A year ago today I was sitting with my dear friend Jen Lemen at a neighborhood potluck in the park. We were talking about my fruitless efforts to get Max’s dad to be more active in his life. I was frantic about what would come of him without a strong male role model. I was interrupted when suddenly, chaos broke out at the picnic table. Being a curious girl, I stopped my anxious rant and I wandered over to see what all the fuss was. A bunch of neighbors I barely knew were singing Happy Birthday to some guy.
In an attempt to determine whether the cake was chocolate (an important fact that would determine whether I would stick around) I looked toward the birthday boy. I was stunned by what happened next.
It was one of those moments where the past, present and future all seem to exist in exactly the same moment. One of those moments where time stands still–where the world stops spinning for a second or a lifetime.
This may sound weird but it happened just like this: I laid eyes on him and instantly knew that I would love him. Not in a swooning, romantic way. But with love weighty and substantial like a boulder. I had a flash of recognition–I knew him from somewhere in my long ago past or my far ahead future and I knew, the way I know my own name, that I would love him–or to be more accurate–that I already did.
And then a breeze blew or someone called out to me and the world started spinning again. I shook it off. He was just a guy I didn’t know. The cake was (regrettably) not chocolate. So I slipped away unnoticed leaving him with his family and friends, returning to talk to Jen about blogging. I chalked up the experience to two too many glasses of rum punch on a warm afternoon and the blissful way I feel about my community. These things happen.
The months tumbled on. Summer events and parties filled our schedule. I bumped into this neighbor of mine from time to time and we exchanged pleasantries. I learned that he is a steadfast friend to some of my dear ones. I made note of the fact that he seems to give with a wide open heart. That he really knows how to pack a moving van. That he throws a kick-ass party.
But I never again thought twice about the picnic table and the cake and the rush of warmth I felt for him that day. I had forgotten it already. The summer was big and ripe and full and there was so much to think about and May felt so far away.
One night in August, Max slept over at the house of neighborhood friends. I stayed awake reading, waiting for Jackie to call me to let me know her kids were sound asleep. We had plans to sneak away to her porch and have a glass of wine. But I was sleepy and my book was very good and so when the phone rang, I almost told Jackie that I was done for the night.
But I didn’t. I met her on her porch and then walked with her to a dinner party that was winding down. I didn’t know these people and didn’t feel the slightest bit social but felt somehow that going there was what I needed to do.
I shyly sat at a table where a neighbor, none other than the birthday boy who didn’t have a chocolate cake, reigned as a king of the stories. Drawn in by the storytelling, I found myself laughing harder than I had in months. One by one people peeled off and then it was just four of us in the yard under the stars with one last glass of wine and it dawned on me–I really wish I had a good guy friend. I miss this.
I wish I could really say how it happened that we became friends as summer gave way to fall. But there really is no story to it. It happened so gradually and naturally I barely knew it was happening. I didn’t try to make him my friend. He didn’t try to make me his either. In simple acts of neighborliness he eased into our lives.
For the last 8 months or so he has taught me to play guitar. We camp together and hang out with Jackie on her front porch. He has becomes my conspirator–the one I know I can drag out to go listen to live music. He will crack open a beer with me on a school night. He will stay up late around a campfire and chat.
We can spend hours talking about guitar, hockey, food, parenting and music. We are a built in audience for each other’s stories. He is the only person in my life (other than Jenni Ballantyne) who can sing with me the entire score of Jesus Christ Superstar from opening note to closing curtain. As an added bonus he can play the guitar parts.
He is my accidental zen teacher. He will casually say something while working with me on music that will resonate at a deeper level. I will turn over what he said like a koan, a little zen puzzle that leaves me thinking for days. Like Superman with x-ray vision, he can see right through my carefully constructed pretenses and nail my insecurities. He calls me on them in a way that makes me laugh.
He helps me pick out the outfits I wear on first dates. He helps himself to beer in my fridge.
But what really turns my heart inside out is the friendship he has built with my son. He gets Max. And he gives to him from a seemingly bottomless well.
Sometime this fall he realized that Max was a guys’ guy stuck in an all-girl house. Even more importantly, Max who is all yang energy, all boy, had no mirror to look into to imagine himself all grown up, a healthy, strong, compassionate man. Little by little he has adopted Max. Or maybe Max has adopted him. They have adopted each other.
When we went ice skating he took Max by the hand and Max looked up at him with eyes that sparkled. He brought him to his son’s hockey games and sat with him in the scorebooth explaining each play. He is becoming a regular fixture at pick up at Max’s school and he takes Max swimming almost every week. He comes by the house early on guitar lesson nights so that they have some “guy” time before Max needs to settle in. Sometimes they wrestle, sometimes they talk, sometimes they play killer attack duck vs playmobile guys. But then always Max snuggles into his lap, wraps his arms around him and never wants to let go. At bedtime I literally need to peel Max away from him. Sometimes I just want to let Max stay there, cuddled up against his chest. I want to kiss them both on the forehead, turn out the light and be warmed by the glow of their affection for each other.
He has filled a wide expansive gap in Max’s life. When Max and he are together I see deep wounds healing right before my eyes. Our whole tribe has all noticed it–how Max is knitting himself back together in some of the places where he hurts most–the parts having to do with trust and consistency and men. And I know that a major part of it is the friendship he has found with this neighbor.
So yes–it is a year later and I find that sure enough I have come to love him with a boulder-like love: plain and ordinary, unmovable and solid . I love him for all that he has given Max, for the everyday ways he gives to us both. I love him for the blues he plays and the way that he sings for me. I love him for packing the van when we go camping and for cooking soups when we are hungry. I love him for dozens of small kindness he extends our tribe, the hundreds of ways he cherishes his family, for the thousands of ways he teaches his children to care. I love him for his stupid jokes and his strong opinions but mostly I love him just because he is good.
People ask, “How long have you known him?” When I measure the time in months people are always shocked. And I am too. Even as the words exit my lips I realize that I want to say “I have known him always. He has been my friend ever since I can remember. ”
One night, a few months ago, he got ready to leave my house after our weekly guitar lesson. I reached up to casually hug him as is my habit now, it is an act that feels as natural as breathing. And suddenly out of nowhere the birthday cake, the singing and the lighting strike of recognition came to me. In fact it almost knocked me over.
And I realized that that afternoon flash forward in May was not about the rum. It was a call to pay attention. As he walked out the door, I stood rooted in the belief that yes some things just unfold exactly as they should without us having to do a thing. We find the people we need without searching. We go looking for chocolate cake and we don’t know what other sweet gifts we will find.
From that day forward, I have found myself completely relaxing into faith, letting go of old tired habits of worry. I may fret now and again for dramatic effect, but that horrible anxious stuff that used to fill my brain, the voice that used to tell me it was all going to hell in a handbasket-its now gone. Somehow, the whole experience of this friendship which unfolded so effortlessly, this friendship which has answered my most fervent prayers for Max, has changed me at a cellular level. I now believe that whoever, whatever we need will arrive at exactly the right moment if we are just open enough to welcome it/them in. It may not be what we expected or even what we imagined but it is what we need.
Love is going to carry us, like a river, home.
I recently realized that for all the stories I have told my friend I have never told him this one–the story of the cake and the singing and the rum and the deep knowledge that bubbled up from nowhere. I never told him of how he, simply through his regular old work-a-day effortless presence, restored my sense of faith to the place it was before I was born. How simply by being he taught me to trust–not others but myself and my crazy gut.
He doesn’t read this blog. It’s not his thing. And besides he hears most of my stories, spun out in the oral storyteller tradition of my ancestors. But maybe just maybe the next time he grabs a beer from the fridge I will start a story that says, “On your last birthday, the strangest thing happened…” In the meantime, I will whisper this wish out to wind, and tuck it in a card we will slip under his door.
Happy Birthday darlin’…Here’s to you, the love you bring to so many and your big ol’ heart. May your year be full of the kind of magic that you bring whenever you walk through our door. You are plainly extraordinary.