If you’re not careful, friendship can become like a withered perennial, a hydrangea you’ve forgotten to water. It can feel like the only times I see a friend outside of Facebook — where all the happiness has a photo filter on it — are weddings or funerals. I’d call an old university friend and wonder why it’s taken me so long to reach out, why she hasn’t called to tell me about her family, and yet why, after so many years apart, we can be right back in the same comfortable, honest place within minutes. I realized, the hard way, about tending to what matters most.
My best friend is Sarah. We’ve known one each other since we were three years old in day care and told one another stories at nap time. Sarah is one of those friends I text every day, send selfies to make sure my eyebrows haven’t gone all Boris Karloff or just leave a message singing Rizzo’s song from Grease. Not all friends get to be so honest with me. Not all friends have been around long enough to hear the truth from me. Sarah worries about me the way only my mother would, which drives me crazy and also feels like home. But because she lives in Victoria and I live in Toronto, we don’t see each other as often as we’d like.
So, we’ve started a new tradition: we head up to a cottage in Ontario, just the two of us, for one week once a year for a big friendship binge. Sarah leaves her very busy business, her husband and her dog, and I leave my husband, my job and my 11-year-old son. We set up our computers on the long harvest table and write stories the way we did at daycare, make dreamy plans for the future, and talk about our relationships with our dads who are wonderful but sometimes unreachable and remember our moms who were nurturing but long dead. We dance, cry, eat a lot of popcorn and smile at each other over top of our screens — it’s just so good to be together.
This year, we’ve both found it hard to relax. Our worries have followed us here. So, one day, we get in the paddle boat and find our way to a floating plastic dock in the middle of the lake. We sit and talk and swim. We haven’t seen anyone this whole trip and we’re glad of it. We hoard our solitude desperately, so that we can find answers for all of life’s questions.
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Our newest dialogue keeps circling around aging and life and the meaning of it all. We talk about the platitudes stuck to refrigerators and printed on oversized coffee cups that urge us to “Live for today” and “Make today amazing” and “Let your light shine.” Blah blah blah. It all seems so pat and meaningless until it’s suddenly the wisest, truest truth you’ve ever heard. I wonder if we, too, are like fridge magnets, making ourselves feel better by reciting other people’s thoughts so that some meaning is imposed on our lives.
“Is this it?” I ask. “Is this the whole thing? I mean, maybe all the therapy and kale and honing my skills is all crap. Does any of it really matter?” Sarah nods and swims. These are big questions — big hopeless, depressing questions from two people on the knife’s edge of menopause.
We spot a woman in the distance coming toward us on her stand-up paddle board. Behind her in the water, trail three pre-teen boys. I look at Sarah in panic. “I think they’re coming over here.” Sarah sends me the same wide eyes. “Maybe it’s OK.” We continue our existential musings but now there’s an even greater urgency — there’s a time limit to our refuge.
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As the stranger gets closer, I notice her strawberry blonde hair and powerful legs. She handles the single paddle like she’s a gondolier in Venice. I ask if she needs help as she navigates her transition from paddle board to floating dock waffle. “I’m OK,” she says with confidence. And she is. She’s very OK. I’m worried she’s one of those rich ladies who won’t approve of Sarah’s tattoos or my sailor’s mouth and armpit hair.
“And they say women never stop talking. Ha.” She gestures with her head to the boys who are rattling on and on but I can’t tell what they’re saying because it’s completely in French. Sarah and I breathe a sigh of relief. She’s funny.
We chat. Revealing nothing. We’ve all done this before, our dialogue is familiar and well-rehearsed. Where are you from, where do you live, what is your job — the usual things you might share with someone you don’t know as you gaze onto the lake while children splash about. We’re like dogs circling one another.
Sarah writes cook books and manages a tattoo shop in Victoria. I do cartoon voices and freelance as a television writer. Our new visitor studied dentistry but decided, after many years, to open a dog grooming shop. She loves it. These boys are her step-sons, her husband’s kids from another marriage. The diamond on her ring is polite but gets its message of solid financial status across. She laughs at my jokes.
“I bet you two have known each other for a long time. You’re old friends.” She says this as if it’s her magic trick, she can always tell, and now she’s going to pull a card out of my hair.
She leans back on her palms. She doesn’t care that she’s in a bikini and her body is that of an actual 50-something woman. She’s beautiful. We all know it. Sarah and I both wish we had her confidence.
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“I lost my best friend. She was everything. Cancer. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. I miss her so much.” She leans her head back as she says this. Her smile is sad.
“I’m so sorry,” I say quickly, painfully. “That’s terrible.”
She goes on without lifting her head, as if she’s in some sort of grief-trance, “She thought she had a hemorrhoid and went to a clinic in Mont-Something. They told her it was a cyst. One of the girls that works for me is a biologist and she convinced her to come to Montréal General and see someone there.”
She pauses. I wonder if this pause is emotion or memory. Suddenly she laughs. Not hard but enough to see that she is with her friend in her mind.
“She was so f$%king funny,” she leans to one side to aim her black bikini butt at us as she acts out her story. She alters her voice to become her friend for a moment, ‘What are we gonna do about Jim? Fucking Jim!’ The doctor asked if Jim was her husband. ‘Nah, Jim’s the tumour!’” And she points to her ass and she laughs a grand laugh that trails down to break in her throat. “Cherish each other. Everyday. This is all we have and then it’s gone.”
We all look away. A hawk circles in the distance. The dock waffle gently rocks with the lake. Tears are coming and I’m struggling to contain them. I swallow and fight my emotions. I steal a look at Sarah. I’m sure she’d been looking at me and then looked away at the same moment. I silently will her to be the brave one. This isn’t my story to tell on the waffle dock. I clench my toes tight against my feet to arrest how much panic and pain is right there under the surface.
And then Sarah takes a breath and starts to talk. It’s soft. Real. The no-bullshit Sarah that I love so dearly. She is comforting and honest in her small words.
“In 2012, I had breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, the whole shebang.”
And she stops. One of the boys pushes the other off the floating board. The other slams the paddle into the water to splash them both.
Our visitor takes a moment and then says: “Yes, then you know. You are so lucky to have each other. Appreciate what you have every day.”
We loosen our hold on the emotion all around us. We watch the boys, the clouds, the bird. Anything. Everything. We talk about Costco, the heat wave and the rest of life.
In nervous relief, Sarah and I gather our things and move to our little paddle boat with all our bags of sunscreen and towels and water bottles in tow. I want to complete this, and go to this person I’ve just met. To hug her and thank her and tell her that her strength and love is what makes her happy and that touches and infuses others with courage that is more important than she can see. I want to tell her I’m sorry that I judged her diamond and that I’m so glad we didn’t paddle away when we saw them coming.
But I don’t. Then just as we’re about to get on the boat something makes me turn back to her.
“Remind me of your name again.” I say it, hoping all of my thoughts are being transmitted via this one simple request.
She smiles big at me, “Deb,” and opens her arms, her eyes sad and full, so full of love for me, for both of us. Her hug is sticky with sunscreen and sweat, and she smells like fresh freckles. She passes me, right at the edge of our swimming dock waffle, balancing but not careful in anyway. She holds Sarah so tight and I hear her say as she holds her, “Oh Sarah.” And my heart melts.
We get in our paddle boat, go far enough that we can just see her standing on her board and firmly maneuvering it in the water to show the boys how it’s done. We start to cry. Hard. We can’t stop. Sarah turns to me, “I kept thinking, this could have been you talking about me. It could have been you and I’m the one that’s gone.” And we sob and we let the current do the leg work for us.