gifts of friendship until my friend, Jan, was put at risk. As I said when I spoke at her memorial service in December, the 50 months from her diagnosis to her demise gave me the opportunity to experience her as the same friend she’d been, off-and-on, for 44 years – but distilled. I found new meaning in the thoughts and trips, lunches and cups of tea, stories and concerns we shared. I was more sensitive to her cues and learned when to call her, when to visit, when to ask about a test or a scan and when not to, when I needed to learn more about her disease, and when I could pretend it still mattered whether we kept our figures and our cool. I realized, just by the fact of her showing up, how much it meant to me to have my friends at our daughter’s wedding; and I made sure I showed up for her son’s, too. I began to treasure the time we spent together and to think of it as the meat-and-potatoes of our lives and not just the dessert we earned by being good daughters, wives, and mothers. I told Jan I would go with her every step of the way on this journey neither of us had planned; and she told me that was exactly what she needed to hear. I worried about her; she worried about my worrying. We prayed together, held hands, laughed and cried, bitched (me more than her), hugged more often, and learned to tell each other “I love you.” We continued to talk about our children and delighted, together, in what good people they had become; about our husbands, and how lucky we had been when we were young and foolish to marry guys who could grow through this crisis with us; about our extended families; about politics; about the economy; about the jobs we left behind; the goals we had for our old age; our plans for the next week, or the next summer. She showed me profound strength and courage, and she embodied Hope. Then she did something more. Grasping the comfort that comes from knowing you are not alone on your journey, wherever it takes you, Jan arranged for her several circles of friends to intersect, to meet, to support one another in our caring about her. She made sure I would not be alone with her loss – and neither would they. Again, the lessons were good ones. Women friends are powerful gifts; they understand, they care, they support one another.
To be sure, a friend will let you down on occasion. But so will a husband or a sibling and a parent or a child. I do my share of letting down, too, and not all that gently, either. But more often, the friend will pick you up. When I was mourning Jan this fall, even before she died, I had the chance to meet two old friends in New York City. These were women with whom I shared very, very young motherhood, from whom I moved across the country 29 years ago, and with whom I have kept in touch through their major passages, including a divorce, the ex-spouse’s death, parents’ deaths, children’s weddings and the like. The time with them was elixir for my saddened soul. We laughed, we bitched, we “checked in,” we agreed our children didn’t care what we thought anymore, we admired each other’s husbands and marriages, we could have talked all night, and we vowed to get together again, sooner, and more often. They were so good for me; we were so good for each other. It was fun and affirming and wonderful. Again, they reminded me what friends are for.
So, yes, I have friends, but I could use a few more. And it’s not that easy to make new friends at 60, without the “crutches” that children, even dogs, and work have been. But it’s not that hard, either, if you give it – and any number of other things – a try. I say “Yes” to book clubs, now because, in addition to spending time talking about books, we talk about our lives, too. I still say “No” to luncheons because they’re mostly see-and-be-seen, and not opportunities for conversation or connection, except when I attend simply to honor another woman’s cause or commitment. I try to have lunch regularly with a group of women I met a year or so ago working on a church project, a group of some of the most thoughtful, responsible, creative, talented, and caring women I’ve ever known, women I wanted to keep in my life even when the project was over. And I’m back to planning dinner parties of six – a size I’ve discovered is easy for me to do, but also lends itself to getting to know who’s there. I go to parties, even when I don’t feel all that sociable because I believe there is always a chance I’ll see someone there, meet someone new, or reconnect with an acquaintance and learn something interesting about the world, or about myself, and it could be the start of a beautiful new friendship. I’m even looking forward to my college reunion this year because those amazing women are friends, too, now that they don’t intimidate me and we’re no longer feeding each other’s insecurities.
I’ve come to believe you have to live a little to have the capacity to make – and be – a friend. You may have known success, but you probably have to have known failure to get there. It takes vulnerability, and a lot of sensitivity. But most of all, being a Friend takes caring about another person, living a certain integrity of feelings, understanding, and laughter.
*Please log on and tell us more about your friends. Where you found them, how you keep them, what you do for fun, and why they are important.*
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