“Friends come and friends go,
but a true friend sticks by you like family.”
The quote comes from Proverbs chapter 18, verse 24 in The Message translation of the Bible. It has been the experience of my life and I imagine yours too.
Everyone knows that friendship is a good thing, a big part of a happy life. We see plenty of memes about appreciating friends. We can all sing along with James Taylor,
“When you’re down and troubled
And you need some love and care
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest nightYou just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running, to see you again
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there
You’ve got a friend…”
We talk about long lost friends from days gone by separated from one another by time, circumstances or geography. We reminisce about those lost to death. I even think of the good times I had with friends who were part of my life for a season but are now only memories by choice. Yesterday was a day that really got me thinking about friends and how important they are to me.
First, I had lunch with my good friend Karoline who recently lost her husband – the father of her children and a father figure to many, many others including my son as he hung out at their home for countless hours. We talked of the lovely service they had honoring Bill. She wistfully talked of the many people who showed up or have contacted her and her kids through cards, texts, emails, and phone calls. And she said something very important. Wouldn’t it have made a wonderful difference to him if he had gotten to see and hear these people as they honored him, as they spoke of how much he meant to them and what a difference he had made in their lives? In the latter part of his life, Bill was suffering from a chronic illness that left him unable to do many of the things he loved most and, therefore, also left him depressed. What if all of those people had taken the time to tell him how much he was loved, how much he had meant, and what a difference he had made in their lives.
Later in the day I attended a zoom gathering that I was invited to join by Becky Elliott Raikow and her sisters so that I could join in a time of remembering their dad Victor, the husband of my wonderful friend Margie. I joined with Margie, her daughters, their spouses, and with Victor’s siblings, along with other friends. There was laughter and love as they remembered the life he lived, recounted the fun stories from the past (I’m still giggling over the story of the missing car hood), looked at photos, and just celebrated their relationships. I wish Victor could have been there. I’m sure he would have had some wonderful stories to throw in too, and he would have felt the love there.
The last thing that happened during the day making me contemplate friendship makes me feel like the lowest…but I have to own up to it. I got a phone call from a very best friend. When I saw her name pop up on the caller ID, I panicked because it was much later than she normally calls so I answered with trepidation. Her first words were, “Are you okay?”
I answered, “yes, why?” in total confusion. “Because you didn’t call for my birthday.” I take a little consolation in the fact that she knew it was unusual for me not to call and that she expected me, but not enough to make me feel okay. In my defense, I knew when her birthday was, had reminded another good friend of the date, and had talked to her about her upcoming birthday earlier in the week so I wasn’t totally oblivious that it was coming. What I am is old and retired so there are weeks I have no idea what day it is and rarely know the date. In my head March 27 was going to be today…it was, however, yesterday. So after thinking all day of how people really should let their friends know how important they are, I completely ignored this wonderful woman who has been an extraordinary and exceptional part of my life almost daily (and truly daily in thought) for over thirty years!!!
I first met Denise Schnur when she began to teach at the same school, in the same department, in the classroom next door. This little dynamo met me and proclaimed we could carpool since we were both driving the miles from Mechanicsburg to Biglerville. I had never had a carpool before but welcomed the company and the shared expense of the gas. This circumstantial meeting led to one of the most important, meaningful, and valued relationships of my life.
Denise is my confidant, my companion, my cohort in mischief and crime. Together we pulled pranks on “poor Rob” that were always hilarious and never mean. We stole his school pictures and turned him into a GQ model, cooked him a Penn State dinner where everything we ate was blue or white because he “bleeds blue and white,” and tried to help him plan getaways to monasteries through very pointed and highlighted pages copied from a vacation guide dropped in his mailbox when life got to be too much. We jumped in with an offer to drive a cattle trailer to Michigan together for Mary Sue when she was in need. We’ve never pulled a trailer and knew nothing of cattle, but what we lack in knowledge, we make up for in enthusiasm. Okay, maybe that frightened people a bit, but the point is, the two of us will show up and be counted when we are needed – even if all we end up accomplishing is giving everyone a good laugh. She is the Thelma to my Louise or vice versa.
Over the time spent in that school we had more laughs, more tears, more shared worries over our families, over our friends, and over kids that were ours only by virtue of being assigned to our classes. Those kids saw us (along with Rob and Mary Sue) as a force to be reckoned with, a soft place to fall, the defenders who would make a store deliver a prom gown, and the wall that would protect them.
Denise is my family. Along with her husband Joe, Rob Baust, the dynamic sister duo of Mary Sue Cline and Colleen George, we have affectionately dubbed ourselves “The Fam.” She is the person who takes me for doctors visits and surgeries when I cannot be alone. She is the person I called instead of calling for an ambulance once, and she’s the one who called the ambulance and got here before they did. I know that not only does she have my back but that she will also let me know when I’m wrong.
You see, Denise is the person I count on to speak truth to me even when it will piss me off to no end. I’ll be pissed off, but I will know she is right and that I needed to be told to get busy – to sit down and shut the hell up – to chill – or whatever. I don’t go to Denise for sympathy. She isn’t going to be the person telling me everything will be fine or enabling me through my pity parties. She is the one who will give me perspective, advice, truth. She is the one who used to tell me to get back on my meds because my crazy season was coming. She gave me medical advice and told me, “See, you could have saved the deductible if you’d have listened to me” when I told her the doctor said the same thing. As I was recounting the advice she gives and how she gives it, I had a counselor who asked me, “Are you good with that?” Hell, yeah! You don’t get many friends who will have your back and hold you accountable at the same time. She can be brutally honest and have me laughing at the same time.
While I said I don’t go to her for sympathy, that is only partially true. I can’t expect sympathy from her for self pity or for things that she can help me solve. At those times I get love and action. When there is nothing to do to fix the situation and sympathy is what is necessary, she is there. It was her home where I (and my son) felt comfortable being on the day my mother passed away and I was so geographically distanced from my dad and siblings. It was with The Fam that I felt most comfortable, where I didn’t need to talk about anything but knew that I could.
Some people think that they are something special because they have a gazillion friends on Facebook, were chosen “most popular,” are always the center of every party or social event. I’ve never been the most popular, I tend to hang out at the edges of any large social gathering because I get all awkward, and while I have what I consider a decent number of friends on Facebook, most of them are acquaintances not friends. But even though I doubt my own self worth most of the time, I must be someone special because if you are lucky enough to have a handful of true friends in your life, you are truly lucky. If you have one like Denise, you are truly blessed.
I am lucky enough to have her, but I don’t want some others to feel left out. I am also lucky enough to have a handful of friends who have been in my life for 20, 30, or even more years. I had the great, good fortune to work at a school where I made most of that handful of friends through coworkers and students as well.
There is Mary Sue who never gets all mushy and sentimental, but will kick into action for anyone and make things happen. She was the person who was there for me on my first day of teaching at BHS and has been there ever since. She amazes everyone with her resourcefulness and her ability to find the thing you need, be everywhere at once, and fade into the background so the spotlight shines on someone else. A student once asked how it was that my whole hallway of teachers was prepared for a blackout. I answered, “Mrs. Cline” and the the student nodded knowingly and just said, “Ah.”
She and her sister Colleen, who has become a great friend as well, will be the ones there with a hand, a truck, an item you’ve been searching for, and a sincere offer to do anything and everything you need. Mary Sue is the one who organizes and assigns all of us into action while Colleen and Denise then lead the troops through the action plan. Under their guidance we’ve moved people in and out of houses, organized fund raisers, helped out kids and others who where having trouble, and moved virtual armies to see that things work out right. What a blessing to have her show up that first day as a mentor and to eventually be drawn into a special friendship with her sister as well. My sister Colleen is my Mexican restaurant buddy, my road trip companion, and someone I look forward to having adventures alongside.
Margie taught history just down the hall. She is the one who is the practical, politic one. She knows what to say and what not to say, keeps a perspective on things, and is a person with whom I have wonderful conversations on a wide range of topics. We share a love for many subjects, food adventures, and reading. And, like the others I mentioned, we end up laughing and laughing together. I met her years after the others, but since I had her daughters in class early in my tenure, awaited on pins and needles the birth of her now teenaged first grandchild, shared her worry over her husband’s health for many years, and have been in trenches with for so long – well, it just seems that this sister-from-another-mother has always been there.
I mentioned Karoline earlier. I got to know her through our children. Travis and Brian became best friends in fifth grade, went to college together, shared an apartment along with Brian’s brother Mike, stood up beside each other at their respective weddings, and have celebrated the birth of their children. Karoline and I were friendly over the years, but as we become empty nesters (although that term will never truly apply to her) and retirees, Karoline and I have found a deepening friendship that has become very special. She is a spiritual mentor to me. The eternal optimist to my often depression laden days. The person I turn to for conversation, uplifting, and a tender heart. A blog post I wrote about trying to find a life after retiring turned out to be very fortuitous for me because she read it, identified with it, and took action.
Amongst my very, very best of friends is Dani. What started out as a teacher/student relationship when she was in my class has become so much more over the years. We are family. At first I felt a mentoring relationship with her. I was someone she could come to when she needed to talk during the difficult days following her brother’s death. From the start we loved the same things, and we enjoyed each other’s company. Bob Shuey was the one who first started calling her my daughter (or sometimes clone). It was then that I dubbed her my “daughter-I-will-never-have.” When she graduated from college, she would substitute in my classroom and the kids said they couldn’t tell when I stopped and she started – although, truth be told, I saw this as a slight on her. She was a much better teacher than I ever was. Over the years the bonds we have deepened and grew stronger. She can and does still come to me as that mentor or as the older and maybe wiser woman. But I also go to her at times when I need to be picked up and brushed off, when I have been hurt or need to know I’m loved, and when I need advice. She has given me three beautiful children who call me one of their grandmothers. There is little in life that has given me as much joy, worry, sleeplessness, love, concern, and life as my relationship with her and her children.
The other benefit of my friendship with Dani was the friendship found through her with the mentor she was assigned and then adopted as her own at Big Spring High School. Over the years Mary Cay and I slowly formed a friendship that has become one of the special ones in my life. We share our “daughter” and our grandchildren in common, career experiences, and a lot of love. During the past year as we lived through the pandemic and isolation, Mary Cay and I took solace in each other’s company. There is barely a day that goes by that we don’t call each other. We don’t have anything at all to talk about, but it often takes an hour to do it. We touch base, check on each other, try to keep each other sane (although I’m sure there are those who would wonder if we have succeeded at all in that). We gripe about public figures and decide what is wrong with the world and what should be done. So far nobody has asked us to step in and do that, but we’re ready just in case.
Finally, I saved my oldest friend for last. (I can hear her shouting “OLDEST?” even as I type this.) But when I say oldest I am not talking age but longevity. At 67 years old, how many can look to a friend you made in eighth grade when you were 13 and say that you have been through thick and thin, shared family, shared sorrows and joys, weddings and divorces, and still talk to each other all the time? After over 50 years, sometimes Sherri and I will go a week. two or maybe more without actually having a conversation and at other times we talk five times a day. The best thing that ever happened to our finances was the end of long distance charges! We can talk for hours as if we hadn’t seen each other in ages and pick up as if we just saw each other – like we did in high school when we would get off of an hour-long phone call and run out the door to meet each other and spend the rest of the day together. Sherri is the one who bleeds when I am hurt. I tease her because she turns all helicopter and hovers over me if she thinks I am sick, in pain, hurt, or whatever. She will check in over and over until assured that I am fine – or that Travis is, or Denise, or Dad, or… She ignores when I’m short tempered and crazed. She doesn’t seem to just ignore it, but she seems to forget about it altogether. Few people in the world will do that for you!
I truly do have A Wonderful Life!
ADDITIONAL NOTE ADDED ONE DAY LATER: I thought I should add that there are two men in The Fam who are also very good friends. Joe is my surrogate husband who went with me to the retirement meeting to make sure I understood the financial aspects (he’s an accountant), he took me to sell a car, transports me to the airport. Joe and Rob are the grill masters when we’re cooking out in my backyard. They offer great conversation about books and movies and shared stories from the past. I don’t want to diminish their friendship, but there is something special about a woman’s girlfriends.