This blog series has been about the journey of my husband and I during his battle with Cancer. Cancer being “the Monster.” I am fortunate in that my husband is also my friend. My true friend. And I have begun to contemplate this truth about my husband in the past little while. He is certainly my friend in all the ways a person must be a friend, and he is devoted to that friendship first before all other aspects of our relationship. It was a devastating realization for me. I am not only losing my husband, but I am losing my friend. And now I have begun to contemplate friendship anew, and how enormously important it is.
Several weeks ago, the Monster murdered my sister-in-law’s best friend. A couple of days ago, it did the same to my sister’s best friend. These women it killed, women who were both at the age when most women are their most strong, intelligent, resourceful, independent, creative, sexy, and beautiful—their 50s and 60s—died with dignity, loved by many family and friends.
It’s interesting how we tend to compartmentalize the ones we love to display their levels of value to us. For instance, “He/she is my spouse/partner”, “She’s my daughter”, “He’s my son,” “She is my grandmother/auntie/mother/sister.” And in our minds, we rate the value: a child has more worth than a cousin, a spouse has more worth than an uncle, etc. Our employers do that too. We’ll get a week off for the passing of our mother or father, a month if it’s our child, three months if it’s our spouse, and so on. Some places even give a couple of days if the family fur-person dies. But not too often is there any time given if it’s a friend who has passed. For some strange reason, friends don’t count.
Many years ago I knew a man whose best friend committed suicide. He had known this friend since they were four years old. Both coming from difficult home lives, they found comfort and comradery with each other. They experienced all the firsts of boyhood together, camped out together, explored together, fought each other’s enemies, and were devoted to each other. All their lives. They knew each other better than their respective families knew them. I would even say that who they became as men was partly due to who they were together as children and by the many ways they impacted each other. When he tried to get time off so that he could attend his best friend’s funeral, the request was denied. The response was that it would be different if it had been a family member who had died. Yet, these two men had an intimate relationship that spanned a lifetime. They were so much more than mere family. Nevertheless, their relationship was not treated with value by those outside of it.
My sister has come up against this already…this just a friend wall. She has been relegated to cooking. She can cook for everyone. That’s how she can help the family and support them in their time of loss. No one has asked her how she feels and if she needs anything during her time of loss. No one knows, of course, that she went to her dying friend nearly every day and rubbed lotion on her feet. That she slid into bed beside her, held her hand, and silently sat with her while she slept until her friend’s husband got home from work. She fed and bathed her. She watched funny movies with her. Took silly selfies and videos and told each other secrets, and kept all of these treasures for the day when her children would need them. She was there when her friend knew death was near and experienced her first true feelings of terror. She was there when her friend wondered what would become of her husband and children, and then entrusted them to her. Because she knew they would be safe with my sister watching over them. Because she trusted her with what she loved most. Because, that’s what friends do.
Not everyone is close to their families…those people about whom we had no choice. Friends though…our friends are different. Our friends are the ones we have chosen. No relationship was forced or provided when it comes to our friends. Every moment, every week, year, decade of friendship was built and nurtured by us. We work at our friendships and we work on being a better friend than we were yesterday. We learn, we evolve, and this never stops so long as the friendship remains.
Friendships differ from close acquaintances and “pals.” It’s like the cooking thing after my sister’s best friend passed away. Pals and acquaintances were all saddened by this woman’s death. They are there, organizing everything, taking care of details, and helping out the family. They are moved to tears, but they are not devastated. They brought a plate of cookies or a lasagna so her husband didn’t have to cook. One vacuumed the house. Another did all the laundry. And they don’t understand why asking my sister to help out with these necessary chores at this time is inappropriate. They don’t understand because they were not “friends” in the truest sense of the word. This does not make them bad people. They were just outside the friend relationship, because friendship is utterly, completely, profoundly personal. The loss of a friend is also utterly, completely, profoundly personal. And I know my sister is stumbling about right now, bumping into memories, and tripping over shared intimacies, and wondering who she is going to be now…now that the person she had been, with the one who first made that person come alive, is now dead. Anais Nin said that a friend “represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that the world is born.” When a friend dies, they take with them that identity they created in us and the world in which we lived that identity. When our friend dies, we lose the world.
People make jokes about friendship: Acquaintances bail you out of jail, but friends are in the cell with you. Acquaintances will help you move, but friends will help you move a body. Yes, these are comical, but actually, the underlying message is true. Friends are with you through thick and thin. Friends will come to your rescue. Friends will help dig you out of crap, even if it means they might fall into the crap pit with you.
My sister talked to me about being in the just a friend category, because it grieved her so, and she needed to talk to someone who also has “friends.” We who have friends will totally understand where she’s coming from. She doesn’t want to intrude on “the family”, but she also feels that she has a place within the circle of grief. And that’s the bad thing about being in the just a friend category. If our sibling dies, we can hold on to our other sibling/mother/father/grandparent and share our tears. We can comfort each other in a grief shared. But what does the best friend do if the family members do not always know how the friend was loved, or do not care? Friends have no say, no legal rights, and usually no part of the inheritance. Yet a person’s friends, their true friends, were probably the most meaningful, most defining relationships of their lives.
The Bible speaks often about relationships: husbands and wives, parents and children, elders and youth, but the relationship it speaks most to is the relationship of friendship. Of all human relationships, Jesus put the most value on friendship—those relationships we choose. The people we meet that we choose to love and whom we draw to us for no other reason than a desire to nurture and cherish them. Isn’t that bizarre, actually? I heard someone once say something to the effect that we choose a person who was a stranger to us and say to that person, “it is to you that I will divulge my secrets.” Then we love that person, and they love us back for the very same reason, because they chose us too. With 7 billion people on this earth, what are the chances??
That’s why it is friendship that is the “pearl of great value.” It is our friend who is the “one who sticks closer than a brother.” How can that possibly be accurately measured for worth in a world that seems to thrive on betrayal, despair, and a BFF/Frenemy mentality that states “we will be friends until we are not.” What does that even mean? I am who I am today, not only because of my parents, or the high school I attended, or the job I do. I am also who I am today because of five women and one man of all the millions of people on earth who impacted my life in ways that I cannot fully verbalize and to depths that I don’t quite understand.
Euripides said that “one loyal friend is worth ten thousand relatives.” Hahaha. Sometimes this is true, but I am not saying that friends are somehow better than family because family consists of a different set of relationships, each with its own complexity. We love our moms. I am saying, however, that friends and family are of equal importance. There is no such thing as just a friend.
I have been blessed in my life to have a circle of friends who have been the gardens I watered with tears, the clowns who made the milk come out my nose, the mirrors who revealed my truest self, and the immovable rocks against which I beat my fists. You friends out there, you just a friend friends, the Monster would have you walk about numbly, feeling the weight of this on your shoulders, wishing you knew just what to do. Wondering where you belong amongst the bereaved. It wants you to believe that no one seems to know your pain, and everyone who does know belongs to an inner circle that for some incalculable reason does not include you. The Monster thrives on suffering and division. But maybe this will comfort you when you remember that while your friend created an identity in you, you also created an identity in them. Maybe you can make some of those secrets places you knew together with your friend into coins of gold, and bring them into the gathering of family—not to give away—but to display and to trade. The Monster doesn’t want you to share. He sure doesn’t want feelings of love and gratitude to overshadow loss and anguish. Beat him at his own game—be your friend’s friend even in their death.