THICKER THAN BLOOD


Friendship

“There is one friend in the life of each of us who seems not a separate person, however dear and beloved, but an expansion, an interpretation, of one’s self, the very meaning of one’s soul.” ~Edith Wharton

I am the survivor of a very complicated childhood, devoid of the critical elements necessary for healthy maturation. Because of this, I grew up, harboring lots of vacancies within me. I’ve always sought ways to fill the voids, attempting to make myself whole and bridge my gaps. Some of my methods were not ideal and resulted in poor and destructive behavior. Others were far more productive and occurred courtesy of some deep and meaningful friendships that I managed to develop over the years. Despite what I was lacking, I found it easy to attach myself to others, securing anchors along the pathway of my life that prevented me from drifting too far away. Before marriage and children – which finally enabled me the opportunity to build my own family from the ground up and, hopefully, heal some of the painful wounds that lingered – my friends were my salvation from orphancy. Marriage and the birth of my kids were a positive disruption on my journey and created critical and powerful connection points along with a new foundation from which to build. Unfortunately, I slowly learned that even they could not replace the deep chasm that still lingered because of the absence of those early familial relations. So, I continued to seek out relationships that would serve as a patch, masking over the holes and offering opportunities to plant seeds that might grow into deep roots that might ultimately feel like a real family tree.

When I was 42 years old, well into my expedition and still struggling to make sense of the ever-present voids that lay deeply within me, I received a gift. There was no gift wrap or bow and no card to indicate why it was coming my way. It simply showed up on my proverbial doorstep. The gift was my best friend. Only, I had no idea at the time what lay in store for me. I have written previously about My Gay Best Friend, highlighting the distinctiveness of our special relationship. Yet, no matter how deep I dig to try to evoke my most elemental feelings about this friendship, when I write about it, I tend to focus more clinically on the exceptionality of our connection. It is strangely difficult to convey, in the context of my own personal experience, how powerful this relationship is and how humbled I am by its presence in my life. But, today, I am going to try.

I am not a fan of the term “best friend” when referring to our friendship. It seems immature and feels like it trivializes the intensity and complexity of our relationship. I joke, instead, that he is “my brother from another mother” as this more adequately paints the picture. The way I usually process my feelings towards him and the nature of our relationship is more closely akin to that of a family member. Ultimately, there is not a common construct that applies to us, which makes perfect sense because it reinforces the uniqueness and singularity of our attachment.

But, in fact, he is my best friend. He is a friend above all others – the first rung on my friendship ladder. He is at the top of my pyramid. He is the one I trust above all my other comrades. This does not denigrate my other friendships – several of which are quite intimate and trusting – it just highlights how close we actually are. We have a symbiosis that often exists with twins. We can sense when each other is suffering and have an understanding between us on how to support one another. It is implied. It is implicit. It is fundamental. When we are trying to refer to each other and express the magnitude of our relationship, we pull out the “best friend” moniker to be clear of the relevancy in each other’s life. We are able to categorize our relationship (my need, typically) and ensure that it is tended to with intention and given the respect it deserves. Both of us acknowledge, like Edith Wharton suggests, that our relationship is singular and rare and meant to be adored.

In previous writings, I have referred to my relationship with my best friend as a marriage, of sorts. What makes our association so individual yet complex is that we share many of the deep intimacies that marital partners share but they are funneled through a very different lens. We don’t have the traditional burdens of households, bills, and kids. We don’t have to engage in the complexities of romance and sex that, while incredibly meaningful in a union, also create complications that platonic, loving friendships do not have to withstand. On the other hand, we have to balance the intensity of our bond with the other relationships in our lives, particularly husbands and kids. Because there is emotional intimacy, the boundaries become blurred and, admittedly, my friend does a far better job of managing that than me. At different intervals, we have to realign ourselves and readjust expectations. Plus, we live far apart and, while our work offers us many opportunities to spend time together, we are challenged by the geographical gap that prevents us from the typical interactions that friends share over coffee or drinks. We have to work hard to schedule our personal time and, for me, this causes stress and frustration and I have to continually remind myself that there is simply nothing traditional about our friendship. While I love that, at the same time, I am challenged by it over and over again.

My friend and I met five years ago on a cold February day in New York City. I had just joined a small consulting firm, where he was employed. On this day, I was attending an offsite meeting where I would be introduced to the whole team, flown in from all over the country. As the newbie, I felt nervous and intimidated because this was my first foray into consulting and I had a limited understanding of the business. As is often the case for me, I worried that expectations would be high and that I would not stack up.

When I entered the offices where we were meeting, I fortified myself by putting on my best game face and committed myself to winning them over. I knew I had some tools up my sleeve and planned to do whatever it took to be taken seriously. There was a lounge area outside of the conference room where we were set to meet and, while I waited for us to get started, I set my bags down on a stool at one of the high-top tables and sat down. I waited patiently for my boss to arrive so she could introduce me to the others.  Because we were at a client site, I was not able to identify my new colleagues as the lounge was filled with a mixture of people including the client’s employees. I was not prepared to start walking up to people and introducing myself. On the other hand, my future best friend, had a different strategy. While I don’t recall much before he came over to me, I do remember every detail that followed. Everything about our first interaction, through today’s lens, was authentic and represented our individual characteristics. He spotted me and figured I was the new one on the team. And he did what I have seen him do dozens of time since. He made his way over to me and, with a big bright smile, introduced himself and asked if he could sit down and join me.

Sometimes you meet someone, and it’s so clear that the two of you, on some level belong together. As lovers, or as friends, or as family, or as something entirely different. You just work, whether you understand one another or you’re in love or you’re partners in crime. You meet these people throughout your life, out of nowhere, under the strangest circumstances, and they help you feel alive. I don’t know if that makes me believe in coincidence, or fate, or sheer blind luck, but it definitely makes me believe in something. – Unknown

When you know someone as well as I know my friend, it is hard to reflect back on when you were strangers. Nowadays, I cannot imagine the absence of our daily text banter. He is imprinted on me in so many aspects of my life that it would feel unnatural to not know him. Yet, of course, that was not always the case. On the day we met, it was as if I received a gentle tap on the shoulder, encouraging me to pay attention and remember the details of everything that followed. In fact, as I write this, I can still see his smiling face when he sat down and opened up his egg sandwich, all neatly wrapped in wax paper. Clearly in my mind’s eye I can see him dig into the sandwich, wiping the corners of his mouth after each bite. It is tattooed on my brain – like so many important moments we have shared.

We launched into a friendly conversation and used our respective skills to interrogate each other, trying to learn as much as we could in a short period of time. I discovered that he had hoped to relocate to New York from the midwest and I excitedly volunteered to help him out when the time came (he never moved, by the way). I have no idea what he learned about me (and knowing my friend, he probably doesn’t remember either as I maintain the role of documentarian in our friendship). Most importantly, what I recall is how he put me at ease and how grateful I felt. Even our superficial connection helped to start the day off well. My friend has a unique gift of knowing what people need when they need it and this, in my opinion, was no exception. My deep belief is that he was brought to me that day – and I was brought to him. There were so many opportunities for the initial meeting to have not occurred. It was New York, after all.  My train could have been late and I would not have arrived early to the meeting. Or, he could have been held up buying his breakfast and he would have showed up without time to stop and eat in the lounge. And, perhaps, we would have missed that essential opportunity to connect.But it wouldn’t have mattered.  We would have found each other. I am sure of this because my most penetrating recollection of that day – something that remains compelling even now – is me continually searching for his eyes throughout the day and the reassurance and kindness that were returned each time I found them. I still search for those eyes now, in the most intense of situations, and the exact same sentiment comes across when I find them.

My friend will tell you that he did not authentically feel the connection with me that day. It was a bit more artificial for him because he was working and ingratiating himself with a new colleague. Knowing him as well as I do all these years later, I suspect this is true. And, I also would submit that something was activated in him that took longer for him to recognize. I have a profound belief in the power of the universe and the force of inertia over which we have very little control. I adhere to the philosophy that the occurrences in our lives are almost always influenced by the signs we read or choose to ignore. In my life, I struggle to pay attention to the signals but I can mark only a handful of instances where I truly followed my gut because I felt an intense gravitational pull. One was when I met my husband. Another was when I met my best friend. Those are not coincidences.

Despite our upbeat initial meeting and the quick bond that followed, our relationship has endured many challenges. Those vacancy signs within me still light up frequently, causing me to feel needy and creating moments of co-dependency. These disruptions force to me to make adjustments, re-balancing my friend’s role in my life. That symbiosis is a double-edged sword. I sometimes lose perspective and need to step back and administer those boundaries. Sometimes he has to force the boundaries on me. I have to proceed with caution, carefully managing my needs and expectations while continuously searching for ways to plug the holes that still leak out from within me. Co-dependency comes easily for us because our lives have become so intertwined, balancing our friendship and our working relationship and our endless desire to support each other. My friend is so skilled at nurturing me and administering first aid and TLC. Plus, as we are all amalgamations of our childhood experiences, I struggle with abandonment issues that rear their ugly head time and again. Because of our geographical distance, my triggers are sometimes activated when we are apart and I have work to address them with my adult brain rather than my juvenile psyche . I work hard to be respectful of his marriage and his personal life while also maintaining my own relationships at home. I force myself to remember that we are friends and only elements of each other’s tapestries. For both of us, it would be easy to get lost inside of our relationship. Personally, I become intoxicated by the rawness and purity of my feelings when I am with him. Like a child, I dance along the edge, indulging myself and allowing my vulnerability to show. And, while my spouse is my regular confidant and my primary source of support, my friend offers a tenderness that so uniquely matches my imagined sense of what I would have received in my childhood had my family been functional. The absence of that with my own family makes this relationship so enticing and so curative. So, I contemplate it. And when I get really close to the edge, fearful that I will slip off into the abyss of dependency, I run from it, looking for ways to diminish its importance from my life. I am textbook. I act out the drama that unfolded in my early life, trying to destroy any possibility of emotional injury. I create complications and challenges that are acutely tied to the past. But, of course, my wonderful friend is not like the family I grew up with. He is part of my new family and he patiently and adeptly works through this aspect of my life with me. What has resulted from these dynamics is one of the most authentic and mature relationships of my life. You see, with my friend, there really is no place to run, no place to hide. No matter how hard I might try to distance myself in fear that I am getting lost in my neediness, he finds me. He has a remarkable ability to pierce those he cares most about and inserts a tracking device that allows him to be intensely aware of your every move and mood. He feels it. Ordinarily, this would make me feel naked and exposed, crowded and suffocated. But, with him, I love it. I rely upon it. It is not foolproof, of course, and sometimes he misses the signals and fails to deliver. And I fail too. And we fight. And we forgive each other. And we move on. We’re best friends, after all. We’re family.

When you encounter close friends who’ve know each other for a long time, you’ll find many who share a common language and a private code that is imperceptible to outsiders. Friends, like long-married couples, tend to blend together, adopting each other’s characteristics. My friend and I are no exception and I appreciate how much we have been role models for each other. Early on, he introduced an expectation of behavior that I was unaccustomed to. Over time, the clarity of his intentions and his approaches to behavior helped me to shift my own style and expectations. I am spoiled by what we have created and I try to apply our dynamic to other relationships.  I’m only minimally successful because (a) I am trying to replicate something that is really authentically his and (b) the ability to operate in this fashion is so unique and is befitting our relationship because we both show up willing to do the work. I am grateful for the impact my friend has had on me and, when I observe others as they interact with us, I am buoyed. Most recognize the intensity and authenticity of our dynamic. Those who are not threatened by it, succumb to the force and fall right into step alongside us. Others that find it discomforting tend to back away and, there too, I am thankful.

“This is how it works. I love the people in my life, and I do for my friends whatever they need me to do for them, again and again, as many times as is necessary. For example, in your case you always forgot who you are and how much you’re loved. So what I do for you as your friend is remind you who you are and tell you how much I love you. And this isn’t any kind of burden for me, because I love who you are very much. Every time I remind you, I get to remember with you, which is my pleasure.” James Lecesne

I’ve been very open with my friend about the part he plays in my life, how much he means to me and the commitment I have to continually improve and build upon our important relationship. I am thankful that he willingly accepts his role and embraces it wholeheartedly. He doesn’t share my turmoil but he respects and honors it, ceaselessly challenging my reference points and offering a new framework and a new definition of family. He has invited me into his paradigm, helping me open doors that seemed forever locked inside me. And I know that is one of the elements of our friendship that he is most proud of and what makes him smile the most. One of his key purposes in life is to help others tap into their potential and discover components of themselves that seemed otherwise unreachable. And I am so grateful to be the beneficiary of his gifts. I know that I get to enjoy facets of his composition that he reserves for only the most special and deserved and I am appreciative of his generosity. Throughout my life, I have been drawn to too many people who resembled my family and failed to offer honesty and authenticity. My friend is a fresh face drawn from sincerity and filled with depth and insightfulness. And, for that and many more reasons, he is my very best friend. Some people surround themselves with friends who make them laugh, some seek out friends who have common interests, some search for soul mates who have their back as they trek through the muck. My best friend is all of those wrapped in one. And, admittedly, I am rather picky about those I let into my life, especially into my tight inner circle. My friend is more than deserving. He respects his place and never takes it for granted.

Every day I am aware of my friend’s impact on my life and the slow dimming of those vacancy lights. Some days, when I am in dark places, I struggle to understand why I was chosen to endure the pain that has been present throughout my life. If part of the purpose was that it would open me up to appreciate the gifts of my friend, then I have found a lovely silver lining. And I am grateful. I sure do love my brother from another mother.

WEATHERING THE STORM


storm“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami

Earlier this week I was trying to download an app to my iPhone and I received the dreaded message that my phone was out of storage. It is my practice to keep as much data off my phone as possible by downloading and deleting photos and removing unnecessary emails and apps fairly regularly. However, when I saw the message, it really was no mystery to me what was clogging up my system. I knew what was incapacitating my phone. And I knew it was time to free up some space.

Metaphorically speaking, I had a blockage in my heart. I had been hanging on to text messages from my friend. From my best friend. There were quite a few. In fact, a whole lot.

19,901 to be exact.

Over 790 days.

And, if you’re doing the math, that is approximately 25 texts per day.  I had given my teenage son a run for his money by this magnitude of texting and that reflected only the past two years of our relationship. Knowing that the volume was mounting, I had many moments over those 790 days where I was tempted to just swipe my finger across the most recent text and watch them all disappear. Sometimes because I felt foolish for holding on to them. Sometimes because I was angry when my feelings had been hurt about something. Sometimes because I simply wanted to free up some space – both on my phone and in my head. But, each time the urge came over me, I resisted. I feared that deleting these messages would negate so much of our relationship. The messages, which spanned an array of time in our lives and also reflected a broad range of emotions and experiences, felt like the connective tissue that affirmed the reality of my relationship. You see, my friend and I have a unique, challenging and, mostly, extraordinary relationship. We live 1100 miles apart so seeing each other regularly is rarely possible. We have to maintain our connection while operating at a distance. We also own a company together and have to navigate the associated challenges of not always seeing eye-to-eye, power struggles, disagreements, hurt feelings and trying to balance the personal and professional. Plus, we have the added bonus of having a third partner who needs to manage through all of our muck while introducing his own. Overall, it is complicated. Ironically, the text messages (which only represent a smaller portion of the time we have been friends) chronicle our relationship from the time we started our company. And, for some reason, that seems symbolic to me. It does not seem coincidental that I started saving them right around the time we began our adventures in this business. It seems so incredibly appropriate that I would have, as he would say, “memorialized” this journey through the text exchanges that have been a defining element of our relationship. Like love letters, they embody the highs and lows, the depths of our story. And I have simply not been ready to let that go.

I found myself at a crossroads that day earlier this week. I looked at the congestion caused by the text messages and recognized that I had to make a choice. I was not prepared to go out and invest in a phone with a bigger capacity for memory and I was not prepared to delete my history. I paused for a bit to think about my conundrum. Why couldn’t I let them go? Why did I need to keep them? Was it simply to have a record of this period of time? Or, was it something more. It did not take a lot of digging to locate my truth.

The text messages are a lifeline of sorts for me. My fear is born in the notion that deleting them might annihilate the relationship. In reality, I never look back and read them. It’s not like I spend lazy afternoons reminiscing over the laughter and tears, the adoration and the anger. But I just love knowing that they are right there, should I need them. I appreciate the concretization of a relationship that, otherwise, seems distant and whose image slowly evaporates in my mind when we go for long stretches without seeing each other or having time to talk. These words provide evidence of a component of my life that has always seemed so far out of reach yet incredibly pervasive and magnificent. Because our relationship has been put to the test over the past year with the challenges of building the business while trying to maintain the integrity of our personal relationship, the texts hold even more weight to me. They are a reminder of how deeply committed we have been to preserving our strong bond even as we struggled to set boundaries and define new rules of engagement. There are many texts that begin with “Hey friend” indicating that we were switching into personal mode. I have worried, over the course of the past year, that we would become a statistic reinforcing the notion that you should never go into business with friends or family. Despite the thousands (literally, thousands!) of messages declaring our love and adoration for one another, it appeared that we might not be able to survive the surging tide that was destined to wash away all the foundations we had built in our special relationship. Our symbiosis that people marveled at, wondering if we did, indeed, share one brain, felt, to me, like it was dividing. Where we once exchanged dozens of texts daily, it had become the new normal to go weeks without talking and even longer without texting anything but banal business matters like “what number should I call you on?” or “did you get a chance to look at that email I sent?” Long gone were the morning greetings, checking to see how things were going. It seemed like months has passed since I had sent a silly photo or had engaged him in my mayhem after having too much to drink with my friends. It no longer felt necessary to include him in my activities in order to bridge the divide that regularly kept us apart. My efforts to keep him close at hand in replacement for the wishful impromptu coffees or drinks that never were a part of our lives diminished and I began to envision a new world without him playing a central role. It felt off and disorienting but I pushed through because it seemed like a foregone conclusion.

I have endured dismantled relationships throughout my life, including those with my closest family members. And, I know how to manage the aftermath of the break. In this case, however, I did not have the luxury of stepping away because he was still my business partner and continued to be a regular part of my life. And, this is perhaps the most difficult aspect of it all and the part for which I am most grateful. I have had to employ a new set of skills to navigate, ensuring that my personal feelings and emotions did not interfere with the need to work together productively. And, while I have not managed this without challenges, I have evolved to a place where I can meaningfully compartmentalize. And, thankfully, where I would have normally bailed out, I have had to find a way to hang on and weather the storm.

The process of doing this has liberated me. I have had no choice but to change my behavior and my thinking. In fact, I have had to stop thinking and just move forward, trusting that the universe would guide me. I went from stubbornly trying to squeeze myself into an outfit that no longer fit to standing naked while I searched for a more appropriate new wardrobe.

So, this week when I confronted the decision that I could no longer put off, realizing that the technology Gods had forced my hand, I decided to opt for Plan B. Just as I managed my feelings and behavior, I could have a compromise where my phone would be liberated and my memories would be preserved. I scoured the web, found a tool and got to the task of downloading the 19,901 messages and free up some space on my phone. And, in doing so, the real reason of why I saved them revealed itself to me.

Well, actually, I already knew this but my thinking was confirmed.

After I downloaded the messages, I started scrolling through the 1800-page PDF document housing the last two years of my relationship with my friend. I steered clear of the emotionally charged drama and focused on the sweetest and most poignant exchanges.  As I read them, I had a surreal experience. I was transported back, remembering, in vivid color, the experiences surrounding the messages, physically feeling the emotional intensity. And, at times, it felt like I was watching a movie with two characters that were vaguely familiar. My friend and I often joke that we have invested so much time and energy into our relationship and that it has been so intense and so powerful that it feels like dog years. And, as I read the texts, I suddenly felt like those two chronicled years were more like 14. Some of the memories seemed like a lifetime ago. So much had changed.

And then, to my surprise, I wept. Like a flash flood, the tears burst from my eyes and I held my head in my hands just letting the emotions wash over me. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling – sadness and loss or simply nostalgia. And, naturally, this was a clear indication that the exercise of doing this was important and necessary.

As I sat at my desk, unburdening my phone of the excess baggage and, simultaneously, breaking down from the emotions at play, I did what felt absolutely natural – I shared it all with my friend. And, of course, I sent him a text. I candidly, summoning up all the vulnerability I could muster, shared my experience. I told him about the messages (knowing full well that he had long ago deleted his collection and secretly thinking that he did so with the confidence that I had saved them for both of us) and conveyed my reaction to seeing them and sorting through them. He fell right in step with me and knew, without me having to explain, how powerful this was. He might have even felt some of the emotion himself. He wouldn’t reveal that me but that is no surprise as he is far more private than I am and processes his feelings far differently than I do.  The whole exchange felt appropriate and familiar but disjointed from our current state and I simply stepped away to let it marinate.  This would sort itself out. It didn’t require any intervention from me.

This week, after two long months of not seeing my friend, we were drawn together for work. We have been settling into this undeclared new state of being so seeing him was different. He looked different – thinner, tanner, well-rested. And, I had to wonder if he was still the same friend I loved and cherished or if we had really shifted into a completely new gear. Would he still throw his head back and let out his loud guffaw so earnestly and brilliantly when I did something so absurdly stupid that seemed so genuinely hilarious to him? Would he still hug me and give me the patented arm squeeze that informed me that all was ok in a gesture to let me know that he loved me in a way that only he and I could understand? Would I look at him from across the room and, in a simple glance, give him a message as long as the Gettysburg Address and get a wink or a smirk in return, assuring me that he got it and was in sync with me? Would we be us? Two friends who stumbled upon each other one late winter morning in a meeting in NYC. On that day, we met and chatted like old friends, me magnetically drawn to him and him working his charm. Unbeknownst to me, I was also working my charm which actually drew him to me in ways that even surprised him. Was that uncanny connection, that bond that neither of could understand or describe all that well, still there or had the storm weathered us so badly that the energy that so tangibly coursed through us when were together, fizzled out and we were now just two colleagues on a job, respectfully and cordially working together?

I had no answers and, while I would normally seek them out, I simply waited to see what transpired. And, on the second day, with so many different thoughts and feelings in my mind, I found myself sitting next to my colleague and looked over at him and saw my friend. My mind was suddenly blank and my heart was open. It didn’t matter how much we had struggled and how many hurtful things we had said or done to one another in the course of our journey to find our way. Nothing was in focus except that my friend was sitting next me and, rather than wait for him to give me a sign, I gave him one, assuring him that we may have drifted off in the ocean current but we were only an arm’s length away and we simply just needed to reach out and extend a hand.

I have tucked away the document with the text messages and joked with my friend that one day I will probably write a book telling the story of this special friendship. The story is nowhere near over and I have no idea what the next chapter looks like. What I do know is this: when you are brave enough to stand up through the wind and rain and weather the storm, you will emerge stronger and bolder. I never let go but I also consciously surrendered, allowing the winds to pull me wherever I needed to go.  And, because the Wizard of Oz is always my metaphor for life, I recognize that, like Dorothy, who got tossed around in the twister, I have always had the power to click my heels and find my way home and that is where I am headed, continuing to memorialize my journey, every step of the way.