Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Adult Friendship – Finding, Keeping, Letting Go

Every Sunday night I go to a church in a bar filled with people with stories, all kinds of stories. Stories we believe are “the word of God for the people of God,” because God is still speaking in and through our lives. This month we’ve been talking about adult friendships – finding them, keeping them, losing them, and starting all over again. In a world full of lonely people, we don’t talk about friendship enough, or even make room for it in all the things competing for our attention and priorities. And as adults? We often are at a loss when it comes to making the kinds of friendships we want. (The Nancy podcast has done some great stuff recently on how queers can find a “gaggle” of friends, but I think we all need that help.)

This is the story I had the opportunity to tell this week. It’s one that’s still going…

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It was Easter Sunday 2014. We’d had the sunrise vigil, and the Easter breakfast, and I’d just finished leading the liturgy I wrote for our Easter service. I was walking with my friend Angela to our cars in the parking lot, and I remember telling her, “I think maybe this should be my last service. Everything is good, but if I want my life to be different – and I do – nothing’s very likely to change if I don’t change something.”

I was 41 and tired of being tired of being single. I hadn’t had a date in seven years, and I wasn’t meeting possibilities. Something needed to change and church seemed like the most doable thing.

And that was scary to say, because church meant more than the place I went on Sundays. Church meant six years of friendships, of lives lived together with a group of families and a few singles who lived in my neighborhood. We had dinner together every week. I’d known most of their kids since they were born. When I was sick, they brought me extra plates of dinner and DVDs. When there was a birthday, we threw a party. Some of their children were the only kids I’ve ever felt move and kick and squirm in their mama’s belly.

I spent the years after seminary building my life around these relationships, and now I was going to change that, and I didn’t know what would happen. What all that would mean.

So I started visiting churches.

At the first one, I met a pastor – another single woman – who came from a conservative background not too different from mine. We had lunch and met for coffee and started sharing our stories (she didn’t tell me then about her dream of starting a church where people could share good food and tell true stories and make beautiful worship together!).

At the second one, when I told a work acquaintance and his wife why I was trying to make changes in my life, Judy – a woman who is five feet (maybe) of major general, cheerleader, and CEO all rolled up together – gave me marching orders: “I’m proud of you! And I want you to go home and sign up with a dating site online! You need to go where the men are, and that’s where they are! And I mean today! Report back to me with a text this evening.” And like I imagine everyone in her life, I obeyed. (And had ten first dates in the next three weeks!)

At the third church, I found a community of gay couples who also knew what it meant to be a deep disappointment to a conservative family, as well as how to be a chosen family who could keep me afloat through that storm. I ended up landing in that church, and they gave me the support I needed as I started dating, then moved into the city, changed jobs, and even as I got involved in the queer, quirky new church in a bar my pastor friend was starting.

And when my last birthday came around, I looked across the table at the improv club where we were laughing and celebrating. There was my first friend from my new job, a beautiful friend from that new church, and two of my closest friends in the city – both of them men I met dating. And one of them came with his girlfriend of the past year, who I’d enjoyed hanging out with on many other occasions.

Those friends from my old neighborhood in the suburbs? They weren’t in the city celebrating with me that night, but they cheered me on through it all. I still go up north for the breakfast we all have together one Saturday a month. And I’m still a part of their kids’ lives. And this summer, they all loaded their kids up one Saturday morning (no small feat!) and hauled them into the city to have breakfast at my place.

One of the hardest thing I’ve had to do, the thing that never seems to get easier, is knowing how to keep friends in my life as a single person when life is changing for everybody. It turns out that sometimes that means letting go.

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Losing Terry

Losing Terry

When I met Terry we were standing in front of a shark tank.

I was a member at the Tennessee Aquarium, and between my college classes during the day and political events I attended as a Republican activist, I loved to spend an hour or two at the aquarium enjoying the beauty of the darkened “river canyon” walkway with its glowing tanks. The Gulf tank was the largest, rising three stories high.

Terry worked at the aquarium and tended to be on duty the same days I was a regular. I would come an hour or two before closing on weekdays. There were usually few visitors then, and in the glow of the Gulf of Mexico tank we started talking.

I don’t remember how many weeks it took for us to exchange names and contact information, but we learned a lot about each other.

I was in college at the fundamentalist Baptist university in town, from a family where far more of the men were preachers than not. Terry was a biology major at the local branch of the State university, the youngest son of a black Church of God minister.

We talked about the animals – I’m sure we started there. But since I was always (always) wearing a bright blue “I BACK ZACH” button for the local Republican congressional candidate, we were talking politics before long. Affirmative action was a long running discussion and I heard Terry’s perspective (though it was years before those seeds blossomed into a different position).

For all our differences, we became friends. We met for lunch sometimes, or dinner. I introduced him to some of my friends, and they became friends in their own right. My grandmother, who always wanted to know what I’d been doing when she called, started asking if we were dating, but no. We were friends. (She eventually started started expressing concern about what people might think of me if they thought we were dating. I assured her that anyone who would think less of me for dating Terry because he was black was not someone whose opinion I cared about. She stopped.)

Terry came to my college graduation knowing not a soul there except me. My family was looking for him, though, and when he showed up with flowers for me, both grandmothers hugged him warmly.

I’d met some of his family once or twice when we’d stop by his house. His father and I sat on their stoop one afternoon good naturedly debating eternal security (the idea that a person is “once saved, always saved”). He had at least five or six older brothers and sisters, all with or pursuing advanced degrees. Their mother had volunteered at their schools, Terry told me, and had known their assignments better than they did. She was determined her children would succeed academically, and they did.

When I came to Terry’s graduation in the huge university arena, his family were watching for me, and I was brought back to their house for the celebratory dinner. I sat squeezed around the table in the tiny kitchen with Terry and several of his siblings, and the rhythm of give and take and teasing eventually drew me in. Terry and I had always had a similar rhythm and soon his sisters were teasing him about the little blonde white girl getting the best of him.

We both stayed in the area and stayed in touch, and a few months later when I began to have debilitating anxiety attacks that wrecked me physically and kept me unable to work or drive safely for months, Terry nervously drove out to my folks’ place in rural northwest Georgia to visit and take me on outings. (He joked nervously that he could always feel the neighbors staring at him as he drove into the neighborhood.)

I remember one night when we spent hours on the phone. He’d just been to a family gathering and found out a cousin he was close to was gay. He was wondering what it would mean if it turned out to be biological. I remember saying that “we’re born sinful” and why would this be different? Something to be repented, changed, healed, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love his cousin.

That was what I believed, and I believed it was enough for a long time.

Eventually Terry moved down to Atlanta, but every time he was home for a visit or holiday, we’d make plans to get together. We had plans one Thanksgiving, but then I didn’t hear from him. I called his folks, but they always said he was out. I didn’t hear from him that weekend, and he never returned any of the messages I left on his Atlanta number.

Eventually, I stopped calling.

And then over a year later, I thought of him, impulsively dialed his number, and he picked up.

He was surprised to hear from me, caught off guard, but we ended up talking for hours. That previous Thanksgiving he’d come out as gay – to his family (he’d had to leave the house and hadn’t been back) as well as most friends. Everyone but me. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell me, he said.

“But why couldn’t you?” I remember asking through tears. “Didn’t you know I’d still love you?”

“That’s why I couldn’t tell you. I knew you’d still love me, and I knew what you believe and that it would always hurt you for me, and I didn’t want you to think of me that way.”

We cried and we talked, and we found our friendship again, tentatively, over the distance.

A couple of months later or so, I was huddled on the living room sofa, reeling and crying and devastated over the breakup of my first serious relationship (my first relationship period, and I was blind-sided on Valentines Day, no less, but that’s another story). The phone rang and my mother came in to tell me it was Terry calling for me.

And I couldn’t do it. I was overwhelmed with pain and confusion and I couldn’t handle the emotional complexity of loving Terry in that moment. I told her to tell him I was sorry but I couldn’t talk right then and would call him back when I could.

I wanted to find my balance first, to be present to something other than the pain that was swallowing me.

But deep down, I knew what he’d likely hear. After our vulnerable connection after all those months, he’d just hear no. He’d hear rejection.

And when days later I called him, he never returned my calls. I was sorry, but deep down, I wasn’t surprised. I had let my own stuff trump what I knew my friend needed.

I never heard from Terry again, and I’ve never managed to contact him since.

It was decades before my understanding and beliefs about what it means to be gay (or lesbian or bisexual or trans or queer or intersex) changed. And when I love and enjoy my LGBTQI+ friends and advocate for them and their community, I’m not making anything up to Terry. They aren’t Terry.

But I think of him, and I hope that I will never again let my own sense of need get in the way of accepting and welcoming a friend and making sure they know it.