Basecamp: hazy Chincoteague Island National Seashore, Virginia — May 2016

The Lagniappe of Friendship

Here is a great and joyful secret I learned from observing each of my parents’ own friendships: you need to have people who enrich you, beyond your own family. And with those people, you find and restore your own self over and over again. In New Orleans (and other places, too, I’m sure), at the marketplace you often receive a lagniappe, a little bonus something….an extra sweet in the bag of bakery items, or a sachet of herbs along with your gumbo fixings. The lagniappe is a tiny added gift, in addition to something that is already pretty good. What I’ve found, in my longest friendships, is that the lagniappe is actually silence. Being comfortable, or comforted, in silence is the truest measure of alliance, and allows you to be heard without saying much.

When I knew my dearest friends could read my great unsaid maybe began with my friend Kirsten. We worked together, then had our first pregnancies together, navigated first-time-momming together. When I was expecting my second baby, I was driving my mom’s car in an unsavory neighborhood in Cleveland (where, it must be said, my mother worked at a not-for-profit organization benefiting the elderly.). I parked, then stood briefly beside the car, about to open the back door to get my sleeping toddler out of his carseat. And I was approached suddenly by a car full of young men; one leapt out, aggressively pushed me against the car, twisting my arm behind me, telling me to give him the keys and he did not want to have to hurt me. I turned at him, with a deep menacing voice I did not know I had, inches from his face yelled at him to back off — my baby was in the car. He let go, glanced in the window, shouted “nothing happened!” as he clamored back into the waiting car and sped off. Later, Kirsten and I marveled at the mama-bear instinct that had quite literally come roaring forth from somewhere deep within. Less than a year later, I heard the news of Susan Smith’s missing boys on the radio, and drove immediately to Kirsten’s house. She ushered my distraught self in, where I sunk down on her sofa, head in hands, while she stood over me. “You’re going to tell me she did it, aren’t you?”, said Kirsten. Yes, I was going to say exactly that — and I had not yet spoken a single word. I wanted to say that exact fact, because that mom would not be around to go on the news; you’d go down swinging when your baby is in the car. Kirsten knew I could barely say that aloud, so she said it for me.

Or sometimes your girlfriend shows up, open door and open heart. Back when we were both dropping off toddlers at daycare while pregnant, Sue and I moved from nodding ‘good morning’ in the hallways to fast-forward becoming each others’ backup person and trusted friend. Shout-out to all moms raising families away from their own family, and who build a network of support that starts with other moms. In the days before cell phones, our kids knew that either Sue’s car or mine was the way home after school. Our kitchens were the alternate after-school spot, homework spot, morning coffee spot for each other. When I was in the midst of a chemotherapy trial drug, agreeing to be very sick for some months on the chance of being well long term to stick around, it was Sue who showed up at my door with vanilla milkshakes when I could not venture out, and sat silently side-by-side with me watching chick-flicks on cable t.v. For years, it was Sue who was in the waiting room while I was at my annual mammogram, counting down each visit on that journey to the five year mark of NED (no evidence of disease), when you can finally say you officially beat back the cancer. And on the morning of my son’s wedding, as I fastened my dad’s cufflinks onto my son’s shirt, it was Sue’s kitchen we stood in because of course she invited all the guys there to get ready, and it felt just like home to all of us.

I start every day with a group-text with two of my dear friends. They are staggeringly smart and wickedly funny, and much of what we text is either inappropriate to share or would only make sense to us. We’ve seen each other through every single life issue you can imagine, and a few you cannot. We have the whole movie of our lives cast, including supporting characters. It would take chapters and chapters to outline just the basics of what I’ve learned from these ladies. At the top of the list is how to honor friendships. Maria hosts a super-secret double-probation alternate pre-holiday dinner, inviting only people she likes, and doesn’t tell the people she doesn’t want there. I can’t say more about that without my invite being revoked. Maria also captains a seriously competitive trivia team, selecting members based on what category of obscure knowledge can they ace, and what snacks will they bring — best not to disappoint on either front. Bobbi hosts a Thanksgiving potluck for friends she knows who are far from home, or don’t have custody that holiday, or would not trouble to cook a big feast for just themselves. She also rents a beach house, and puts out an alert to her network of friends: first to respond are guaranteed a spot. I jump on these invitations, and as a result have spent girl’s weekend at the beach with women I barely know….because I trust I’ll like the friends of my friend. It’s a joyful energy there: someone is always willing to walk the bay at dawn with you, or venture out in the dark to get late-night ice cream, or go in to town to check out the used-book store, or stay up late talking about topics from relationships to human rights to the Bourbon Trail to what happens if your chicken coop tips over in a flood and now your chickens are too angry to lay eggs. I used to think those weekends were social; now I think they are enriching — you know, the way summer camp was supposed to be.

Friendships are born of proximity, necessity, shared experience. Hey, that’s great. But friendships survive because part of you is fed by knowing this person. Sometimes you don’t even know what you are hungry for, then here comes this friend, bearing sustenance. It’s a belly laugh — you know, when you are driving in your car days (weeks) later, and laugh out loud recalling what was said. It’s a hand, with heavy lifting like caring for your aging parent or your child or your dog. It’s your very breath, when there’s something wonky on the PET scan or your kid is in distress. It’s backbone support, for life decisions or saying dreams or fears out loud or negotiating professional hurdles. It’s an ear, really listening as troubles are talked through or an idea takes shape. It’s a voice, in the dark or the storm or the crowd. It’s putting on coffee, knowing where the key is, sitting by the fire even after the fire dies down, sneaking her out of the hospital to go get pizza, it’s being met at the finish line, it’s driving all night to get there, knowing “Tupelo Honey” is your zen, it’s someone carrying snacks and seltzer water in their car for you, it’s knowing when time is short then a day at the ballpark can be a respite, it’s sitting in the dark theater after “Still Alice” and quietly being handed popcorn-stand napkins when you cannot stop crying, it’s knowing your joy is the beach or the sunrise, and there is never ketchup or birds or hidden agendas.

Odds are that life will throw you curveballs, and you need a team to help field them. Friends who share the capital of common memories and stories with you, who know your strengths and weaknesses — they are the ones who become your safe harbor, who allow you to process through signal and noise. And when the older generation passes on and the younger generation moves out, you can look around and see the faces of your friends across the kitchen counter, or across town or across the country, and know: this is the community I built, and who built me, silently slowly steadily over time.

My dearest friends can still read my great unsaid. Last year, immediately after a profoundly sad loss in our family circle, I did not cancel a weekend trip to the shore with Bobbi. Rather, I did go, and spent most of the weekend in peaceful silence. We stayed at the tiny Sea Shell Motel. Maybe it was the compounded previous restless nights, or the motel’s brand new mattresses, or the salty air, but the sleep there was a renewal: necessary and overdue. Each day, we set up camp at the beach, with umbrella, chairs and a cooler. We ate and read or dozed, and one afternoon when the clouds rolled in and temps dropped, we rooted an old golf jacket and a dog blanket out of Bobbi’s car trunk, and hunkered down and stayed right where we were, just letting the weather weather us. And the storminess passed. In the end, what I needed, after supporting my own family through the traumatic loss of a young friend, was self-care. I preach that all the time: care for the caregiver. For me, it was sleeping with the windows flung wide, full days on the beach, ice cream for dinner, in the company of a longtime friend, quiet steady compassionate, with no words needed. C.S. Lewis was right: friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy or like art, it has no survival value but rather gives value to survival. Could I have done that alone? Of course. But when I glanced over and saw that indeed I was not alone, strength and breath and calm began to return. In the silence lies the something more; it is the harbor of trust, where the spirit — like a life umpire — calls us safe at home.

Wedding morning, in Sue’s kitchen. (NOTE: this essay was influenced by Sara Lukinson’s piece, “The Friendships That Hold Us Safely In Their Keep” in the New York Times — and I’m grateful for her inspiration to say this all aloud. As Maria said after reading the NYT piece, “we are luckier than anyone else alive.” Truth.)

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