A Gathering of Friends

Gathering with friends doesn’t have any of the poignancy and grimness of family gatherings. Family is a dwindling group. Children move away, people die. The average age of those who are gathered, climbs and climbs. Friends are contemporaries and only as old as you allow you and them to feel. At some point this group will wither but for now, we’re intact, hanging in there. Ignoring the beating of the wings of death, we eat and drink, laugh, make loud noises. Sometimes our conversations are serious. What happened to your mother, I once asked my friend, and he told us the story of her suicide. I once suggested the topic of sharing our dreams – nighttime ones – and then another friend said she never remembers hers. Most times conversations spark and continue and take us in interesting directions. We are smug in our political positions, all in agreement for the most part, with slight variations, a bit less excited about labor unions than before, more fiscally conservative than we used to be. But for the most part, we’re in agreement, our own little Democrat caucus on the lanai killing three bottles of wine among the four of us.

But last night’s dinner took a different turn. Every once in a while I get the urge to moderate, jumping into a lull in the flow of conversation, usually after a couple hours of drinking and dining with an open-ended question. Last night a friend was talking about his “best friend” who’ll he soon be seeing. The notion of friends was on my mind. Last week a colleague told me that she was sorry to lose me as a fellow worker, made sadder for her when she realized that I had become more than that. I had become a friend. I hadn’t thought of her in the context of friendship, although we’ve been working closely together over the past few months and I enjoy being with her. She explained that what makes one a candidate to be her friend is someone who likes to drink and eat. “And laugh,” I added, realizing at that moment I was committing myself to a friendship with her. So this was on my mind when I asked my friend at last night’s dinner to define “best friend” and to explain if one could have more than one best friend at any one time.

I wish I could recall his answer in full since it was clearly well thought out, almost as if he knew he would be asked that last night and had prepared his answer. What I remember is: a best friend is someone with whom one had had significant sharings: experiences, confidences, even values. It was someone with whom one could pick up right where one left off even if months or even years had passed since you’d last been together. He explained that recently two of his best friends had died. He realized that not only had he lost them but he had lost parts of himself, experiences and corresponding memories that could never be shared again. He described the loss of others as pieces of ourselves falling away, never to be retrieved or replaced. As I said, he was eloquent in responding to a pop quiz after much eating and drinking. Unfortunately, I don’t recall his answer to the second question, if one can have two or more best friends at the same time. But he may have said that it is possible since one best friend is his spouse, and she was sitting at the table, listening without defense or offense.

We all took our turns answering the first question, and it was clear that aside from spouses who probably do consider their others as best friends, that none of us were best friends. As I said, we’re mostly in agreement politically, which is the values piece, we all enjoy good wine and good food, prefer laughter over debate, art, travel. We’ve known each other years and usually see one another monthly and sometimes more frequently. We’ve had conversations that dove beneath the surface. And yet, not one of us named another one of us as a best friend. If I call you out as a best friend, then will you feel obligated to reciprocate? And if you don’t in your sincere honesty name me as a best friend then I become an unrequited friend. One of us, in the spirit of things, could have shouted, “You’re all my best friends,” thus calling a time out, getting a laugh, and moving on to the pumpkin crunch ice cream. But we were all too honest or afraid.

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