Friendship and Love
A few weeks ago, I spoke briefly at my friend Carl's Celebration of Life. While it was difficult to prepare and speak about my beloved friend, I realized a lot about love and friendship through that process.
Immediately after I spoke, one of Carl's childhood friends, Gordy, shared a story about how Carl comforted him after an exam when they were teenagers.
"Don't worry. Exams are not the most important thing in life," Carl advised.
In retrospect, Gordy said he was surprised that Carl imparted such wisdom as a teenager, and he offered that level of support, guidance and acceptance at such a young age.
After Gordy shared his story, I had my own realization about my friendship with Carl. Maybe it hadn't truly been unique. Maybe what was so special was simply Carl's ability to see, acknowledge and validate others.
Carl and I met while in graduate school in London. I was in my mid-20's, and at that time had yet to experience the feeling of being deeply understood by another person. For whatever reason, I'd met only a handful of people who took the time to truly know me. This kind of knowing and understanding, I believe, is the foundation for being able to love someone in their entirety. And, I suppose, at that time, I hadn't felt truly loved.
Carl was a curious individual, always asking questions and trying to deeply understand the world and the people around him. He wanted to know about my past, what it was like growing up in Indiana and about my experiences in Vietnam. Coupled with this curiosity, Carl also offered people his full presence — a gift (and I believe healing power) he shared with the many patients he cared for while working for Hospice by the Bay.
Our friendship was rooted in our commonalities, including a deep nostalgia for "home." I remember Carl driving me past his childhood home and other memorable spots in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where he grew up. He would reminisce about his childhood. Like me, he spent a lot of time reflecting on how his upbringing shaped the person he became as an adult.
After graduate school, Carl and I even briefly lived together in Cole Valley. Even years after we moved out of the apartment, Carl would remind me of all the features he loved and thought were funny about our home.
"Remember when Ron would come by and water the plants every Saturday?" he asked. He'd also remark about the brown shingles on the building, acting as if we should still have an opinion about the building's facade. More than nostalgia, our longing for home I suppose, was rooted in our deeper desire to search for our place in the world.
More recently, I realized that Carl's father and my mother both struggled with mental health issues; this was something that I have not been able to share with many of my friends. In the past few years, we endured some parallel experiences, watching family members face challenging times. We attempted to be available to others while also nurturing of ourselves — a difficult lesson nonetheless. The challenging moments we shared only strengthened our relationship.
In the weeks after Carl passed away, I thought a great deal about him, both his life and his death. Mostly, my thoughts circled around what his friendship and his presence in my life meant to me.
As I drafted the words that I later shared at the service, I learned a valuable lesson: Often, we focus so intently on attaining romantic love that we can sometimes fail to recognize the pure beauty and immense value of our non-romantic friendships.
My friendship with Carl, I realized was truly one my greatest loves and had endured much longer than many of my romantic relationships. The more I got to know Carl, the more I felt seen by him. Just as some feel fated to their romantic partner, I felt fated to a friendship with Carl; we were meant to be in each other's lives to help navigate life's ups and downs.
While I truly believe there's a lot of joy and beauty in romantic love, the light that shines from my friendships — including my relationship with Carl — is much brighter, both in my mind and heart.