I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of friendship lately. Mostly this is because I have a brilliant, funny, friend who has struggled with great pain for most of her life. And a few months ago she finally buckled under the combined pressure of her personal demons and the ravages of the economy.
And now I face a question. Is this woman, who was my friend when we were laughing in the back row at church, listening in awe to the Messiah, sharing long conversations about everything under the sun, and sitting on blankets at the beach, still my friend, now that she can no longer speak–in fact, may no longer even recognize me?
The quick, trite, answer is, “Of course she is.” I would have said so, myself, until I faced the reality of her collapse, and the question of what it meant to our friendship. The things that characterized our friendship are no longer possible. And the traditional answer, that friends are there for each other, is so far from possible it’s ridiculous. My friend is probably no longer aware of my existence. Obviously she can’t be there for me. It’s foolish even to ask. The more modern philosophy, that friendship is an exchange, and that it’s important to be sure your friends aren’t draining, you, aren’t sapping more energy than they provide, would dictate that our friendship end, at least until she pulls herself together, if she ever does. So what’s left?
What’s left is a whole boatload of memories of shared conversations, shared laughter, shared caring. What’s left is the knowledge that this woman stood by me when I was facing the demons in my own past, because they were demons she recognized from her own. But that’s the past. And since my friend isn’t able to do so, I must find the path our friendship will take now. I have to decide, are we still friends? And what does that mean?
The first answer is the easiest. Yes, we are still friends. The next question is harder. What does it mean to maintain a friendship under such circumstances?
I’ve realized that it means setting aside any idea of reciprocity. It also means setting aside the idea of shared present–or even a shared past; my friend no longer can respond. Who knows what she remembers?
I’ve decided those things don’t matter. My friend is my friend. She is my friend not because she knows me, remembers me, enjoys my company, but because I know her, remember her, and have faith that inside the shell behind which she has retreated, the woman who has inspired and comforted me is still there, and whether or not she can communicate, she needs my friendship more than ever.
Now, while she is lost to herself, perhaps what she needs is for me to remember who she was–and who she still is. And she needs me to give her back to herself.
I’ve decided to write to her, not just once, but over and over again. I had thought about a card, or about letters, but I’m afraid neither thing would register. I’m making her a book–I’ve found pictures of the places we knew each other, taken pictures of friends we share, and in between it all I’ve been writing to her not like a letter, but like one of our conversations. I’ve just sent it off to CreateSpace for binding, and then I’ll send her a copy. It’s not perfect. It’s not polished. But it’s something that she can pick up and look at if she likes, things that hold parts of herself that she enjoyed. And it’s something that those who care for her can see. Maybe it will help them understand who she is, inside all the pain and brokenness.
In a little while, I’ll start another book. My plan is to keep writing them, keep sending them, keep talking to my good friend, whether or not she can talk back. Because in her silence she has taught me one of the most important lessons of all–that good, true friends can remain friends through the most radical of changes. And that being a friend means more than coffee shop conversations and trips to the beach. My friend is my friend, and if she needs me to remember her for herself, or even if she never does remember, if every day she needs me to be a new friend because she cannot remember me, that’s what I’ll be. Because we are good friends.