Last year, I was reminded about the importance of being a constant friend. The kind of friend who is just there. Do you know that little dog in the Looney Tunes cartoons that bops along next to Spike? Like that. Annoyingly reliable, steady, eager to please. Almost a little pathetic, if you think about. Crap, is he still there? Really? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?
Over a period of months I had been sending the equivalent of “ol’ buddy, ol’ pal” texts to a very good friend of mine. We met nearly ten years ago and over the years the stylish African American woman became a mentor, someone I trust explicitly to be honest and kind to me. She has helped me appreciate a bit about what it means to be an African American woman and the mother of a young black man — and she has never judged me for my ignorance or my privilege. And for that I am truly grateful.
So, she’s important to me, and every once in a while I send a check-in text just because I am reminded of her. I saw someone with a great necklace. I heard a story on the news. I scrolled past a picture on Facebook. And from April through July I sent her seven texts, none of which generated a reply. No response. Just crickets. It was weird and nerve racking.
Years ago, I would have fretted. I would have assumed that I had done something wrong. That something horrible had happened and that our friendship was ruined. My immediate reaction to situational failure my whole life has been, “Shit! What did I do?” followed quickly by the sinking guilty feeling that I wasn’t good enough. (I don’t know why I do this, I just know that I do.)
I won’t lie, I did believe that something had happened. But I took a deep breath and reminded myself of four things:
- I was a good person.
- I was a good friend.
- I was trying.
- I would continue to try.
And so, last summer I dropped text number eight, “I’m in town for the weekend, would you like to get together tomorrow for coffee?” And this time she said yes. Enthusiastically yes. Absolutely yes. The kind of yes that comes with a willing change of plans, a huge hug, an hour of non-stop conversation, pictures of the kids and all that comes with it. And, with that text, in that moment, I knew being a constant friend was worth it.
Ok, I know there is a whole school of thought around protecting yourself from toxic friendships and that there is guidance about letting those people go. People who tear you down, or insult your life views, or take more emotionally that they give. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about understanding that your friends will sometimes not be in a place where that can feed your friendship. Or they might not have you on speed dial. Or they might not invest the same amount in you that you do in them. However you measure ‘good friends’. And let’s be honest, we do measure the quality of a friend, both ourselves and others. And sometimes in the fair dealing of friendships I’ve been a better friend than individuals have been to me.
And to that I say, so what? What is the cost of leaning in? The joy I got that day from hugging my friend and learning her story was well worth the few months of confusion. If I had written her off at the fifth text, I might not have known that she was going through a difficult surgery and rehabilitation. I might not have understood that the months of chronic pain took a huge toll, and that she had isolated herself from everything that wasn’t essential to just get through it. I might have assumed it was about ME and not about HER. I might have lost a truly remarkable relationship.
But I didn’t. Instead, I learned that she had gotten my texts. I learned they had lightened her load. I learned that they helped, but it wasn’t enough support to give her the energy to respond. So, maybe I should have tried harder. Maybe she needed me even more.
I’m not the bravest person I know. I ride a desk for a living, I don’t work in an ER or climb into burning buildings or protect communities. I hate feeling vulnerable, too. There were times in my life when reaching out ended in heartbreak and just like everyone I have scars. A pack of pre-teen girls who iced me out. A set of colleagues who derailed my performance. A boyfriend who used me and then left me to have the biggest jag of my young life. Each one was a teaching moment, an opportunity for reflection — not one scar was painful enough to make me change.
In fact, when I look at myself and the person I am, I don’t regret a single time I gave more. I only regret the times when I gave less. I’m not perfect, and there are times when I am sure I have let others down. Before Facebook, staying connected was harder and there are people who have made an indelible mark in my character that I haven’t been able to thank. I keep trying to find them, to let them know, but I can’t always do it. The reality is that someday I won’t be able to reach out at all and the fewer of those regrets I carry, the better.
Because, ‘ol buddy, ‘ol pal, I’m a Chester*.
(*That’s his name, by the way…that annoying little dog that follows Spike.)