What Was Her Name?

“If you consider any man a friend whom you do not trust as you trust yourself, you are mightily mistaken and you do not sufficiently understand what true friendship means… When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment. Those persons indeed put last first and confound their duties, who … judge a man after they have made him their friend, instead of making him their friend after they have judged him. Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself… Regard him as loyal and you will make him loyal.” – Seneca

When I was a young child in Montessori, I had lots of friends. When my fifth birthday came, I invited the entire class to my house for a party. I don’t recall much in particular about the party, as most gatherings at my home were strained at best, but I do know lots of people came and that I felt very special.

The following Monday, when I arrived at school everyone was in circle time already and some kids were crying. The teacher informed me that one of my friends (who was at my birthday party) had died. I heard the name, but I couldn’t think of who she was. While other kids were shocked at the loss of their classmate, I was struggling to figure out who it was.

It’s strange the things we remember as adults. I have strange mental blank spots of my childhood but this day, I remember very well. I recall scanning the room to see if my favorite friends were in the circle or not, by use of deduction, I was going to figure out who had died. One of my favorite friends was not there. I felt like a rock had hit me in the stomach. I started to cry. I remember feeling tears and snot run down my face as a sense of helplessness washed over me.

Then my missing favorite friend walked in wearing a pink winter coat with matching boots. She was alive. I felt joy wash over me and ran over to hug her. Then I told her someone died. I had already forgotten the name of the deceased, even though it had only been moments since the teacher last said it. I know today that this was a product of my audio dyslexia, as I need context to process certain things especially when emotions are high and talking about someone that was not present felt void of context.

Awkwardly, I asked my favorite friend her name and she told me it was Jennifer. Thirty-eight years later, I remember Jennifer in the pink coat with matching boots giving me a hug and telling me it was ok. I responded with I was glad it wasn’t her that died. I cringe as I write this because that is a messed-up thing to say while in the room with people actively grieving but that is what happened.

To this day, I don’t know the name of my friend and classmate that died two days after my birthday party. My mother later told me that she was very ill and had a terminal illness. She knew that she was dying but that she was so excited to be invited to my birthday party that she defied expectations and hung on longer than anticipated. Her mother was very grateful that I had invited her and said that her daughter had a very pleasant time before her illness claimed her little body and she found eternal rest.

While I was happy to hear that my deceased friend enjoyed my birthday party, I still didn’t know who she was. One of her dying wishes was literally to come to my birthday party and I didn’t know her name. This experience stuck with me. Not all relationships have equal participation. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be special or valuable. If anything, it highlights the need to treat everyone with respect because we all carry with us a story that is not easily told.

In my twenties, I had many unequal relationships. It wasn’t until I put effort into who I allowed into my inner world and as Seneca would say, “pass judgement before the friendship is formed, not after” that I developed lasting and loyal friendships.

Then I had children and I had to learn how to play well with others for their sake. My harsh judgements of who would be allowed into my inner circle of trust was burst wide open. I had to learn how to open my home, but not my heart, to the parade of families my children invited into our life. To make amends to countless nameless friends of my youth, I diligently keep track of everyone’s names and even have a song that I sing at night to my children where we name all the people we came across that day.

There is no conclusion to this reflection. I’m in a liminal space where I am learning to put in the right amount of effort with the other soccer moms while leaving room for friendship to grow without abandoning my necessary judgements of character required for strong friendships to be forged.

Today I will remember that true friendship is a gift to be cherished and has no space for judgement. But that this gift of friendship should not be given out freely or lightly as loyalty becomes unpleasant when it is one-sided.

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