The Most Important Thing I Learned This Year

31 Mar
When Annie and I had dinner at this restaurant, she spent half the time worrying that it didn't have enough business, because she always worried about other people.

When Annie and I had dinner at this restaurant, she spent half the time worrying that it didn’t have enough business, because she always worried about other people.

Today is my birthday, and in spite of the fact that I seem to be unable to string five words together lately, I have promised to write something of portent today on this most holy of occasions, or, as we call it in my family, “The Day Dad’s Butt was Sore.” It’s a long story.

 

There are many things that happen in a year. Even though it is arbitrary, events have a way of arranging themselves into a story, because humans have storytelling minds. It seems logical that I started at some middling point last year, had ups and downs and ended on a rising high. Early last year, my darling friend Evelyn got married in Phoenix and I was there with my husband, and that was a joy. There were many pleasures last year. But I also struggled with several painful flare-ups of the autoimmune disease that attacks my spine, and the crushing pain that continued for long periods demoralized me and wore me down. They made it hard for me to reach out and talk to friends, and I became isolated. There were troubles for people I loved that saddened me. And oh yeah, the 2016 election. Do I need to explain? And then I was rescued by a new medicine and began to feel life and hope pour into me again. My loved ones got happier. I ended the year with an amazing trip to Spain with my beautiful husband, and we only just got back Wednesday night. So the year ended gloriously.

 

But what I really wanted to write is the single most important thing I learned this year. I learned it the hard way. Two friends of mine, vibrant, powerful women younger than I am, died on the same cold day this winter. Annie lives in my town and our kids went to the same delightful woman’s house for after school daycare. Annie was warm and fierce and hilarious. She knew everybody and she would bring everyone together. Even though I could be rather shy and standoffish, she decided she was going to adopt me and make sure that I had a good social life whether I wanted to or not. She would call me up and say, “Alex, come over and watch me cook,” and I would. Because I really did enjoy her companionship, and I enjoyed everyone else she adopted and brought together, including, and especially, her two sisters, with whom she had an intensely close and dear relationship, even though she called one of her sisters “Knucklehead.” I had known her for more than a year as a formidable mom in a minivan when she accidentally let it slip that she was a Harvard educated lawyer. But actually, she brought that mom in a minivan quality to her lawyering—the care, the worrying, the schlepping, the getting every detail right. She was an amazing raconteur who would tell stories which would frequently shock me, and she and her sisters worked hard to build an extended family that encircled all of their children, the old people, the vulnerable people, and outsiders like me in its warmth. There was always food, conversation, and light where they were. And then she got cancer.

I took this picture of Jackie after our Fuck You Cancer lunch.

I took this picture of Jackie after our Fuck You Cancer lunch.

 

I also lost Jackie. She was another fierce person. She was a talented editor and writer who I’ve known for years since we worked at the same company. She also struggled with cancer for more than a decade. She had an incredible sense of pride and dignity in the face of her illness. She took care of her parents when they died of cancer, and she even had cancer when she was helping her mother. With the help of her friend Sue, she weathered endless rounds of chemo and the devastation of learning bad news again and again and again as her health slowly slid downward. But she retained her wit, her frank anger at the disease, and her caring connectedness to other people. A few years ago, when I was going through I period of serious depression, I went to her office—she had been on full disability but she fought to get off it and get a job again because that’s how she rolled—because we were going to have a pardon-the-expression “Fuck you cancer” lunch at Kelley and Ping, one of our favorite local spots in NYC. Although I was depressed and she had cancer, we just laughed and laughed all through that lunch. I asked her, because at this point, nothing was off the table, “So, when you get depressed, how do you get the energy to, you know, stay alive?” She thought for a moment. “I say to myself, I didn’t go through nine fucking rounds of chemo so I could kill myself.” And that sentence was so freaking badass that I said, “I am totally stealing that,” and we laughed again. But I wasn’t kidding. Through the gray days of that grim depression, I would actually mouth to myself “As Jackie said, ‘I didn’t go through nine fucking rounds of chemo so I could kill myself,’” until the day the fog finally lifted. Jackie was funny and wry and she didn’t forget other people. I was looking through my journals looking for stories about her after she died and suddenly I remembered—how could I forget? that she was the one who had gotten me not one but two different jobs after I left the company where we worked together. I know that she shared opportunities generously with other friends as well. And through her I made other friends. At her funeral, I realized how many faces I knew were connected to me through Jackie. We were a community of people all woven through with her fate, with her kindness and her thoughtfulness. I hadn’t seen her for the last year of her life. I was very lost in my illness and immobility, and didn’t know that time had run out. I was so sorry I had not been more present in the last year.

 

But I also felt a sense of joy when thought of both Annie and Jackie. At both funerals I saw how their lives had made a difference not just to me but to so many other people. They were permanently imprinted and changed by things Jackie and Annie had done and said. By their energy and love. I thought of the friendships I have had with these women, and with the other amazing and precious people I have had the privilege to know. I had had the chance to reconnect with Annie, and I was so happy to have seen her again. And I was relieved to see that I had written a long letter to Jackie a few months before her death, but I think she must have been too ill or busy to answer. So I felt happy I had at least reached out. Because that’s what both Annie and Jackie would do, again and again. They would reach out, and reconnect with me. So I wanted to be the kind of person they were. And I wanted to do it joyfully, not with shame.

 

So, this is what I learned. The most important thing I learned all year. If I have a friend who I’m thinking about, and I want to reconnect but feel embarrassed because I’ve put it off too long so I’m hesitating, just DO IT. Adults have complicated lives and they can’t always be there for you or you for them at the exact moment you want them. But that does not mean that there is not love and meaning in your relationship. Sickness made me an unreliable friend in some ways these past few years. But there are ways I can—that adults can—still be reliable, and that is by making the attempt to reconnect again and again, when you can. Thinking of a friend, sending them a small note, having a phone call—every single connection is a brick in the house you are building of your friendship together. Every contact made with affection and interest is precious.

 

As I approach this coming year, I feel as if I have Annie on one side and Jackie on the other, reminding me how the love of other people shapes and enriches life, and that time spent openheartedly appreciating those people, whenever possible, is one of the most valuable things I can do with the life that I possess. I wish that these two women were here. There is a hole in the world with them gone. But at least I can honor the piece of them that is still here living in me. So, thank you friends! Thank you everyone I love.

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2 Responses to “The Most Important Thing I Learned This Year”

  1. Rachel Betta March 31, 2017 at 10:05 pm #

    This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing your story. I have felt the same way over the years and I have dear friends who have pulled me through it.

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