Last Sunday a friend was in town for a week of business meetings, and we’d arranged months earlier to get together on what ended up being the nicest summer day Chicago had all season. We met in the Fall of 2001 at a job where we worked together for about six years. Jill was a part-timer, finishing a PhD in west Texas, although she’ll be the first to tell you she’s from New Jersey, which instantly makes me smile. So often her conversations begin with, “I’m from Jersey,” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes with anyone from The Garden State, you’d know she was raised there even if she hadn’t started the discussion with, “I’m from Jersey.”
I began the job about two or three weeks before her, and she was born a couple of months before me in the same year. That initiated the first Stone-1, Mullholland-1 rivalry. I may have begun the job earlier, she is forever younger than me, exemplifying a competitive predisposition for which the Jersey girl hasn’t lost her passion. She’ll cleverly walk me into a Mullholland-1, Stone-0 faceoff on Facebook with a glee belying our presumed maturity.
We hit if off immediately, and by the end of October, 2001 we weren’t only colleagues, we were close friends. There are obvious commonalities like we’re only two months apart in age, both Type-A overachievers with plenty of pride and no fewer opinions, driven by perhaps a tad too much perfectionism. She’s finally a full-time employee but we never worked together in the association’s Merchandise Mart offices in Chicago when the association and I were located there.
From the moment we met we did and said silly stuff, laughed out loud a disproportionate number of times, although we are also good kvetchers. Still, we were very conscientious about our jobs, often disagreeing about certain aspects, but it never got in the way of our friendship. In the best of those times, I’d tell her she was full of it; she’d tell me I was overflowing in it. Then she’d do things like hang the phone up, call Jeannie the office manager and have her hide all my pens or create a crisis for Jeannie to deliver to me with an Academy Award-worthy performance, to which I’d respond by telling her to tell Jill she doesn’t need to earn a PhD, she needs to see one. In more serious times, our clashes might last a day or two, but we couldn’t sustain an argument too long. We’d disagree, sometimes loudly, get over it and stay over it. We’d always find some compromise and whatever the issue, it was never brought up again. Nothing was as important as our friendship. Six years flew by, we worked as hard as we played, and we’re still very proud of that.
There’d also been plenty of opportunity for colleagues, committee and Board members to pit us against each other when we worked together and even after I left. We saw many attempts, but they could never succeed although we’d never discussed such an “agreement,” for lack of a better term. We cared too much about each other, we had too much fun together. In hindsight, our closeness seems remarkable because we were two of only six permanent employees then, her being one of two part-timers and the only virtual one, living in an area as rural and distant as Chicago is urban and eclectic.
Then I left the association, abruptly. We spoke occasionally but not about work. She knew something went wrong. I know she heard all kinds of absurd stories just as surely as I know she gave them no weight because they weren’t words coming from me. We’d heard plenty of dirt on each other over the years but never once chose to acknowledge it. Although unsaid, we weren’t willing to ruin what we had by letting negative get between us.
It’s hard to stay connected when miles apart and gripped in details of separate lives. Except for an occasional Facebook post, text message or brief call where we still managed to laugh and disagree as if we’d never missed a day, we remained out of touch for over five years. And until we sat on the beach last Sunday, she didn’t know any “why’s.” In between laughing out loud about old pranks and goofy colleagues, I told her some of them. I’d been hit in a head-on car collision; our family had to sell our home because like others the Great Recession struck us hard, and some other unpleasantries. I explained they weren’t things I could talk about over the phone or through email, but I didn’t even need to say that. She’d never been mad that we weren’t talking, she just didn’t know why.
During the short time we spent discussing it, I saw something that until that moment I thought one could only feel: empathy. The way she listened, the tilt of her head, her few but well-chosen questions, the different tone in which she spoke―it struck me harder than the summer sun and gin and tonic. Those tough times paled compared to the care radiating from her as spontaneously as the waves lapping onto the beach and the sun beating down on the lakefront. Let me be clear: it wasn’t sappy. She doesn’t do sappy and doesn’t accept it from others. She was hearing information she’d long wondered about and would only acknowledge from her friend, and despite her Jersey cool, her concern was palpable. We didn’t dwell on any of it; we picked right back up where we left off, teasing each other, acting nowhere near our age (which I tried to reduce and for some reason she stopped me before I could even finish the logic, though I’d been certain she’d appreciate it).
What is relevant is not talking for at least five years and then picking up where we
left off. Dissecting “why” and “what happened” also were never part of any “agreement.” We’re friends. We respect each other even when we disagree. Even when years fly by. Even when others try to interfere. Last Sunday I not only felt but I saw the blessings of friendship, the love that comes from two people who genuinely care and respect each other. I will always love her, and I know that’s mutual. But not in a sappy way, Jill’s from Jersey.
There are countless hugely frightening and equally irrelevant issues dividing out country, political parties and families every day. But not knowing when we’ll see each other again or even talk, aside from a few silly give and takes on Facebook, can’t disconnect my friend Jill and me. Those issues simply aren’t part of our definition of friendship, love, empathy.
What an enlightening observation for me. People who really care about one another without agenda or condition are a rare and wonderful gift. That tenderness is unrelated to one’s religious belief, culture, age, politics, even blood lines, much to my surprise. Real friendship and love mean laughing at the beach, remembering each other’s best moments, and feeling only sadness about the bad ones. Tallying them to use against each other never once a consideration.
Thanks, Jill, for reminding me about what really counts. Yeah, I know―Mullholand-1, Stone-0. I’m grateful I’ve got a lifetime to keep up that rivalry, a lesson I needed to understand at that moment more than I can say. But that’s what makes these kinds of relationships special, right? Ok, maybe too sappy, but it’s the truth, and I’m prepared for the fallout because I know whatever her reaction, it’ll never, ever be one that would make me feel bad or sad. Is there a greater gift?