Real friends back you up in a fight.
Perhaps it was my East Vancouver upbringing, with its seemingly ever-present threat of violence, at home or at school, that informed my first ideas on the meaning of friendship.
I was a sensitive kid with a foreign accent, asthma, quite a few extra pounds and clothes my mom had made me. In my isolation, I had taken to collecting spiders in glass jars to keep company.
In the world of people, I suffered the ridicule and criticisms of teachers and other bullies, for which I had no answers. So when I’d meet someone who enjoyed my company and accepted me, I cherished the relief.
CS Lewis said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You, too? Thought I was the only one.”
Through friends, we learn that we aren’t alone and that our experiences are valid, thus strengthening our will to move forward.
As a kid, I’d often picture all of my friends, from my schoolyard playmates, to the grown-up employees at my favourite comic book store, standing tall behind me to fend off some foe. I’d smile, imagining them united as if to say, “If you mess with Nelson, you mess with all of us!”
I now realize this was an unrealistic expectation to put on all of these people. Their friendship was never put to the test in this way because 1) They were never around like that, all at once and 2) I never really got into any fights.
However, in as much as I would reflect on their faces to find the confidence to move forward and to stand up to the voices that told me I wasn’t good enough, voices that included my own, they really were there for me.
Upon coming out and being evicted from the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, my friends became vital in affirming my new life. Lovingly, they helped me with the queer challenges of boys, self-esteem, experimentation and depression. My friends were my chosen family and I’d do anything for them.
Something changed, though, in my late 20s and into my 30s. The intensity of my relationships seemed to evaporate.
I’d seen so many relationships fade due to factors like moving away, leaving jobs and other transitions. I adopted the notion that friendships were seasonal and that being alone was all that you could ever count on.
As a consequence of a busy schedule, pursuing an acting career during the day and working nights at a bar, I lost touch with my friends.
When I wasn’t alone, I was surrounded by industry types: actors, producers, casting people, bartenders, bar patrons, etc. This, I assumed, was the whole of my present existence.
Thus when an old friend I hadn’t seen for 15 years stopped by my bar, I was thrown for a loop.
F was the “first fag” (his words) with whom I’d become friends. We worked together at a downtown restaurant and, despite my closeted insistence that I was straight, F answered all of my queries about the “gay lifestyle.”
F proved to be a wonderfully flamboyant role model for me. He and his partner taught me that gay men can find love and happiness as long as they insist on nothing less.
The excitement of seeing F after so many years soon dimmed as I couldn’t help but notice that his signature smile was missing. With pain in his dark eyes, F choked out the news that his partner of more than 16 years had passed.
I was stunned and felt trapped. I didn’t know how to console him in my workplace, with all of the noise and with other customers to serve and entertain.
He wrote down his number and asked if I’d like to meet up for coffee sometime. I nodded my head, placed his number in a glass behind my bar and moved on to the next person in line. His phone number would sit un-punched in my phone for five months.
Something about F’s invitation to meet up made me anxious and weak. I was frustrated and intimidated by the fact that I’d suddenly become important to someone else. I procrastinated, became too busy, and convinced myself that, surely, he must have a larger support network other than me.
I resented him for needing me, for interrupting my busy life, and for asking me to shoulder such responsibility.
But the thought of his loneliness was too painful for me to ignore forever.
A couple of weeks ago, F and I met up for coffee and walked to English Bay where we sat on a park bench to reminisce. I didn’t have to do anything at all except keep company with someone who adored me and with whom I’d shared good times as well as an exquisite joy in gay culture.
F accepted my repeated apologies and seemed happy just to catch up.
Friends, bonded to us by shared qualities, become mirrors to our souls. True friends are angels that guide us towards parts of ourselves that we love; they reaffirm these so that we truly have something personal to contribute to the world. They give us the opportunity to share in special pockets of time that can overcome anxiety, shame and grief.
They are also human and thus given to common flaws and weaknesses in character. As F taught me, a friend will recognize weakness and forgive it.
Life will take us in different directions but the connection between two people knows no distance. Even beyond death, a friend’s reflection of your values will continue to thrive in you to give you comfort and reassurance.
No matter how busy you are, spending time with friends, like exercise, is always beneficial. Every little bit helps.