Things were unraveling. Or maybe I just felt like I was coming undone. Our daughter had been diagnosed with a learning disability. Our young son with autism was struggling to simply remain in a classroom, and I was flooded with daily phone calls from his various therapists and educators, all trying to arrive at solutions. For a time, he had stopped speaking at all, choosing instead to type his every request. If anyone insisted he speak, he would hit them. He had been removed from his after school program, making it impossible for my husband and I to work past two in the afternoon…making it hard to pay all those therapists and private tutors tasked with helping him. (Never mind the bitterness from my business partner, who was tiring of the situation, as well.) And then the worry, the burden of wondering if he would always struggle and us, too, vicariously…
My husband and I were turning on one another under the mounting stress. At first, it was simply the tired snapping of two people, lost in a sea of problems. And then, soon, the million little jabs of resentments had bloomed in to the brand of silent seething that might threaten an otherwise good marriage. Do you have to cut the bread like that and Why can’t you change the light bulb and Couldn’t you read the bedtime story were criticisms lobbed so gracefully that the other party could hardly object, though both my husband and I knew the words were pregnant with hostilities unspoken.
It was in the middle of all this that I boarded a plane to Seattle. I had a speaking engagement, and had decided to meet an old friend while I was in town. My schedule was tight, as always, and I was giving consideration to cancelling until I realized how much I needed to have some time to share the deepest parts of my life.
And that, really, is what this particular friendship has been about…it’s about that place where the soul can stand naked, sheltered from exasperation or recrimination, and know that it will be received with unconditional acceptance. Our friendship is the home where I can be my true self.
My husband, of course, is my best friend. He’s my cheering section and my partner and my source of love in the world. But marriage requires the kind of work that friendships do not and, of course, in marriage we are exposed in a different context. In marriage, we cannot strip ourselves bare and open the doors to the basements of our thoughts and fears because those things, those recesses of us, have repercussions for the partnership. Friendship requires no such negotiation.
And so, I found myself sitting outside a café with the mist of Puget Sound dampening a paper cup filled with hot coffee, at my absolute neediest, and with my dear friend at my side.
We met years earlier, having been paired for work. He was an enthusiastic talker, animated and gregarious. I liked him straight away, even after he reached over and grabbed my thigh in the middle of a discussion about racing bikes and becoming faster. His intent, however, was not the least bit subject to question as he quickly moved on without so much as a glance in my direction, saying, “You look like a Schleck brother with a bit of muscle.” And quickly, to the next topic.
He found humor the morning that I called him after I got lost on what was supposed to be a short run, and ended up being well over 13 miles of aimless jogging. To this day, he references with laughter my poor sense of direction and inability to read a map. Also a diabetic, he encouraged me to tighten my already “tight” control over my blood sugar, and then showed me how. He was forgiving on the occasion of my two in the morning rant, months earlier, when I sent him what he later called “the longest text message in the history of the cell phone” as I found myself panicked about the future and unable to sleep. He has counseled me through the hardest days of raising my children…at all hours of my life, when I have needed him most.
Despite living thousands of miles away from one another, it’s possible to transcend the limits of skin in a friendship. It’s the kind of relationship that has taken me out of the boxes I have made for myself, and burned them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is bread for living.
And so, we sat together and talked. But it was less about talking, and more about being. Being as opposed to Doing. Sure, we spoke about all the things we do - in our jobs, our other relationships, our spiritual, athletic, medical, familial doings. But the experiential, life-giving juice that feeds our soul and binds us together over the years and takes us to ever deeper dimensions is the conversation we have when we are just present for one another.
He had made reservations at a nice vegan restaurant on the other side of Seattle, but I found myself in love with Pike Street. I needed to be in a place where things seemed alive, where there was the movement of feet and the salt off the water, the smell of flowers in the market and the glassy eyes of fresh fish laid out for sale. The vibrancy of the marketplace seemed to lighten the burdens I had carried with me down the bricked streets and to the edge of the water.
You won’t find a lot of vegan fare here, he said. And then, smiling, I replied that I knew…that maybe I would order a giant plate of fish, instead. We both began laughing, as he took me by the arm to a restaurant where we ordered a huge plate of mussels, drowned in a seafood broth, and then salmon and whitefish. We ate and talked for a long time with the ease and openness of old friends. For as much as he talks, he is always fully present. He is acutely open to my true self, and he is with me always in the moment. And as we left, as we walked through the busy streets, as he handed me a tart Washington apple and as we stared at freshly baked bread, I found myself grinning so hard that it hurt. In the oasis of our friendship, I found myself renewed. For the first time in months, my heart and mind felt light.
Support, salvation, transformation, life. In the worst moments of my mind, my friendships have moved me from the surface of this life to the meaning of it. We help one another live. Standing naked before another, knowing that acceptance will trump exasperation. As we hugged goodbye, I was reminded of how lucky I am to own this life. I walked through the door of my house a happier, more generous version of myself.