That Time You Were Just a Friend--What’s the reading on your friend-odometer?
Today, I am a solid 3.
That number used to be a lot higher.
When I was a better friend.
Once upon a time, I was a really great friend. Grandpa was my example. He surrounded himself with friends who were such fixtures at my grandparents' home on the coast that we called them aunt and uncle. I remember the afternoon when I was about twelve and realized that I was only related to about a third of the folks at one of Grandpa’s huge suppers. I felt let down. Betrayed. You mean those crazy fools slinging back cocktails and singing into the night aren’t really my people? It was like finding out I was adopted. Then when I was about fifteen and hosting my own friends for a coast weekend, Grandpa pulled me aside and said with deep sincerity that the secret to friendship is to give friends the same affection as family, that we should never call to mind who is blood and who isn’t.
“Who cares about blood?” he said, with a wave of his hand. “Nonsense.”
What mattered was that the circle surrounding me sprang from mutual admiration and an overall sense of comfort.
I have never been The Glue. There’s a Glue in every circle, that one particular person with the assumed role to keep the rest of the group from straying. The Glue usually calls or texts the most. The Glue drums up most of the get-togethers. The Glue often uproots why and where there may be tension in the group and sets the scene to settle it. The Glue has a significant other who doesn’t question why he/she has to share him/her with so many others because The Glue established the importance of his/her friends from day one.
Grandpa was The Glue.
Even though I have never played this role, I have always revered the significance of The Glue. They are the people who give and give and give. They don’t acknowledge what’s on paper. Who birthed you and from where you came is as noteworthy as whether you eat whole wheat or white bread. What matters is how invested one is in the group, the circle, the tribe--the offspring of camaraderie.
This is where the number three comes in and why that number has changed my place in a social world I no longer recognize.
Everyone has a number of how much devotion they need from their friend group and how much devotion they, themselves, can reciprocate. The figures are completely reliant on the conditions in our personal lives and how much we choose to give those conditions precedence.
Let’s just say that our limit is ten. All of our giving and receiving needs to stop at that number. Exceeding ten spins us out of control and relationships begin to suffer. My numbers are automatically affected by my being married and having three kids young enough to require large amounts of my attention. More importantly, my numbers are affected by how much of me I choose to give the people within my four walls. My number is also affected by three sisters, social krewes, friends I’ve made through my kids’ friends’ parents, and on and on. All of this affects the number I can give to or need from my core friend group.
Twenty years ago, I needed maybe 4 from friends and gave 6. It was well understood that my sisters offered enough significant support for me that I didn’t need my friends to fill a gaping void. But I, in turn, understood that my friends didn’t have the same built-in buddies that I did, so I made myself available to fill their needs. After I got married, that six shifted, but only slightly. My husband knew when my best friends kidnapped me for one last hurrah right before we left our wedding reception that they were not just any group of friends. They were integral to my well-being. When I had kids, I probably slipped to a four, but at the same time, my need for them to be invested in me bumped up. I was stranded on Mommy Island. The natives were nothing like my people and I needed a search and rescue often to pull me back to some sense of normalcy.
Over the years, my numbers have continued to move about, some seasons swaying more in one direction than the other. I’ve been well beyond ten before, scrambling to balance my at-home needs and my friendships. I’ve screwed this up plenty of times. I’ve given more to one area than I should have and abandoned others. I’ve come back around again and readjusted--until now, where I have entered a most unfamiliar territory.
My numbers aren’t even adding up to ten.
Major events have the power to suck up our energy to give: breakups, divorce, marriage, moving, new jobs, lost jobs, death, and so on. Most often, this is when our need number rises. What’s strange is that the major life event I’m experiencing this time has left my friend-odometer with room to spare. Not only am I unmotivated to get out there and be there, but I’m not waiting for anyone outside of my four walls to be there for me.
If you’ve peeked into this blog before--my tiny slice of netherworld where I sort shit out--you know that I’m struggling to come to terms with losing my father. Grief’s a real bitch, but I’m more like grief’s bitch. And now it has given me a new social anxiety. I’m often nervous to leave the safety of my family--those grieving with me--because there’s a certain comfort amongst those with whom we commiserate. They understand just how quickly we are reminded of our loss by just a smell, a phrase, or hearing a song. The result? I’m putting out a solid 3 to friends, which amounts to little more than texting and once-in-a blue-moon face to faces. In return, I don’t expect anything more. My total is a whopping 6. I’m not lonely. My sisters and I are leaning on one another like we never have before. My children are my everything again, like they just came out of the womb, and my husband is my rock. But my tribe--my friends off in the distance--wonder where the hell I went.
Have I changed? People change all the time. We grow away from certain relationships until all we give is a polite 2. Maybe I have reevaluated everything? Maybe I have realized that this beautiful family Mom and Pop created is all I need and the reason I’m not itching to include anyone else in my life?
Except that I know that’s a lie.
Life is about relationships. I don’t know what the meaning of life is, but I’m willing to bet it has something to do with relationships and that blood is just how we got here, but not our endgame. And I suppose Grandpa, ultimate host and friend of all friends, must have known this. He’d probably have read this blog and blown it off with another wave of his hand.
He’d tell me and my theory to beat it, and he’d resume position among the loud mash-up on his porch, where lifelong friends intertwined seamlessly with his kids and grandkids. If I were Grandpa, my friends would be within my four walls. If I were Grandpa, my kids would have tons of aunts and uncles. If I were Grandpa, my friends would experience the good and the bad and the major events with me, because on a keen, deeper level, it would be theirs to share--because they would truly be family.
I know enough to know that Grandpa’s world didn’t face the distractions of today, nor did it suffer from today’s conveniences either. Matters weren’t solved through texts and messages. Celebrations weren’t announced through an Instagram filter. Grandpa prevailed in a world where friendship required outreach and life’s chaos played out in all its frenzy right before the very eyes of everyone he cared about to such an extent that friends were part of the madness too. Kids were raised together. New faces were given a place at the table. Holidays weren’t isolated to one relationship dynamic. It was an open invitation to all. Everyone felt every high and every low together. And numbers, calculations to fill some corny friendship love bucket, were unnecessary.
After Grandpa’s funeral, I sat on the steps of his porch, staring vacantly out into the Bay. I felt someone sit beside me and an arm reach around my shoulders. It was my Uncle Bill. I laid my head against his chest and quietly cried.
Uncle Bill, however, wasn’t my uncle. He was Grandpa’s best friend.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.