A friend is someone who likes you.
It can be a boy…
It can be a girl…
These are the opening words to Joan Walsh Anglund’s beloved little book, A Friend is Someone Who Likes You, first published in 1958. It’s one that sat on my parents’ coffee table for years, one I read aloud to my fourth grade class my first year of teaching. Friends have been on my mind this past week. Last night we enjoyed a quiet dinner with two of our San Diego friends. They’d had a difficult few days, punctuated by losses—a beloved dog, a long-time friend—and we offered to cancel. But they wanted to be with friends. There was comfort in simply sharing an evening together.
We all need friends, whether in good times or difficult ones. I’ve moved much more than I ever imagined I would, and yet many of my long ago friendships remain. When I grouse about how many times we’ve changed residences, I remind myself that I’m really lucky, because I have enduring friendships with people scattered around the world, friends who stuck by me during difficult chapters of my life, who showed up when I least expected it, who embraced and welcomed me when I felt most alone.
I had a call from one of those friends a few weeks ago. I’d just pulled into the Stanford Hospital parking lot right before my monthly writing workshop began when my cell phone rang.
“Sharon?” I heard an unfamiliar voice. “It’s Sherry…I’m calling to see if you’ll be at our class reunion in August.”
Sherry? I was shocked. I hadn’t talked to her for years. “I wasn’t planning on it. Are you?”
“I wanted to find out if you were going,” she said. ”Because I want to see you. If you’re going to be there, I’ll go for sure.”
It’s been more than thirty years since I’ve seen Sherry. She lives in Texas now and has acquired a drawl I didn’t recognize. She was my best friend throughout high school and a bridesmaid in my first wedding, but we drifted to opposite sides of the continent shortly afterwards, as each of us married and subsequently remarried. I’m eager to see Sherry, because she taught me something about loyalty, even courage, as a friend. For several weeks during seventh grade, I was ostracized and bullied by the “popular” group in junior high. When the group stood in the hallway and called me names, shoved or spat at me as I made the long walk to our classroom, Sherry, despite peer pressure from the others to join in, greeted me kindly. I clung to those daily moments of kindness as evidence someone cared about me. Gradually, and perhaps because Sherry gave me courage, I began to fight back. One afternoon after band practice, I announced to my music teacher that I was going to slug the person who dared to muddy my skirt with her shoes. I sat in the first row with my French horn, and the clarinettists–many of them my tormentors–sat behind me, whispering taunts and rubbing their shoes on my skirt. By the next day, the bullying abruptly ceased. After that, Sherry became my closest friend. I really wasn’t planning to attend the reunion in August, but I am now. Sherry is coming all the way from Texas to meet me. I wouldn’t think of missing a chance to see her. She helped me survive a very painful time in my life.
There have been many other times that friends have helped me through a difficult period. To this day, I have enduring affection for a group of people in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, who gave their love and support to my daughters and me in the wake of my husband’s drowning. I think of other times: breast cancer, heart failure, a daughter’s miscarriage, and I remember the friends who showed up at the door with food, flowers or words of support. We need our friends. Isolation and loneliness are often harbingers of emotional or physical illness. Friendship, according to Rebecca Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than our family relationships. Besides better health, there are other benefits: a more positive outlook, longer lifespan and more hopeful attitude towards life.
Not convinced? Take a look at the New York Times article, “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” published in 2009. A ten-year study of older people found those with a large circle of friends were less likely to die during the study than those with fewer friends. Harvard researchers found that strong social ties may promote brain health as we age. In a 2006 study of nurses with breast cancer, the women without close friends were four times as likely to die from it as those with ten or more friends. Proximity and amount of contact were not important; just having friends was protective. In a six-year study of 736 Swedish men, friendships was more important in lowering the risk of heart attack and coronary heart disease than attachment to a single person.
Through darkness, cold, and snow,
Wherever you may go,
You bear my friendship true, you bear my friendship true.
(“Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” by Anonymous )
The good thing about friends, Brian Jones writes in his poem, “About Friends,” is not having to finish sentences. That’s true for me too, but there’s so much more to friendship than the comfort of sharing a meal or quiet conversation together. Our friends make our lives happier and richer; they are there to lend a hand and offer comfort when we need it, to laugh and share stories of the past, to help us remember what it was like to be ”us” at a particular time. I can’t imagine a life without friends. Can you?
Write about friends this week. Perhaps it’s someone who offered a hand to you during cancer. Perhaps it’s a childhood friend you’ll recall or the roommate you had in college who became your best friend. Maybe your friend is someone who can finish your sentences for you, someone who’s been in your life for decades. Try beginning with the phrase, “A friend is someone who…” Without a doubt, your friends are those who makes your life a little better. Write about them.