Friends keep us from becoming so extremely narcissistic that we fall headfirst into our own navels. And when we do fall, as we surely will, they lift our heads up and show us something worth looking at. Sometimes they might have to grab a fistful of hair and yank. Those are the most reliable and faithful ones; the ones that love you the most. They brush the bellybutton lint off the tip of your nose, aim that nose in another direction, and continue to love you.
I started thinking about friends last February 29th. I remember that day because it was particularly difficult for Blandina (see my post titled “One Little Firefly”). She came to my house completely unable to handle the emotions of the day. This happened again in May, and both times the entire Standard 5 class was her escort. They made sure she was settled; they looked in on her at morning break and later brought her some lunch. They sent emissaries throughout the day to check on her, and after school they came to play with her until Lisa and I shooed them away at dusk. I remember the expressions of worry and concern on their faces. It brought back memories of them crying at her mother’s funeral as if it was their own mother who was lost. They knew when to speak and when to quietly sit beside her. They didn’t ask questions or try to artificially draw emotional conversation from her. They were simply and solidly there.
For safety reasons, Blandina is now living with me and separated from her friends in Berega. She has made new friends and is thriving, but the village children were part of her life her whole life. The village was all she knew. This was her tribe, her customs, her universe. The first time I took her back for a visit, the tsunami wave that began with the death of her mother pummeled her again. She thought that Berega was no longer her village. She felt that the once comfortable, predictable and safe village had been stolen from her. Indeed, that it had betrayed her. She won’t be roaming the dirt roads with friends or sitting next to them in class. When she goes “home” during holidays, it will be to a new village. She won’t be going to sleep in her own bed, in her own hut, in her own neighborhood. She won’t even know her neighbors or any of the local children. She won’t be cooking and doing chores alongside her mother.
Life isn’t fair and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.
I’m beginning to realize that, although true, the above statement is also incomplete. You can’t control the inevitable pain that comes with life, but you can cultivate friendships. This last year was a difficult one for me, as well. The feeling of isolation and disequilibrium that is part and parcel of moving was compounded by dropping into the middle of a third world village. I didn’t know the language, the culture or a single living soul. To say it was difficult is an understatement. Yet, through what I’ve heard dubbed “trauma bonding”, I got to know the other volunteers, and that took the edge off.
All of this has brought back memories of my first friend, Lulu Hamada. The Hamada’s had a tire swing next to their vegetable garden. On those slothful summer days when we had nothing to do, we’d idly sway, wiling away the time as we prattled on in our endless, childhood banter. Scrawny cats of all colors and sizes skittered about as they stalked unseen creatures, or sought shelter from the sun. Donned in faded blue overalls with cuffs rolled up, white shirt and wide brimmed, pointed Japanese hat, Lulu’s mom, Alice, would be bent over tending the snow peas, zucchini and other garden delicacies. The hot, primal scent of the earth swirled into our nostrils and drugged our brains. Pear and walnut trees stood tall and majestic as sentinels in the background, their shapes distorted by the heat waves of Indian Summer.
I remember the day my Uncle Clarence passed. The family was gathered at The Ranch to comfort and console Auntie Anna. I can still see her sitting on the arm of the wine-red, leather couch with her sisters, her friends, surrounding her as she sobbed uncontrollably. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle all this. I was heavy into the “I’m-going-to-be-a-nun” phase of my life and, as such, didn’t’ really see my uncle as dead in the final sense of the word. Why, then, were my aunties so distraught?
I also saw this as the perfect opportunity for my nine-year-old self to slip out undetected to seek the sanctuary of the tire swing and Lulu’s friendship.
We lazed on the swing, as usual, only this time there was a solemnity that blanketed the air and clawed at our skin like dark, sinister, tendrils of smoke. I think Lulu just let me talk or be silent as needed. She understood words weren’t always necessary between friends. Maybe we exchanged our different thoughts about the afterlife, I don’t recall. My memory has long since lost the words of that conversation, but the lasting affirmation, comfort and peace it held is as fresh as if it occurred this morning. Years later, she gave me this gift again at the graveside of my father. We don’t see each other much anymore, except for funerals, which is when we turn up for each other. I will never forget Lulu brushing a tear from my eye at my dad’s grave. She uttered no words, just looked deep into my eyes, smiled and gently brushed the salt from my cheek.
Lulu was my friend from birth, my earliest friend. My cousins were next, though we often fought like siblings. My mother and aunties modeled friendship among sisters, I saw the male version between my father and his brothers. Friends. Look for them. Let them find you. Marafiki. Yūjin. Amigos. Amichi. Freunde. Filoi. Copains. Hal nabqaa aisdiqa’an. Call them what you want, but embrace them. To this day I can’t see a tire swing without reliving memories of my friendship with Lulu and our lazy childhood days on The Ranch. My neighbors have a tire swing in their yard. As I watch Blandina and her new friends play, I can’t help but wonder if they’re forging the same quality of memories I was fortunate to make. I regret that we never had a tree in our yard big enough to put up a tire swing for my own children. If I ever have grandchildren, I will be sure to find a place for one. That swing can be where they and their friends can laugh and play, swing and spin, or just get away from the adults. It can be the place where they develop freedom and independence, friendships, philosophies, fantasies and maybe even start a rotten fruit war. Maybe, just maybe, they will blur the new lines of societal expectation and grow up to make their corner of the world a place where friends can find each other.
Note: I began this post several months ago, but didn’t upload it because I don’t have any decent pics to go with it. However, if I continue thinking like that I’ll never get anything posted ever again. So, here you are. There’s a couple in the works to follow later.