What My Best Friend Taught Me, Forty Years In

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As William Wordsworth once said, “To begin, begin.”

I have a long scar across the palm of my left hand. The story is that, when I was a baby, I fell on my glass bottle running after my mother, as she was walking out the door. I had good reason to be anxious. When either one of my parents left, it was never certain that they would come back. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. As I got older, sometimes they answered when I called, sometimes the number had been changed. My friend JoDee was the first person who’s presence I had the luxury of taking for granted; I never had to run after her because she never left.

We met in 4th grade, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when we lost our balance, like all middle schoolers do, that we were pulled into each other’s orbit. We both faked our laps in P.E., loved meatloaf day in the cafeteria, WMAK radio, and Queen. Lying on the grass, making clover chains in the heat of our adolescence, we shared stories about our lives (her father, strange and occasionally missing, and me, left on my own at thirteen) until, over time, the stories piled up, undisturbed, and our friendship took root.

By eighth grade, I had a botched home perm and a revolving door of care givers, none of whom lasted. I was like that box of random do-dads left behind when you’re moving— the stuff no one wants to throw away but no one really wants to keep. I wish I could say I weathered this all with grace, but the truth is that I was extremely angry. I was a little mean, an eye-roller, and not up for loving anyone. So, I was basically a total pain in the ass.

But I needed somewhere to go after school. JoDee and I cracked each other up, and her house had an open door policy, so that’s where I found myself. Literally.

JoDee’s mother, Dee, took me in and, as far as I could see, treated me like one of her own. She didn’t mind that I walked through their front door without knocking and went straight to the fridge for onion dip and Tab. She didn’t mind when I called her Mom, and best of all, she usually answered. I wonder how that must have felt to JoDee, to have the finite resource of her single mother’s attention stretched to nourish a kid as hungry as I was. But I didn’t think about that then. Instead, I made myself comfortable on one side of JoDee’s queen size bed and plunked my toothbrush down by the small bathroom sink.

For years I gave JoDee’s mom all the credit for this arrangement and how it changed my life, but even though I still am deeply grateful to Dee, now that I have kids almost the age that JoDee and I were then, I realize I need to share that gratitude with her, too. In a pattern that would repeat for decades, JoDee made room for me when I needed it.

How long did I live with her in high school, what was it, weeks? Months? I can’t remember. It seems like a lot of my Freshman and Sophomore year was spent at her house, piled together on the La-Z Boy watching MTV or lying on her bed staring at the pictures of Sting that papered the walls of her room. It wasn’t a perfect world. We got up to a lot of teenage shenanigans (sorry, gotta leave that part out in case her kids read this), but at JoDee’s house I didn’t have to jump when an adult entered the room, and I let myself experiment with not being afraid.
This was great for me, but again, I wonder how it was for her. She was the first one I’d call when a boyfriend dumped me, or when I needed a roommate, a car, an alibi, a pep talk, a date, a meal. She saw every terrible play I was in and stayed awake during most of them. I’m exhausted just thinking about it all.

JoDee thinks of herself as a fixer in remission. She’s come a long way and works very hard now on not taking on people’s problems and not feeling like she has to rescue every stray person who lands on her doorstep. I hear her struggle with that tendency still, and cheer her on when she manages to let people handle their own shit. But the truth is that if she had been a little less of a fixer, I’m sure I would have stayed broken.

I would love it if she had a list this long of the ways I helped her through the first half of her life. I could say that I plan to help her just as much during the next half but, thankfully, neither of us need that kind of help anymore. She is the most grounded, big-hearted person I know. She has a wonderful husband and kids, a job she’s good at and a community of friends who know, just as I do, how special she is. So, yeah. She’s all good.

I have to accept that our friendship wasn’t always even-steven, and guess what? No one is keeping score. When I see the memes and read the popular advice that you should “only surround yourself with positive people!”, I thank my lucky stars that JoDee didn’t do that, back in the day.

One of the great things about reaching middle-age is that I can see trouble coming a mile away, and I make a sharp turn to avoid it. When I see someone whose life is full of a suspicious amount of drama, I make myself scarce. (Oh the irony.) A friend told me recently that she admires the fact that I “do not suffer fools.” I think she’s probably right, and even though I’m glad that I’m not surrounded by people who drain me, or come attached to their own personal dark cloud, I wonder if I’ve missed some lovely friendships just for sheer lack of patience.

JoDee, I’m grateful that you suffered at least one fool, and that was me. I may not be able to change my tendency toward self-preservation at all costs, but, just like I did years ago when I crashed your family, I can experiment with not being afraid. I can try to have just a little more courage and make a little more room for foolishness. Who knows what could happen?

So you may not have been able to teach me how to drive a stick shift, or talk me out of bringing that guy back from Paris when we were eighteen, but see?

I’m still learning from you.