Living & Growing: The importance of friendship

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” - Helen Keller

By Trish Turner Custard

‘It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter.” Marlene Dietrich

Everyone should have a drop everything friend; that person who will drop everything, clear their calendar, and jump on the next plane to be by your side if needed. MG is that person for me.

We first met in 1981 when we both worked as rangers at the same National Park. MG was my supervisor, which resulted in one memorable work moment where she schooled me on proper uniform wear, which did not include a ring on every finger and hair spilling crazily out from my Smokey Bear hat. From that inauspicious beginning we became fast friends. Over the years, as MG climbed through the ranks of the Park Service, and I bounced from place to place as a military spouse, she was always just a phone call away for advice, recommendation, or comfort. Her visits were frequent and always so welcomed. We shared adventures from coast to coast and north to south: Baltimore to San Francisco, San Diego to Juneau, and points in between. Together we scoured bookstores and odd shops looking for the unique. Visited museums large and small, traditional and bizarre. Dined from street vendors to fancy restaurants. She was there on the sidelines cheering me on as I ran the New York City Marathon, knowing which miles to pop up at when I REALLY needed motivation.

In a time when people count and compete for the number of friends they have on social media, the whole notion of a friend seems to have changed, in some ways cheapened. We term people as friends who are no more than acquaintances or even less, just someone online in a shared interest group that has never been met in person. Although these types of connections can be very important to us, they should not be our sole source of companionship. As Rabbi Dan Roth writes in “Relevance: Pirkei Avos for the Twenty-First Century:”

“A person can be in the haunting position of having “lots of friends” without really having even one! He can be in a room full of people, surrounded by those who are ostensibly his friends, and still be very lonely. When friends are bound only by circumstances, then when the circumstances change – they stop attending the same course or move away – the friendship is lost. However, when friends are joined by the desire to grow together, their souls are bound with one another and the friendship will last throughout their lives.”

I last saw MG in 2015. She came for a visit the week after she retired from 40 plus years with the Park Service. She seemed a bit distracted, a bit lost in thought. I credited that to the disorienting experience of closing a major chapter in her life. Still, we experienced new adventures, created more mementos of our friendship. MG was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2018. In December 2020, she was moved into a memory care facility. All the adventures we had together and all the memories created are now just mine, because some days MG does not even remember who she is.

To no longer have a drop everything friend leaves an aching void. I mourn this living loss in small steps; the depth and breadth of it is too great a canyon to venture into all at once.

In Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is written, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.”

It is now my time to lift up my friend as best as can be done in the circumstance. I send cheery notes with the certainty that MG doesn’t remember the sender, but with the hope they bring her at least a bit of joy. Our friendship has irrevocably changed, but it continues, even if I am the lone participant. Our shared lives, too strong a bond to be extinguished by a cruel disease.

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” – Helen Keller

• Trish Turner Custard is a member of the Congregation Sukkat Shalom. ”Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders. It appears every Friday on the Juneau Empire’s Faith page.

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