The three most influential women in my life have all shared this date as their birthday. How remarkable is that?! My wife, my mother and my best friend. I don’t know how much stock to put into astrology or birth charts, but the odds of this being true seem truly astronomical. These women have shaped me, perhaps more than any other three people aside from my sister and they were all born on the same day. I met my best friend the week before school started our freshman year of college. We had both traveled out of state to be a the small, private, liberal arts college outside of Austin. While our connection wasn’t instantaneous, by the time we both transferred to other experiences junior year, we were tightly bonded. A few years after graduation, we both wound up living more than three thousand miles away in Eugene. We decided to buy homes next door to one another and began planning our lives and futures around one another. We made a gate in the fence between our backyards and built a stone path easily leading between our front doors.
There’s a lot of lore, music, and storytelling about heartbreak from romantic love, but we rarely dig into the ways that we lose or recover from the loss of friendships. When my then 16-year friendship ended with my bff, I was adrift. We had done everything together, from meals and menu planning, to vacations and gardening. The rift in the fabric of my life left me reeling. I felt betrayed, overwhelmed, and unclear how to function. She was the repository of my history, the person I began my day with (we walked together five days a week), I knew her schedule, her mind, our lives were intimately connected – and then our relationship was over. Abruptly. I was bereft. I felt disposable. Scanning her driveway to see if she was home, not sure what I’d prefer the answer to be. I would dart back inside if I was out back and heard her voice. Home, which had been a sanctuary, a joyful place, and now everywhere I turned were painful memories of things we’d done together, and it all put me on edge. My heart felt shattered. The separation was final and life changing. After years of this icy silence, she and her husband moved away and eventually sold their home. I have made an uncomfortable peace with the ending of our relationship. The time that has passed has allowed me, at last, to look back with warmth, gratitude, and fondness for the time that we shared. While I don’t feel that the end was at all necessary, I’m still glad for the times that we enjoyed together and the ways that we loved and learned from one another before it was all over.
My mother died just a bit more than a year ago at the age of 76. I spent most of my life believing she was invincible. She had ulcerative colitis from the age of 16 and survived stage four colon cancer at age 38. The cancer returned two times before I was out of high school. She and I share a rare and serious autoimmune cluster called antisynthetase syndrome, but, as I said, I didn’t think anything could take her down. My mother was the moon in my life. Her light was gentle and predictable. She shaped so much of my world, as if her strong, steady presence could pull the tides. When I first came out to her, the moral code that she’d been raised with led her to conclude that I was in the wrong and that my “choice” led me to separation from God and family. We disagreed hard and painfully over this for many years. Eventually, when I got very sick, mom pushed through her discomfort with my “lifestyle” and came to visit and care for me. This point of reconnection became the nucleus of growth, the point around which our relationship centered and gave us ground to reclaim and advance our friendship. In the last several years we spoke on the phone at least once a week. Our shared health concerns gave us a way to start rebuilding. I miss her profoundly. Her absence is like a missing tooth, my tongue searching the gummy hole multiple times a day, noticing the gap. Each morning I light a candle in remembrance and grief, a small ritual of comfort. I look forward to the bittersweet night when I go to blow it out before bed, only to discover that I’ve hit the day when I’ve finally forgotten to light it that morning.
The final women in this trifecta, my wife. We met almost 25 years ago when we were in college. Introduced by a mutual friend, I wasn’t even sure we’d be friends, much less that we’d end up spending our lives together. Aside from the fact that neither of us had had ever dated a woman before, she was just so different from me. Other than our working-class values and a shared political party, we really had very little in common. I was a prude and she swore like a sailor. I didn’t drink and she partied. I was raised in a very religious household and she didn’t see a reason for the stuff. She was surly and her introverted tendencies left this people-pleasing accommodator sure she hated me. When our mutual friend was going out of town, we decided to make her a mixed tape. Dancing around my apartment that night I was overwhelmed by the butterflies that rose up when our bodies were close. Here we are all these years later.
I don’t recommend choosing a partner who is so different from you. You are committing yourself to never seeing things the same way, to always having to work at understanding the other’s perspective, and to a dogged and persistent attention to communication and explaining things to the other – never being able to trust, from a shared background or experience that she just “gets” it. And, there has been no richer choice in my life. I get to see the world through my lens and hers. The possibilities of what I can understand, and experience is expanded by what she helps me learn about through her very different way of interpreting and walking through the world. While it takes a lot more work, it is always worth it. I believe that we arrive at better and more sound conclusions than we would if we saw eye to eye all the time and just reinforced one another’s’ world view. Aside from how she pushes me to be better, she has stood by me through more than ten years of illness – a couple of years my health picture was touch and go. Some of my doctors are more than five hours away and she doesn’t miss an appointment. She has mortgaged her future to throw her lot in with mine. Of course, for those of us who are sick, chronic illness isn’t what we had in mind, but wow, for the husbands and wives who stand by us without making us pay for it – what an unquantifiable gift it is to have their love and support.
So, on this, February 18th, as I light the candle for my mom, make plans for my wife’s birthday, and send a wish out into the universe for my former bff, I’m struck by the gift of love, moved by the pain of loss, and grateful for the strong women who have shaped me. While incredibly painful, I do think the maxim holds that it’s “better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” It is easy, amid chronic illness, to catalog all the loss. There is a lot of grief that accompanies this path. I am so fortunate to have been (and continue to be) showered by so much love.