40 years ago I ran into my childhood friend on the playground. I broke her glasses and formed a rainbow colored goose egg on my forehead. We’ve been friends ever since. Today she’s flying back home after a brief BFF retreat with me in my humble new home. Its been a grand adventure. She got in her Maryland scrapple and crab fix. She treated me to that famous Wisconsin cheese. We got to chat away the miles and the years over the fire pit while roasting marshmallows. We spent an afternoon with her family and it felt like home. Just as it always does and just as I know she feels when she is with my family.
My intent as I was driving her to Dulles was to take the scenic route through DC. It was scenic but not quite what I was aiming for. More like a roll up the windows, where are we, scenic route. We rolled into the terminal and within seconds she was on the curb, purple suitcase in tow, and I pulled away to head back home. And what was this? I felt this strange punch to the stomach, and the tears came, and I was baffled. Confused by such a reaction to the end of this quiet little retreat. And swimming into my head, rose Billy’s eulogy at Keith’s memorial service. I couldn’t remember all the words but I could feel the emotions of it. Billy and Keith became friends when they were 4 years old, at an ice skating rink. Keith collided with Billy and knocked out one of his teeth, which landed Billy in the doctor’s office. A tale very reminiscent of how Karen and I met. 50 years later, there was Billy standing vigil next to Keith’s hospital bed, with his wife and children and then standing before a packed synagogue recounting a 50 year friendship. Showing us the essence of Keith from the age of innocence and simplicity through the years to the man he had become. There was the source of my ache, as the miles moved Karen and I away from each other and back to our daily routines. It was the first time that I had ever felt any true understanding of what it must have been like for Billy. Yet I still found myself confused as to, why now, would something like that hit me. Through the tears I had managed to miss my turn and landed right in the heart of the Mall in DC. Exactly where I wanted to take Karen on the ride in. Looping around the Washington Monument and past the World War II Memorial, I snapped out of the tears. Some times, you are meant to be in the moment with a true friend and some times you are meant to sight see.
There was something about my conjuring of Billy’s eulogy and replaying Karen and I talking about how we wished we were better about staying in touch. How life just has a way of busying us up and squeezing out those connections to people who are a part of our lives yet not part of our daily happenings. And how hard it is to tell people we love what they really mean to us. But if Billy could do it, why couldn’t I? Why wait for the eulogy? What is there to be afraid of when speaking your heart to someone who knew you before the training wheels came off your bike or before you worn a training bra? Was there for you when you discovered that there was no Santa Claus, or when you kissed your first boy, got into your first mischief, passed the driving test, failed the math quiz?
For me, it is because I must visit a time in my life when I was truly an ugly person. My second year of college. I had let the ills of others who had wronged me taint me like a dark cancer of my spirit. All through Freshman year, it was building and growing. I could no longer distinguish truth from fiction. I was only capable of building shallow superficial friendships under the guise of party buddies. There was little self esteem going into my higher education and there was little I did to regain it. Meanwhile, Karen and I would stay in touch, sending each other postcards from the sides of wine cooler 4 packs. I went to visit her, she came to visit me. We spent the summer between our freshman and sophomore years, working together at a local restaurant down in St. Michaels. We had met a couple of guys and all 4 of us hung out after hours. When we returned to our studies in the Fall, I continued to see one of those two guys. And he was no good for me. As the fall rolled into spring, my cancer of the spirit had grown to the point where my roommate, Cathy, moved out between semesters. I started to blow off visits to Karen, driving right past her to get to him. I partied more and more. I alienated more and more people. I skipped Karen’s debut as the lead in one of her college theater productions. I became so mired in lies, I no longer knew my own truth. And Karen was angry with me. I was hurting her again and again with my betrayal of our friendship. And I was so ugly, I didn’t care.
But then that no good boy dumped me. With no self esteem and no true friends, I fell apart. My cancer had eaten its way straight through me and had turned me into a dark mad hatter who had poisoned the tea. I can’t remember all the details. I don’t remember calling Karen, but I think my ex roommate did. Cathy had talked me into seeing the campus psychologist and actually set up an appointment for me. At the appointment, Karen showed up. She drove the 5 hours from her campus to mine. She was there and the look on her face scared me because in that moment I could see all that I had injured her with in those last couple of years. I suddenly cared. And we went through that session, and she made me speak the truth and never let up on me. She didn’t cut me any slack. She never wavered and never flinched with each confession I made of all the things I had become. And if I spoke one false word, she brought me back around to honesty. And she saved me that day. And for a long time, I hid from her. I could not look at her and yet at the same time, the cancer slowly lost its grip. Loosened its tendrils from around my heart and allowed me to love myself. I was free to be honest again.
At Karen’s wedding is when I first truly understood what she did for me. As I stood up there reading a poem during the ceremony, I was shaking and nervous with stage fright but determined to not let her down. She still trusted me with this important task even when I had damaged our relationship. I have often thought of that day in the Spring of my Sophomore year, when she appeared on my doorstep, angry and hurt from my actions, solely to save me. The selfless act of a childhood friend. She was there to be my witness to that innocent child that still lived inside me. The protector of that part of me that still believed in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and of course, magic. Karen taught me how to be a true friend again. And for that, I would drive lost through DC at any hour of the day or night, recounting eulogies in my head until I am smiling through the tears.