A funny thing happens when somebody asks me to talk about my friends: I start trying to capture them quickly, sketch an outline of who they are to me, find a quick anecdote, and soon I’m overflowing. A second story, stitched into my sternum with golden thread, rolls across the table. Before I know it, I’ve been talking for a few minutes, my eyes a little wet. ‘You must love your friends,’ says the person across from me, and I shrug and nod.
Yes. Yes, I do.
At almost-thirty, my life story can part pretty neatly into chapters. Middle school, high school. My undergraduate years at Ball State. Graduate school, two years in rural Illinois trying to become a real-world somebody. A return to Muncie, my second chapter there, for a leadership role in the department that gave me new roots. More recently, the move to New York City. Fitting whatever I can into a vehicle, making tough decisions about what gets to come with me.
Looking back on any of these chapters, what I remember most are the people I called friends through them. The people whose eyes scanned cafeteria rooms for me, pulled a chair up beside me, the ones with whom I lost myself in laughter, the people whose arms reached for me in the days of breaking. I could write their names here, feel love for them break the surface as I consider them. All of them, I imagined, would come with me for every chapter forward.
Life hasn’t always worked out that way. A year ago, on a panel, I heard someone say people are friends for ‘a reason, a season, or a lifetime.’ The panel continued, but my mind traveled to that forever scrapbook within, looking at faces in photographs. Friends become strangers. Barstool updates replaced with Facebook announcements.
We find friends in the spaces we share, life stories momentarily crossing, pushpins temporarily pressed into the same spot on a map. One day, while we’re not looking, the fresh page on our tabletop, the one to which we’re pressing inked stories, begins to yellow. We give it a glance, discover old presents become the past, and the friends from those days live forever as they were.
But, to carry them forward, to defy geography and love one another beyond the beginnings and endings of chapters, is a significant undertaking. Standing at the ending, preparing for a new beginning, is like my preparation for my move to the City: lifting the back hatch, putting down the middle seats, and discovering not everything will be able to come with us.
And so some friends become friends for a season, some friends for a reason. The truly precious, the ones who define some vital element of who we are, perhaps who we can be, we invite to become friends for a lifetime.
It dawned on me, some time in the past year, that I’d grown up using the term ‘friend’ a bit too liberally.
As I’ve navigated the chapters, scrambling up mountains and surviving falls I hadn’t prepared for, I’ve been rescued, time and time again, by my friends. The friend who called me in the days I’d convinced myself I wasn’t worth saving, ordered me off my couch and across the table from her. The friend who told me, on a morning amidst the days of convincing just about everybody I was fine, that my heart may be broken, but my love still works. The friend who invited me to stay on his couch on my first night alone. The friend who convinced me I was magic, could use trembling hands to make others braver. The friend who knew to tell me she’d choose me, always me, over people standing in my opposition.
On that day, I’d discovered somebody I’d called a friend hadn’t bothered to look out for me. His reasons, born out of a desire for harmony, a disdain for ‘getting in the middle of things.’ I understood then, and I do now, his decision.
But my friends show up for me. With fangs, if needed. There’s skin in the game, a willingness to ‘be the bad guy’ on my behalf. On that day, I reconsidered my usage of the word ‘friend.’ When I think of the people who’ve rescued me, pointed me to my light on the darkest nights, believed in me when nothing was in it for them, the label ‘friend’ becomes a bit too precious for common use.
There are plenty of people I will love, lose myself in laughter alongside, build treasured memories with, but not all of them can be stitched into my palms to make the jump from one chapter to the next. Some people were friendly, our love friend-like.
My friends, however, saw me and stayed. My friends are my People Who Stay.
My friends know that, on occasion, they can expect a love letter sent their way. Maybe I’ve been writing, or I just spent an entire dinner telling somebody how they individually saved me from defeat, but –– there, in a paragraph on their phone –– I’m there thanking them for being my friends. ‘I love you,’ I tell them, some more than they know what to do with.
That’s the risk I’ve chosen to run, erring on the side of loving them to excess. I want them to know, beyond the shadow of doubt, that I love them, a forever kind of love, and I’ll do whatever I can to show up and carry them into every forward chapter.