True Friends

∼  If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. 

I have one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of a relationship that spanned several years, surviving not a few misunderstandings and rough times.

But on my part, deciding to calling quits to the friendship was obvious: I was abandoned when seriously ill.

If you want to know who your true friends are—the people who genuinely care about you—just get really, really sick. Not a pleasant path to discovery, I admit, but one that is certain and true. The responses of your family members and friends will provide every clue to their genuine feelings for you.

Now, it’s easy to assume that family will help to provide your care: it is, after all, their responsibility. Spouses, especially, are supposed to look after one another; ditto, parents, their children, and children, their elderly parents.

Sadly, that doesn’t always happen–or, having happened, it is made all too clear to us that we are being cared for, not out of love, but obligation.

It’s really unpleasant being someone’s virtuous obligation. The “long-suffering-but-noble” stance and facial expressions of our carers, the occasional veiled but insensitive remark about things they could be doing, if only they didn’t have to look after us, the sighs and airs of self-sacrifice—even the slipshod methods employed to our care—yes, it would be almost better to struggle and risk harm to care for ourselves rather than be someone’s noble obligation.

Yet for those of us who are not natural malingerers, it’s almost as difficult experience to be cared for out of love. Most of us with dignity and conscience do not want to be a burden to others, taking up their scarce free time, making more work for those we love. Yes, there are those people who consider it their due to be looked after, even coddled—but those same people have probably spent most of their lives behaving in that manner, not just when they are ill or incapacitated.

But being cared for out of love, no matter how uncomfortable an affair for those who are independent and resourceful, provides a new perspective of relationships. And, heartbreakingly, a failure of care does, also.

When I was seriously ill, people whom I had not been in contact with for weeks, months, even years, seemingly flew out of the woodwork. They provided me with every service imaginable: meals, transportation, housework—even just sitting with me, mindlessly watching TV, when I was at my lowest point. Well over a year later, the warm glow of those acts of loving kindness lingers with me still. They reached out to me in my darkest hour, sending cards and letters and e-mails and texts. They put my name on prayer requests, and made certain I knew those prayers were being said. They made phone calls, or simply showed up on the doorstep. And, above all, they listened. They listened to my fears, spoken and, yes, unspoken, listening with their hearts as well as their ears. When I was at my lowest points, they walked with me through the valley of the shadow; they held my hands, figuratively and literally, through my dark night of the soul.

And others did not.

As I say, there is one former friend who is probably still puzzling over the demise of our years-long relationship.   When told that I had cancer, she assured me that she would include me in prayer at the next worship service. After that, although I kept her updated on my scheduled treatment plan and surgeries and the expectation of a lengthy recovery, I heard nothing: no cards, no phone calls, no texts, no e-mails, no letters. There were no visits, no casseroles, no assistance with housework during the dreary and long months of my illness.

As I always, naively, anticipate the best of people, especially friends, I was wounded. Most dismaying of all was the fact that, just a year earlier, I had been the person to provide her transportation to a minor outpatient surgery and wait with her through a long morning, drive her to pick up prescriptions and see her home afterward, bring her a get-well basket, call to check on her and send her one or two cheerful e-mails during her brief recovery.

I discovered, though, that I didn’t have time to waste worrying over her unexpected disappearing act during my serious illness. Having recovered myself, I became heavily involved with looking after another friend who had also become seriously ill. Giving the same service that I had been given was a way for me to repay the Universe for the kindness and care that had been shown to me.

Months later, my one-time friend suggested we might get together for dinner…so that I could meet her new boyfriend.

I declined.

Controlling the Rainbow

Wedding Gown and Shoes

There was a rainbow on my daughter’s wedding day.

As omens go, that’s hard to beat.

Neither she nor I actually witnessed this phenomenon, but were told about it afterwards by the relatives, smokers all, who had stepped outside to indulge their nicotine habit.

I’d been praying for days—weeks!—for lovely weather to grace the outdoor wedding ceremony of my only daughter. The venue she’d chosen had an excellent hall, and we knew that, if the weather didn’t cooperate, the ceremony could be moved indoors.  But she wanted an outdoor ceremony—wanted it desperately.

And things weren’t looking good.

I began scouring the weather reports two full weeks in advance of the ceremony, constantly checking on my phone, Kindle and computer, comparing predictions that somehow never quite seemed to mesh except for one thing: rain, rain, and more rain. I continually reminded myself that “weather forecaster” is the only job where one can be wrong 95% of the time and still remain employed, but that wasn’t convincing me. So I decided the best thing to do was gather all of my friends and family and issue a request (command!) for prayer.  Prayer and petitions to whatever deity, saint, deva or nature spirit they believed in.  If they didn’t have a favorite divinity, I supplied them with options, using my favorite search engine (NOT Google, but that’s  subject for another blog post).  I tracked down the names and antecedents of every saint, goddess, god or nature spirit said to have authority over the weather.  And there were a bundle of ‘em.

And so the prayers and petitions and appeals and entreaties went up from a dozen hearts and lips. But the weather forecast remained unswerving.  Rain.

However, the forecast began to alter slightly, from rain all day to “rain in the afternoon”. Raindrops, just wait until after 4:00 p.m., I prayed.  That would get us safely through the ceremony and all decamped to the reception hall.

And, in the end, that is exactly what the deities, gods, goddesses, saints, devas, divinities and nature spirits (likely sick of hearing so many desperate petitions) provided: The perfect early fall day. A temperature that rose to no more than 80, a light breeze lifting the brilliant leaves of the trees, and fluffy white cumulous clouds cruising through a blue sky…all of it lasting until just that last shutter click as the final formal portraits were taken.  Just at 4:00 p.m., a dark thundercloud rolled over to obscure the sun, and we all made tracks for the reception hall and food, music, drinks, dancing, cake and joy.

And, at some point during the proceedings, a rainbow.

And that was the one thing I’d forgotten about in my desperate need to control every last detail and thereby provide my daughter the perfect wedding day: the possibility of a beauty even greater than clear, warm weather. A rainbow.  The ultimate promise.

Let go and let God. I’m a great proponent of that saying…in theory.  Practice is an entirely different matter.  However, my daughter’s wedding day was a firm reminder to me of that concept.  Another was taught to me by a Hindu friend, who explained that rain on one’s wedding day is considered “a blessing of water”.  Sunshine, warm breezes, trees clothed brilliantly in green and gold and ruby, rain and a rainbow. Every possible good luck omen.  My daughter and new son-in-law got it all—more likely in spite of, rather than because of, all my desperate pleas to the heavens.

Now, though, laughingly thinking of omens, I’m forced to remember my own wedding day to her father, right here in my home state.  Omens indeed!

Indiana had an earthquake.

The Miracle on Route 16

She is weeping.

Uncomfortable, I drop my gaze, fiddle with the fastenings on my purse, and brush unnecessarily at a speck of lint on my coat, before sneaking a glance from beneath lowered lashes to confirm what I’ve already seen.

The Invisible Woman, I think of her. She’s ridden Bus 16 faithfully for months now, boarding  from the tumultuous Market Street stop.  Evenings past counting,  I’ve glanced out of the smeary bus window to see her distancing herself from the bustle and craziness of the Market shelter.  She wears an invisible force field, I think; a Romulan cloaking shield, standing there amid the commotion as though she is completely alone.

Perhaps she is.

Like most of us as we board, she scans the bus for the rare empty seat; frustrated at that, she tries to find a forward-facing seat. But—also like most of us riding this substandard bus always assigned to our low-ridership route—she is usually forced to clamber awkwardly up the mid-aisle steps and take a place in the uncomfortable sideways seats.  Consequently, I’ve sat facing her for many evenings now.

Her invisible armor does not dissipate once she is seated. Nondescript in a worn beige coat, she sits staring into a distance that is obviously inward.  She does not speak, nor smile—not even the casual “bus buddies” smile we regular riders toss so carelessly  to one another.  She sits, alone, quite alone and silent, in our midst on this crowded vehicle.

But tonight she is weeping. At first I think her eyes are merely watering; it is, after all, Indiana in allergy season.  But the initial brightness is not blinked away, and with slow momentum, the gathering tears skim down the curve each cheek.  She tries not to be noticed.  She does not sob. She blinks hard, and surreptiously lifts a hand to dash at the moisture sliding beneath her chin.  But it is hopeless.  The tears tumble faster and faster; her pale face crumples more and more.

And then the miracle happens.

The comfortably-upholstered, pleasant-faced black woman seated beside me looks—really looks—at the Invisible Woman.   Wordlessly, she rustles through her purse, and pulls out a tissue.  Leaning across the aisle, she hands it to the Invisible Woman, who stares at the blue paper Kleenex as if it’s something she’s never seen before.  Kindly Black Lady firmly pats the hand into which she’s tucked the tissue and says, “Whatever it is, it’s all right, baby.  This too, shall pass, you know.  I’m saying a prayer for you right now.   And, baby, when LaDonna prays, God listens.”

Lady LaDonna’s stop is coming up. She gathers up her handbag and stands.  But before she moves up the aisle, she nods forcefully at the Invisible Woman.  She is praying.  God is listening.

Invisible Woman dabs at her eyes. Tears continue to fall, but, for just one moment, her wary armor slips.  She smiles—tries to smile, faintly, tremulously—at Lady LaDonna’s retreating back.  Then her look slides inward again, to stare into nothingness.  But she clasps the crumpled tissue carefully in one hand, holding it across her heart like a shield.