Once upon a time, we were oozing friends. We had all the time in the world to fritter away an afternoon debating whether Kelly Taylor should have chosen Dylan or Brandon. A gaggle of us would finish a box of Franzia watching Dirty Dancing, singing, dancing, and gossiping. Once upon a time, I had best friends and almost best friends and close friends and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends. So many friends. But now?
Well, let’s just say I am no longer oozing friends. Over the past decade, there has been a contracting and tightening of friendships. As I added a husband and in-laws and eventually children to my inner circle, certain friendships have fallen away simply out of necessity. We no longer have all the time in the world. We have different interests, values, and priorities. We live on the other side of the country, or maybe even the other side of the world. And I have redefined what it means to be a friend. Friendship is more about quality than quantity these days.
I’ll admit, there are plenty of times when I wish I were oozing friends again. I’ve longed to be part of the cool clique from time to time. I want to be liked as much as anyone. And I’ve felt physical pangs of sadness and envy when I see a photo on Facebook of friends together at a baseball game knowing that I was not invited to join them. But popularity, likes, and invitations aren’t a measure of friendship (not real friendship anyway). So I’m fairly content knowing that while my BFF list might not be bursting at the seams, the ones who are on the list are the best of the best.
Part of this quality over quantity redefinition of friendship isn’t just because we are older and wiser with less time on our hands, but because we are seeing each other through some really life-changing shit. A couple years ago, one of my best friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. During the course of our 30-year friendship, my friend and I had been through a lot, but nothing quite as fantastically shitty as cancer.
Being the quality over quantity friend that I am — and she is, as well — I wanted to be the best friend ever. And in some ways, I might have come close. I texted her every single day, sometimes several times a day. When she wanted to complain about the failed surgeries and the infections, I ranted with her, text-shouting “dammit to hell” and “fucking bullshit” and “stupid bitch cancer.”
When she needed someone to stay with her during the first week of chemo, I flew halfway across the country to be with her. It was the first time I had flown alone in more than 10 years, which speaks volumes about the season of life we are in right now. We are never alone, constantly surrounded by little people and spouses and co-workers with pseudo-emergencies, so we hide in the bathroom with our phones, texting each other while we pretend to be pooping.
I’m not going to lie, I was scared out of my mind. What would this new dynamic — fighting this beast of cancer — mean for our friendship? Could I be a good enough friend, the friend she needed? Or would I crack under the emotional weight of it all?
But as soon as I walked in the door, she asked, “Do you want to see them?” and I realized that she was still the friend she had always been — and so was I. “Hell yeah,” I said, and we sneaked off to her bedroom where I saw her post-mastectomy battle scars and war wounds.
The next morning, her husband drove us all to the hospital. We walked past old ladies in house dresses with our bags full of magazines, pretending that we were getting pedicures instead of her getting chemo injections. We read each other ridiculous humblebrag posts on Facebook. We took selfies, smiling like schoolgirls. And later, I held a bucket for her while she vomited.
The next day, I did laundry. I folded her husband’s boxers and her son’s pajamas. I helped her give her son a bath before bed. I went grocery shopping and bought the flaxseed bread from Trader Joe’s and organic fruit from Whole Foods, pretending that she was on a fancy detox cleanse instead of ingesting poison that was designed to kill any sneaky cancer cells. And a few days later, I left. As good a friend as I was, I was the faraway friend, and I needed to return to my own family.
When I saw her a few months after her chemo had ended, she was in the process of getting breast implants. We sneaked into the restaurant bathroom to discuss size, texture, and shape. And then we returned to our table, where we ate French fries and gossiped like the classy women we are instead of two women who hadn’t just gotten naked in a public bathroom to compare boobs.
Knowing that friendship is about quality and not quantity, I wanted to be the perfect friend. But, of course, I fell short. I worried too much about my own petty problems. I lived halfway across the country and couldn’t be there every day. I lacked selfless generosity and unwavering optimism. But most of all, I failed at being the perfect friend because I assumed that there is such a thing. There is not. There is no perfect anything. There are only beautifully odd people who step into the muck with other beautifully odd people in the name of friendship. And while friendship — especially at this stage of life — is about quality over quantity, it is impossible for one person to be and do allthethings.
Life has settled down a bit for my friend, with the turmoil of chemo and surgeries in fading into the rearview mirror — though it is impossible to ever fully move on from cancer, as my friend knows all too acutely, and as I know from watching her go through it. And in the same way, it is impossible for a friendship to remain unchanged by something this brutal, life-changing, and at the same time, life-affirming. You see each other differently — more vulnerably, yes, but also as if you are seeing each other’s humanity with wide open eyes so that your flaws and your strengths are brighter, crisper. And you see the friendship with new eyes too because you see each other more clearly, you see the depth and power in this one relationship.
That isn’t to say anyone can be the perfect friend or the only friend. Of course not. Rather, I think the “perfect friend” might actually be a small but mighty collection of people who all tap into different aspects of ourselves and provide different things when a crisis hits. One friend brings the positive self-talk and essential oils, another brings cookies and lots of swearing, and another friend brings gossip and groceries. Independently, none of these friends are perfect or everything we need. But combine them together, and you’ve got an upbeat, incense-smelling, cookie-wielding, F-bomb-dropping gossiper who is the very essence of quality over quality.
We might not be oozing friends anymore, with our time squeezed and obligations heavy, but chances are the small handful of friends we do have are more than enough. The friendships are tighter, stronger, and truer. And these friends, taken together as a whole, are the closest thing there ever was to perfection.
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