Grief is a sacred journey

Life Is Sweeter When We Keep Old Friendships Strong

with Pat and Lauren, 2013

June 2018 was “Friends Matter Month” in my quiet world. Usually, I crave silence and ample sleep and avoid large servings of chocolate cake and beer. I tossed the rules overboard in a friendship love fest.

Richard and Julianna arrived for lunch and a walk on June 10. They’d flown to Ithaca from Colorado to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their marriage. In 1968, at age 22, I was Julianna’s matron of honor. My husband and I were married at their home earlier that year.

with Julianna Platek at her wedding, 1968

In 1966 on a visit to California, a friend heard I was returning to Ithaca. “You have to call my buddy Richard. He started teaching at Cornell this year. You’ll love him and his girlfriend.”

“Come over now,” Richard said when we called. After a long drive on dark country roads, Richard and his girlfriend Julianna opened the farmhouse door with light-filled smiles. We took one look at each other and grinned in recognition. Four politico hippies. Guys with beards and sandals, girls with giant earrings and no bras. Our instant attraction ripened into deep love.

At their celebration, I feared Vic’s absence would break my heart, but old friends were there to give me hugs. They knew I hurt. They also knew I was grateful for Richard and Julianna as they renewed their vows. We howled with laughter when they ended their solemn ceremony by exchanging Fitbits.

Richard & Julianna at their 50th anniversary celebration

***

with Pat, 2012

Pat arrived from California that week and stayed with me five days. I met Pat in 1970 in a class at the American Brahman Bookstore. Long golden hair, an angelic smile, and a beautiful round belly carrying her first daughter. She and her husband bought land near ours. My sons called Pat their second Mama, and I witnessed the birth of Pat’s second daughter.

Pat and I had some rocky times, too. Friendship like marriage hits rough patches. Years ago, Vic and I visited Pat and her family in California. We began healing the wounds with long talks, apologies, and ample doses of forgiveness. Facing the ways I’d let Pat down made me love her more and become a better friend.

Pat in my garden with a grateful snake

While Pat was here, we walked, watched bluebirds, joked, cooked, and grieved the loss of our marriages—mine through death, hers through divorce. One morning, we found a female garter snake trapped and seemingly lifeless in netting in my vegetable garden. Pat carefully cut away the net and released the snake. Watching the snake taste freedom with a flickering tongue felt like a healing renewal.

My son Anthony took us for a Seneca Lake beer tour. I soaked in their love for each other. Despite 3000 miles between us, our heart connection stands strong and tended. Pat’s still both my sons’ second Mama.

***

With Lauren at Vic’s death, 2008

Lauren arrived from California next. After a Saturday reunion of friends who had studied philosophy and meditated together beginning in 1967, after the 50th anniversary party the next day, I was burned out. But love called. Lauren was here with laughter, generous hugs, and deep appreciation for the beauty of this land and our shared memories. We spent a week of catching up with a relationship that, despite distance, sustains and strengthens over time.

with Lauren, 2018

 

I was with Lauren for the birth of her second daughter and watched a curly-haired head emerge from her mama’s body. Lauren was with Vic and me through Vic’s illness and last days. When it was clear Vic was dying, Lauren said, “I’m here until the end.” My spiritual companion of loving heart. Along with our dear friend Steve who also stayed and old friends who came and went, we chanted, oiled Vic’s feet, and prayed. We held Vic. We held each other.

3 bluebird eggs & 1 newly hatched nestling

Before Lauren left, we walked to Vic’s cairn. On the way, we opened the bluebird box. Inside we found four blue eggs in a nest the female had built the week before. New possibilities had arrived in the on-going cycle of birth, love, and death. The wheel of life kept spinning while we held each other close.

***

These and other friends live far away, so it isn’t easy to keep our relationships strong. Do you travel to strengthen bonds and sustain lifetime friendships? For a post about visiting Lauren in California, see In the Company of Friends. For a story about my relationship with Pat, see Healing Old Wounds Made Us Friends for Life. Julianna and Richard moved to Colorado recently. I haven’t visited, but it’s on my agenda.

27 Comments
  1. What a beautiful post.

    I don’t have any lifelong friends, but I do have a friend I’ve known for over 15 years now. There’s something really special about knowing someone for such a large portion of your life. I’m sure it’s even better when you’ve known them for much longer than that.

    • I’ve been fortunate in friendship, Lydia. One reason is I’ve had friends longer is I’m older than you. (Fifteen years is a long time.) Another is I’ve lived in the same place for over 40 years and in this area since I was 18 and came here to college. I have friends who didn’t move away, but the women in this post left town and come back for visits because they have many friends here. I travel to visit them, too, and need to plan a trip to Colorado. I didn’t have sisters, but even as a young girl, I always found a girlfriend or two I could count on.

  2. Dear Elaine, What a wonderful, “Friends Matter” article you’ve penned! I’m so pleased that you have many rich, long-lasting and deeply supportive friendships in your life. What a perfect June you must’ve had! And it’s more wonderful to see your friends in the flesh (so to speak!) with your great photos. It’s fantastic when you just “click” with someone else, I love it when that happens! With little or no effect involved, just a deep soul connection that’s there from the very beginning.

    I’m on holiday at the moment, travelling lots, catching up with family and friends 3D style! So can relate well to the wealth that friendships offer! We’ve been internet free for two blissful weeks, with another two weeks left before we return. I’ve been busy dreaming up lots of creative ideas with others. In the meantime have a wonderful summer my dear friend, and thank you so much for sharing more of your life and deep wisdom with us. Love and light, Deborah. xxx

    • Deborah, it helps that my friends and I were part of a community with shared roots. We saw the Dalai Lama and other wise teachers together. We read philosophy and meditated together and we have a shared psychological and spiritual language. I didn’t add how exhausted I was when everyone left and how I kept three days of silence to quiet the jangling in my ears. Because of profound hearing loss, listening is a strain. We friends have to put up with each other’s infirmities, too.

      I’m glad you’re on holiday. Internet, email, and text messaging are easy ways for me to communicate, so more restful than talking in person. And such is this wild life. Sending you love and wishing for blue skies, gentle fog, green landscapes and dear friends.

  3. Love is woven through all of this, even in the anguish. Julianna and Lauren are so fortunate to have you as friend through thick and thin. Your writing is alive with enduring friendship, never more so than in this bit: When it was clear Vic was dying, Lauren said, “I’m here until the end.”

    You asked, “Do you travel to strengthen bonds and sustain . . . friendships? Short answer: Not to the extent that you have. However, today I met with my Annette near her home in Asheville, many miles from Florida. We don’t talk any more of a deep sorrow she has sustained, but she knows I still care.

    • Marian, I never forgot Lauren’s words–and we have agreed to show up for each other at death (if at all possible). I imagine this kind of intimacy in your life with your sisters–but since childhood, even since birth. For me, the magic is in enjoying so many good things together, including each other’s children and partners, but also being willing to work through struggles or hurt feelings. None of us are perfect–hard as it is to admit. But when we mess up and then talk it through, friendship deepens. I also have other friends at a distance, but they weren’t here in June. One is coming in September. And many local friends, old and new, I’ve known a long time and see more frequently, but there’s something about spending long precious days together after not seeing each other for a few years.

      You’re in the NC mountains. I’ve never been there even though my son lives northeast of Raleigh in a beautiful much flatter area. We have a hard time getting off his exquisite porches, but sometimes we make it to the vegetable garden or out to the bee hives. Or even for a hike or a trip to a butterfly house.

  4. Sweeter with old friendships, and new!

    • The new, of course, and many more old friends who live close by and didn’t spend extended times at my house in June. I chose three I don’t see often, but another very close friend who lives in Arizona will be here in September. Sometimes keeping up with old friends means traveling. Since Vic’s death, I have many new friends, some who share walks and political protests, some associated with hospice and some who’ve been through the death of someone they love.

  5. Thanks Elaine – we’re flying down to Cape Town tomorrow to spend the weekend from Friday on, up country, to celebrate a very dear friend’s 70th birthday over the weekend. I was thinking about Di this morning – and so wish she was here in Johannesburg so we could have a coffee or a walk every now and then. She left Johannesburg many years ago – so we see each other infrequently. My bridesmaid lives in the US in Colorado and my very good friend Susan in Arizona … I so wish they were HERE or I was THERE so we could walk & talk, laugh, weep, eat meals together … and I miss my dear friend who died last year …

    It was lovely to hear of your re-union with Pat and Lauren. My friendship with my bridesmaid was seemingly irrevocably damaged soon after my marriage and she left SA with her then fiance. Out of the blue many years later she contacted me and we healed those wounds …

    • Lesson from your comment: it’s never too late to heal old wounds. I don’t like the distance either or how infrequently I see the friends I wrote about in this piece, but I also find comfort and something precious in extended visits. I spent two weeks with a friend and her family in AZ last winter and she’ll visit here in September. It amazes me how strong the old ties hold despite distance and time and even death. I’ve had a few close friends die, and it seems we can expect more of that ahead. More reasons to make an effort to be together now. Have a wonderful journey, Susan. I feel how you miss the friend who died and how hard that was and is.

  6. You are blessed to maintain those lifelong friendships Elaine. Yes, even friendships need to be worked on too, not just marriages.
    My best friend moved to the UK over 20 years ago. We Skype and she comes home here to Toronto every year, sometimes twice a year. Nothing has changed between us, not even the miles. Friendship is a blessing. 🙂

    • Yes, friendship is a blessing and Skype can be, too. I talk to my CA friends with Skype once in a while. I’m glad you get to see your friend often and agree that friendship, like a marriage, needs tending and sometimes commitment to make it through bumps on the road.

      Fortunately, I’ve also learned how to enjoy being alone in the last ten years. Another good life skill, especially with hearing loss.

      • I get you on that one too Elaine. I treasure my alone time. Alone doesn’t always mean lonely. 🙂

        • For me, alone often means mellow and enjoying the things I love like reading, writing, butterflies. And sometimes it’s a huge gift to have visitors. I have some this weekend, but we’re all taking a silent break.

  7. As I read these words, I am expecting the arrival of my college roommate soon. She and two other friends and I have managed to meet at least once a year for most of the last twenty years, getting together again, across the miles, after our children left home. Like my siblings and spouse, these are the people who knew me when I was young. We will be there for each other as we all round the corner on 70 years and move into the great unknown.

    “I will be here till the end” are words you never forget.

    Blessed recovery and blessed reflection.

    • Thank you, Shirley. Yes, words I’ll never forget and friends worth making an effort to see. What a gift! There are more I could and have written about, but these were the ones who arrived from a distance in June. My friend Steve also vowed to stay until Vic’s death and he did, but he lives a few miles away.

      I don’t think my hearing can recover and I’ve tried everything and use every technological aid. So far, deaf as I am, I’m not quite a candidate for a cochlear implant. Meniere’s Disease is much more than deafness, but this is what my body presents as a teacher of the limitations of will and positive thinking. I manage with reflection, reading, writing, one-on-one contact with friends and, at the moment, raising Monarch butterflies for joy.

  8. Oh yes. Beautiful. What a gift. I don’t know how I could live without my friends. I guess everything takes work–or is it energy, attention? Being present with them (and with myself) is a gift I give myself and friends return a thousandfold.

    • Ira, you’re a new friend who feels like an old friend every time I see you at a political event or a reading. I like the word attention and being present to others and myself. Sometimes, old friendships like intimate family relationships can go through bumpy times, misunderstandings, and tensions. Times when someone feels hurt or let down so that’s where the work comes in. I’m always willing to have those conversations which as often as not means admitting my own flaws.

  9. What a lovely article to read, Elaine! You have, indeed, been fortunate in friendship and it warms the heart to read about a few of your old friendships here.

    Traveling is much more difficult for me than it used to be, but the fact that you are planning a trip to Colorado helps me remember that I don’t have to completely give up the idea of traveling to spend time with old friends.

    I also appreciate the way you write about the difficult times that old friendships (and all intimate relationships) go through. When I was in a hard place with an old friend, I came across these beautiful words from Helen Luke:
    “When people’s lives are intertwined, they are bound to hurt each other grievously–but provided always that neither one betrays the deepest of his or her most inner values, no matter how great the outer damage brought by such loyalty seems, then out of that hurt is forged the pure gold of the love that sets each one free to seek the Self.”

    May your monarch butterflies thrive!

    • When I go, I stay a while. I spent two weeks with friends in the Arizona mountains in March. It’s not easy for me either, but I ask for help because I can’t hear loud speaker announcements. It’s always like traveling in a country where I don’t know the language. There’s always Skype or Zoom or Facetime. There’s always email and text messaging. Helen Luke is another wise one. Thank you for the quote. It’s true in my experience.

      I sent 12 Monarchs to milkweed camp yesterday–that is, I took them out of individual jars where they lived and ate fresh leaves until I was sure they were healthy. All 12 moved to a large butterfly mesh cage with an unlimited milkweed buffet and good places to attach a chrysalis. Nine more in a different cage are in chrysalis after spending time in their milkweed camp, so hope to set 9 free this week. I’ll search milkweed plants in the fields for more eggs today. It’s a good addiction.

  10. Such a beautiful post …. yes, some friends are worth fighting for (I am glad you could sort things out with Pat… and I thought of the snake and the ourobouros symbol, which is associated with infinity and cycles, by the way… maybe an accurate here as well ).
    Lauren seems really loyal. We never forget those gestures coming from others… words and company can help us go through bad, painful things.
    As to Julianna… well… that was a special moment. And, again, being surrounded by people you care about, everything seems better than one could have expected.
    Excellent tribute, dear Elaine… sending love and best wishes

    • Aquileana, my daily life has been challenging as more hearing loss and vertigo issues from Meniere’s Disease force more solitude than I could have imagined. (And in June, a parade of visitors to balance the solitude.) I’m still responsible for my 102 year old mother-in-law who was released from hospice service because she’s gaining weight and not actively dying. Even though she’s in a nursing home now, I’m the decision-maker and protector and have to deal with unending financial and insurance issues. When I feel the downward pull, I try to look at all the gifts from friends to Monarch butterflies. Not to ignore the hard parts of life, but to hold the opposites.

      I’m glad I could sort things out with Pat, too, and our relationship strengthened because we worked it through. Just before spotting the snake, Pat told me about a water ceremony her daughter was holding for her when she returned to California–a ritual of transition and healing. When Pat spotted the snake caught in mesh, I knew that mama was hers to free, so I ran to the house to get a sharp scissors and stood back with my camera to let her release and save the snake. A perfect symbol. Lauren and I vowed to show up to help whoever dies first. She’s calm and gentle and unafraid of death. I don’t see Julianna for long periods, but the old connection stays alive. It was wonderful to celebrate her long marriage with many friends I’ve known a long time. Life keeps giving gifts, even when it kicks us around a little.

  11. Hi Elaine,
    A very nice post about one of my favorite subjects; girl friends! I graduated from high school in 1967 and still have special girlfriends from those days. I’ve thought about what a blessing it is to have such wonderful women in my life. I also think what a smart young girl I was to pick out such awesome lifelong friends. Unfortunately, they all live in the New England area and I live in TX. My health has made traveling impossible these last ten years. Hopefully, things will get better.

    I must send this to them. Thank you.

    • Traveling can be a challenge for me, too, Jan, so once I get there, I stay a while. I spent two weeks with a friend in AZ this past winter. I met her in the early 1970s. Right after college, my boyfriend (soon to be husband) and I discovered a philosophy bookstore in Ithaca, NY. We began going there for classes and meditation. Many other students and local people did the same, so most of my oldest friendships come from that community and time. I met them between the late 1960s and late 1970s. There’s something about meditating together that brings people close. I’m still part of a women’s mythology class that came from that group and has met for nearly 30 years, but none of the women I wrote about in this piece are in that class because they moved away. If they were in the area, I imagine they’d be in the class, too.

      I hope your health gets stronger. My daddy who died at 44 after 12 years of illness always said, “If you have your health, you have everything.” He was right, but meanwhile do you use Skype or Zoom? That works well for me. And thanks for sending my post to your friends. I’m honored.

  12. I don’t think I would be here today if it weren’t for friends. But losing a daughter at a time when all the friends seem to be celebrating their kids’ graduations and weddings was not easy. The friends didn’t know what to do with me, especially when my grieving seemed endless. I found new friends, other parents who had lost children. And even though there wasn’t the years of shared history with these new friends, the shared loss was powerful enough to draw us together like long lost cousins. Over time my “regular” uninitiated-to-childloss friends have learned that I am forever changed, and they have come to accept me as I am now. But those bereaved-parent friends share an experience and understanding that seem to outweigh time and history.

    • I get it as much as a woman who hasn’t experienced childloss can, Robin. I imagine the heart never stops aching, even if the pain softens a bit. I attend celebrations of friend’s anniversaries and try to be happy, but Vic was always at the wedding with me. My heart asks, “Where are you?” I’m also grateful for the new friends who get it because they’ve been there and a few old friends who get it because they loved both Vic and me. Yes, I imagine you are forever changed as we are when someone we love dies. Thank you for the gifts you give our beloved Hospicare. I love knowing you’re on that team with me.

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