My Friend, Anne

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It’s hard to know the entirety about a person even when you see them often. We tend to group people into family, friends, work colleagues, acquaintances, but in all of those labels there are those who don’t fit or who fit into more than one.

My friend, Anne was like that. I met her at church. For a long time, I didn’t know her name. She sat two rows behind me, and every daily mass that we attended together, we’d shake hands and share the peace of Christ. She always smiled at me, and reached across the separating pew, and I looked forward to our daily rite.

She knew my name before I knew hers. Even after knowing her better, I would always confuse her last name with her first name since her last name was also a first name.

She was also part of the Red Hats group that I lunched with monthly. She never wore a hat, but she always had on a brightly colored jacket and scarf. She was always put together, and she had a brightness that expounded on her outfit.

She always welcomed me, and asked about my kids.

I saw her sometimes in the grocery store.

We had one of our Red Hat luncheons at her house, just last year, and I saw her collections from her travels. One was a miniature tea pot with a red dragon on it from Wales. Her house was full of greens, and her back porch was almost identical in shape to ours, so she let me take a few pictures for my husband who’s been wanting to make ours more functional and less storage. She even invited him over to take a look at how theirs was decorated to give him some ideas.

We disagreed vehemently on politics, but the few conversations we had proved to be more discourse than argument, and a benefit to us both. 

She was just so kind to me, and vibrant. She had a booming way of talking, but she didn’t leave you being shouted at. She was just full of spirit.

She died last week. She suddenly became sick and that became worse, and than something else happened, and it just limped along, but her faith kept her. Her family and friends visited, and she called on our priest to come to see her, as recently as a few days before she died.

When I read her obituary, I discovered things I hadn’t known.

For one thing, she was 82. I know that my Red Hats group tends to be older, but I would have pegged her for 70 at the most, and more likely I thought she was in her sixties.

She was born in the town where I went to college, and in fact attended that college, studying education as I did. We graduated thirty-one years apart, both with Bachelor’s of Science degrees in Education. I don’t think either of us knew that we had that in common. Our school’s mascot is a Red Dragon, like the national symbol of Wales.

In realizing that she had been a teacher I could now recognize how she spoke. Teachers have this way of getting things across, and Anne was no different.

Her funeral is tomorrow.

She was steadfast and kind, faithful and spirited.

She will be greatly missed.

Brittany

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Brittany, age 27 died instantly when she was shot by her ex-husband while she rinsed out a teapot. This was one of many headlines in the days that followed her murder.

That was May 7, 2011, but before she died that day, she was born. Today is that day. She would have been thirty-one today. I knew her only a short time, but in that time she taught me things.

Quietly.

Unintentionally.

For my part, skeptically.

She showed me things about myself, things I didn’t like, things I regret, but I managed to come through them, and I couldn’t have done that without her help in the weeks before she died and for the year after, as I mourned her.

I learned.

Compassion.

Understanding.

Tolerance.

Less judgment.

Help for no reason but to help.

Yes, even if you’re angry.

Cooperation.

Kindness.

She was there when no one else was at a moment that it mattered. One moment, but it was an important one, and it mattered.

And so did she.

Happy Birthday, Brittany. I know your spirit is soaring; I can hear the flutter in the air.

Friendship Appreciation

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“What can you do today to express the appreciation you have for those who are important to you and who you might take for granted in your life?”

This was today’s question from the priest during his homily this morning and it could not have been timed more perfectly. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this very thought.

I’ve spent much of the last year reading and working on the daily pages of a motivational book: Achieve Anything in Just One Year by Jason Harvey. I would read each day’s quotation and do the exercise, but sometimes the activity is just too hard mentally to do and I would put the book down for an extended period.

Most recently, I left off at Day 127. The quotation for Day 127 was: “True friendship is like sound health, the value of it is seldom known until it be lost” by Charles Caleb Colton. On this day they are asking about friends and friendships, their importance and how to keep them. One thing that I was very wary about was the phrasing of the first line after the quotation:

“How many friends do you have?”

I have never liked this kind of question. I think it comes mostly from the influx of social media being our barometer for modern friendship. For me personally, I don’t like counting friends. I also really dislike it when outernet friends and family differentiate between Facebook and ‘real’ friends or ‘internet friends’ and ‘real’ friends. These kinds of designations have continually made me feel awkward. It feels as if they’re saying that some of my friends are ‘lesser than’ and in my heart they’re not and have never been.

I think the expectation is that at my age (and boy do I hate that phrase), I’m expected to live in the past. Friends from high school and college are surprised at the level in which I’ve embraced modern social media meeting places and introductions to friends who will be lifelong friends. My friends range in age from 19 – 85, some closer than others, but that is always the way of friendships.

We connect on different levels with different people. People with kids, parents from school, church groups, book clubs, the cashier at the supermarket that we see weekly or sometimes daily; that friend of a friend who liked that thing on your Facebook or that reblogger on Tumblr who you discover is the same age, has kids like you and understands completely the joy and benefits that is fandom. I wish I had Tumblr twenty years ago, although I suppose that if Tumblr was around twenty years ago, there’d be a new one that we’d all have to learn anyway.

My friends give me great joy. Watching them do happy, watching them create, arguing about this fandom thing or that political thing, debates, discussions, philosophy, religion and whatever else; you name it, it is there and it is glorious to see and hear so many differing opinions and respectfully disagree.

I have high school and college friends, Scadians and Daydians and now the Posse, but those distinctions are a shorthand for the commonality of who we are to each other, how we met and how we played, and many of them overlap. There are friends and close friends and a best friend. There are friends who communicate every day, either by text or phone. There are friends who communicate once a month or less. There are call backs I should make more frequently and slack I should give more often, but in all of the mistakes I make, these are the people who are ceaselessly there when it truly counts. And knowing that, having that faith in the friendships I’ve found, being lucky enough to be a part of is one of the most special and important things in my life.

But that’s what makes these exercises so hard. “Write about your friendships.”

How am I supposed to do that?!

I can’t possibly put down on paper how much my friends mean in my life. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the family of friends that I have.

I’ve never looked for more friends as this exercise suggests I should be doing. I’m happy with the friends I’ve found. We’ve passed by the millions of random chances that threw us onto each other’s paths and we wandered into the others’ lives precisely when they were supposed to and became the support for one another.  And over time, those friendships change. They deepen. The trust grows and the comfort of a text message or a voice on the other end of a phone call is a deep soul thing and to have the privilege of that with more than one person is truly a blessing. It is unbelievable to think of the randomness and the beauty in the finding of each of them.

There are ups and downs and misunderstandings and disagreements and laughter and hugs and forgiveness and I’ve found it all with the most eclectic group.

I often think that friendship is deeper than any other kind of relationship. We choose our friends and they choose us. Think about wedding vows and relate them to your closest friendships: honor and keep, sickness and health, richer and poorer. They are there through all of it, helping us in the big ones and all of the little ones. They are comfort and joy and support through the sadness and trouble that inevitably stop by in every life, but they are also the best of life. Without them, we truly are nothing.

Alone can be good for short spurts. Time to think and contemplate and find your inner places, your belonging places. But the best parts are the places with friends; when you fit. It fit in so few places that when I fit, I can feel it. It’s only happened two or three times in the last few years and the calm it’s brought me is palpable. The laughter over the stupidest things you’d never laugh about without these wonderful people. It’s the McDonald’s drive thru, sleeping on shoulders, long hugs, wiped tears, supportive whispers and autocorrected texts and so much more.

So, back to the priest’s question of the day:

“What can you do today to express the appreciation you have for those who are important to you and who you might take for granted in your life?”

I think we all do the best we can with what we have. That’s not always the best there is, but it’s all we can do. I try to appreciate my friends in a public way. I think they know in their hearts how much I appreciate their presence in my life and their friendship.  I’m extraordinarily grateful to my friends, having them, their friendship, their being always by my side; I just have a terrible time expressing that out loud. I can thank acts pretty well, but thanking people simply for being themselves seems funny to me.  Some people I can express it to, but my personality is to stay quiet, draw no attention, and if I’ve been quiet and unemotional with someone all my life (my siblings for example), I still have a hard time expressing what I feel. I find it easier with newer friends because we’ve started out in that candid, more emotionally honest place.

When my friends are hurting, I’m hurting and I want to help. I offer even though they know that I’m there to help with anything. And they have helped me, more than I ever could have expected from someone. With anything. And everything. From moral support to financial support and everything in between.

When parents die and couples divorce; when kids grow up and move away; when we retire and travel the world or just visit the library or get a part time job, our friends are always there; constantly with us and for us and we are there for them and that is the most brilliant thing I can think of in a friendship.

Breakdown

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It’s been more than three months, and it still makes my heart beat faster and my pulse quicken; it is not an eventually-formed-fond memory like driving in Wales became and I’m not sure that it ever will be. It is anxiety driven, terror induced shakes.

I don’t know what led to my being so upset. It was probably a perfect storm of events that lined up in a row just so, and I was too busy putting off my anxiety to notice that it was creeping back up on me. It took more than three weeks after to finally reach a semblance of normal anxiety, and then it crept back up into a bad place again. It did slowly come back down, but it was not easy, and it is especially never easy when I’m hyperaware of what is going on inside my head and my emotions and my emotional state, and my best friend is busy, and I can’t afford therapy sooner than every three to four weeks. This could easily turn into an essay on the health care system and money, but I will stick with the breakdown; my collapse; my I-really-don’t-know-what-to-call-it other than badbadbadbad.

There was the misunderstanding between my best friend and myself that we didn’t even realize until a week later. We were answering questions not asked and it was a complete disaster on both our ends.

There was the misunderstanding about my travel plans and a delay that wasn’t a delay that set off a series of hysterical tears.

There were people making plans around me for me and I couldn’t express my disagreement without sounding like a bratty child until finally I broke.

And boy did I break.

I always listen.

I never argue.

My mantra is usually, “Okay, what do you need?” or something similar.

I accept. I do what I should. I do what’s expected. I’m reasonable.

I talk myself out of things constantly to do what works for everyone else.

It wasn’t until I began shouting at the phone, “YOU’RE NOT LISTENING TO ME! THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU! I CAN’T! I CAN’T DO IT TONIGHT! I will do it tomorrow. I can do it tomorrow,” and it was clear there was something more than me being difficult. I was crying and doing that hiccupping thing that you do when you’re five and can’t stop crying, and there was a kind of stunned silence on the other end as the scope of what I was feeling was expressed so overwhelmingly.

Another arrangement was made.

I didn’t like the new arrangement. It put too many people out, but I would accept it. What else could I do? It was a sensible solution and I could handle it I told myself.

Anyway, it didn’t matter; I would handle it. I would be as reasonable as the solution.

I thought.

By the time I arrived I was alternating between being numb and being upset, and nearly always on the verge of tears. There was another new plan, but I didn’t care. I was too numb to care at this point. I knew I would be taken care of and I didn’t care about anything else.

I was on edge and every look, every whisper, every motion out of eyeshot made me startle. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t know whether to apologize or hide in the bathroom or shout at the world. I stayed quiet, fearful that so many of my friends were angry with me. It was so hard; I felt as though I were being watched and judged, and for the most part that probably wasn’t true, but it was not an easy feeling trying to deal with my own emotional breakdown – and what else could this be? – and worrying about what others were thinking and knowing how I’d failed at getting along and just doing what I was supposed to.

I had held it together all week, and on this last day, I couldn’t hold it together, not even for just a few more hours. I wished I could just suck it up and do the one thing I was asked to do.

And I truly couldn’t do it. It was such a simple thing. I’d been doing it for twenty-five years, and I couldn’t make myself do it now. This was the one thing, the final straw, and it was too much, and even I didn’t know that until something inside took over my voice earlier in the evening. I didn’t think I’d ever fallen apart like this, certainly not with so many hearing and knowing and assuming things, and I was embarrassed as much as anything else.

The one person I was afraid to see smiled at me. It was the kind, tired look of it’s-going-to-be-alright-I-promise, and for a second I thought they were mad at me, but it didn’t matter. We’d be okay; if not today then another day, but that look was the first quasi-hug of comfort until they crossed the room and hugged me tightly with that comforting feeling of never letting go. How I didn’t begin to cry, I honestly don’t know. I was hugged tightly and I buried my face in their shoulder and neck and I held on as if my life depended on it, and in that moment it did.

There were more hugs and hand holds, and shoulders squeezed and smiles to keep me going until the next time which would be who knows when, but it was okay.

I would be okay.

There was a solution, and people were taking care of me and that was what I needed.

I love my friends. Without them, I am nothing. We are all a reflection of one another. We reflect and complement and we fit like puzzle pieces on an enormous board and when they’re not around or available, it takes a toll. I get more paranoid, I get more sensitive, I feel like no one likes me anymore, that I can’t ask for what I need, and the more I stretch out, the further away they are, and I can’t touch them and then I’m falling.

I’ve always likened depression and anxiety to alcoholism. It never truly goes away, no matter how many drugs, how many therapy sessions – it is always there somewhere, and we cope. And sometimes, we have relapses, and we need a reminder of why it’s important to be aware of our mental state, our mental health, and we check in with our sponsor, the one person who’s been there and who we trust to guide us out of the darkness, who always has what we need.

At the same time that we are being led out of the darkness, sometimes we are called upon to be someone else’s sponsor and lead someone else to their light. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfect or that we’re ‘cured’, but it means that we are all on our journeys and when we intersect, we need to look both ways and help each other cross the road.

We have that hand in the dark to hold, the whisper in our ear, and ultimately it will be all right.

My First Church Friend

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Last Wednesday was a beautiful day. There was a bright blue sky with just enough fluffy white clouds, the sun shining like spring and very warm for January. I walked into the church and for that one second, it was a typical Wednesday Mass at Nine AM.

Except it wasn’t.

The usher said, ‘good morning,’ and handed me the program: Celebration of Christian Burial. I’d been to many of these in the last year or so from attending the regular morning masses, but this one was different. On this one, I saw my friend’s name and with a long breath I took one step from the hum of the gathering space into the solemnity of the church itself and stopped short.

There, in Shirley’s seat was her red scarf and red wool hat. I’d seen her wear it at least a dozen times in the time I’ve known her and it took a moment to realize that it wasn’t her sitting in her usual seat. Someone had set up the display on a table and with the scarf and hat they included a rose and a rosary and adjacent to it was a floor candle just in front of ‘her’ pew.

I was quickly admonished for not doing so immediately, but I was expected to sit in my usual seat, which happened to be directly behind hers. The last thing I wanted was the first thing I felt at the start of my church visits: people watching me. I wasn’t family, but at the daily 9am Mass, Shirley and I always sat together and walked out together with two other women and I uncomfortably felt as though we were being watched.

‘My’ seat had been there since Easter 2012 when I began to attend the daily Mass. I either sat immediately behind Shirley or two seats behind her, depending on who got there first. Eventually, the other two ladies who alternated with me for that seat joined me in the one pew.

It was kind of funny. No one in the Mass really knew me, but they all knew that I was part of this foursome, an odd group if ever there was one.

I picked my seat originally because of Shirley.

The first time I entered the church, I did it almost the same way I did last Wednesday: haltingly, unsure, would anyone look at me? Gee, I hoped not. But after so many steps, there is that point of no going back, even for the anxious.

I walked in on that first spring morning, and tried to look around without looking around, and immediately took notice of Shirley’s jacket. It was a black jacket and so the muted multi-colored embroidery of leaves and flowers and stems stood out against the dark wooden pew. She was wearing a pale straw cap, not quite a pill box but not quite a cabby’s cap either. I would find that she always wore a hat, and when she didn’t, she felt that she should have been. If not a hat, then a scarf for over her head. The blue paisley one went with her pale blue raincoat. She was always put together and I envied her scarves and necklaces, gifts from her daughter.

But more than that, she was lovely. Warm and welcoming and really joyful with so much faith that it seemed easy to share and as much faith that I gained on my own, I accepted the faith offered to me by my friends,  Lorraine, Arlene and especially Shirley, my first church friend.

I sat behind her that first time, and said nothing.

When she stood, I stood.

When she bowed her head, I bowed my head.

When the priest said, “Peace be with you,” and she reached her hand out to me, I clasped her hand and repeated the words rotely. Her hands were warm and it was that touch, the memory of that light handshake in the morning that got me through the rest of the day.

Every morning she would already be there. I began to recognize her car, parked in the same space in front of the church. I’d walk in, expecting to see her, and was never disappointed. I’d walk slowly down the center aisle, hoping no one would notice me, and slide in behind her, slowly moving more and more to the left so that when she turned her head she might see me.

I watched her lips move quietly, near silent as her fingers worked one bead and then the next as she said the rosary. When she finished, she dropped them gently into a little change purse-shaped pouch, snapped it closed and slipped it into her handbag, almost immediately taking out her glasses to read the Missalette, which would come later in the Mass.

After a time, when she turned to put the rosary away, she would look at me and smile, and say ‘good morning’ to me. I would respond in kind. I never said good morning before that, but church brought out the good morning in me, and each Mass was a good morning. It kept me going when I needed to keep going.

I began to ask Shirley questions about things around the church. Why were some lights in the large cross certain colors while others were not? Why is that cloth red today when it was green yesterday? I don’t remember most of the questions; there were several, and Shirley always answered them. We chatted every day. We walked out together, often all the way to her car and I’d wait until her door was closed and the engine started.

She talked about her family often – her daughter in California, her son in Florida. My family is from Long Island, and she mentioned that her brother also lived there, not far from where I had grown up. I found out that her other daughter was murdered – a victim of domestic violence. When she told me about her, I told her about my friend Brittany who had just been murdered in 2011. The first anniversary was coming up, and was actually part of the reasons I had begun visiting the church in the first place.

She was always happy to see me, and when I missed a day, she hugged me and told me that she missed seeing me. She made a point of turning around, smiling and saying hello. More often than anything else, we talked about the weather and Father Jerry’s humor in the morning, the four of us often laughing quietly and quite possibly rolling our eyes at times.

I’ve always sat behind her. How will I know where to sit now?