A few weeks ago, as I walked home from work, I received a phone call. It was from my mother, who was calling to tell me that my grandmother had lung cancer. As I got closer and closer to my front door, as I was trying and failing to process this news, I very much looked forward to being greeted by my roommate and best friend who’d be there waiting for me. She would help me process this news. We’ve earned through the years, the good times and the bad, a knowing, silent warmth with each other. A warmth that I knew, as I trekked home in the bitter cold, would wash over me and make me feel better as soon as I walked in. A warmth that I knew would allow me to dump out all of my emotions, allow me to just lay them all out there so I could begin the process of reorganizing them in the way that best allows me to function moving forward. I expected, I knew, even, that it would be a good thing for me to see her. But what I came home to was not what I was expecting.
In the same hour I got my bad news, my roommate had gotten some bad news of her own. She had just learned that her mother had a cancerous lump in her breast. And she had been expecting the same comfort from me that I had been expecting from her.
As it turned out, neither of us had much warmth to give. Because the little warmth we had we’d spent by hoping that the other would comfort us after hearing our own separate pieces of cold news. So all we had to give each other was our company, and that would just have to be enough.
Gary Larson is one of my favorite cartoonists, and my favorite piece he ever thought up was called ‘perspective’. I found myself thinking of this cartoon in this moment, as my roommate and I sat with each other silently on our couch. In the cartoon there are two images, side by side. And below them is the word “Perspective…” The picture on the left shows a man standing on a small island, looking out at the water, at a boat coming his way. “BOAT!” he shouts excitedly with his arms raised. The picture on the right shows the man who’s on the boat, looking out at the man on the island. “LAND!” he shouts excitedly, with his arms raised. Just like my roommate and me, neither of them were going to get the refuge they desperately sought. Just like my roommate and me, they’d just have to settle for the company.
My instinct, as I sat with her in silence, was to compare our pieces of news. Hers was worse, I thought to myself. My grandmother is much older, and she’s only half as much related to me as my roommate’s mother is related to her. So I felt selfish for wanting so much warmth from her, I felt selfish for not being able to focus more on her news and her feelings. I felt guilty for my sadness, guilty for not being able to say anything, guilty for being able to offer no more than my own mopey, pathetic company.
This, I see now, was a bad instinct. Looking back on it, I think it’s a little too easy and self-serving to compare tragedies. And while it’s probably natural to ponder the relative weight of losses and of sadness, it’s also probably an exercise wrought with futility. Because in the end, that shit just doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter how sad one person should be compared to another, or how we should objectively process certain things. We feel the things we feel and react to things the way we react to them. There’s no stopping it, there’s only dealing with it, there’s only finding ways to feel less alone in it. And, when it comes to friendship, when it comes to what we can lend to the ones we love who are hurting, when it comes to making them feel less alone, it’s probably less about knowing what to say and more about laying a foundation of sensitivity and kindness that makes saying something in those moments unnecessary.
I’m seeing now that the silent company we were able to give each other in that moment, as we processed our separate pieces of news, was not a failure of our friendship. It was a triumph. She was looking for land and I was looking for a boat but neither was available. All we had was each other. All we had was the foundation of friendship we worked so hard to create. And, even in that moment, it was more than enough.
There comes a point in the best friendships—the ones with foundations of love and warmth and empathy, the ones that are created and maintained over years and years—where they live and breathe on their own. There comes a point where you don’t control them anymore, they’re just there, whether you summon them or not. They’re there to jump up and down with you in your best moments and they’re there to sit silently on the couch with you in your worst. And, there we were, each in our worst moment. Too sad and confused to say or do anything for each other. And there was our friendship, living and breathing on its own, ready and waiting to put an arm around each of us. It gave us love, life and company when it mattered most, when we couldn’t give it ourselves.