I’m in Finland, Minnesota, a beautiful environment close to the north shore of Lake Superior. I’m one of a group of 9 people, 4 couples and me, who’ve gathered to have a one week play date outdoors. Sarla would have made an even ten. She is here in spirit, palpably represented by last night’s heart felt toast to her at the dinner table. She would have added liveliness and love to our gathering.
I became friends with three of the men here 50 years ago. We attended Camp Nebagamon, a boy’s camp in northern Wisconsin during the 1960s, and then became staff members at the same camp during the 1970s. Between 1980 and 2012 we took 17 wilderness river canoeing trips together in the US and Canada. Since aging out of big white water rivers 9 years ago, we’ve continued to gather as a group, sometimes with and at other times without spouses, in places that afforded us kitchens, beds, and showers. The women in this group have become close friends of mine as well.
During the past 14 months, I’ve given myself permission to have female friends with whom I could go on walks, meet for coffee, or enjoy a dinner together. It was important for me to maintain exposure to a feminine perspective after Sarla passed away. Conversations sink in more deeply while walking with someone. A couple of the women with whom I’ve shared time and conversation have stated that, unlike other men they knew, my wide circle of close male friends was uncommon. I’m surprised at this observation because I naturally gravitated towards valuing friendship highly and assumed that others, regardless of gender, behaved similarly. The time that I’ve spent alone on this journey has made me cherish friendship even more.
Fred Torzs is in the photograph with me at the top of this post. It was taken earlier this week. He was drafted into our canoeing klatch a couple of decades ago. Fred adds quirky humor to the mix. I can be completely inane with him. Laughter is at the heart of our animated connection. Even though we became pals only 20 years ago, Fred has bridged the gap of coming late to the party. Laughing with Fred activates my tear ducts, wrinkles the skin at my temples, and makes my ribs hurt. My limbs temporarily become weaker and less coordinated. In the words of singer songwriter John Mellencamp, it “hurts so good.”
My psychological health is buoyed by my friends. Losing my spouse was hard. My friends were my emotional backbone. Having close friends floats a lot of boats. I can count on them. Most of the time their company makes me feel better. Even with the limitations of being human, my friends are honest but not parental when I open myself up to them. I hold these relationships deeply.
Friendships have no formal covenant; the structure of the relationship is often inexplicit. I didn’t say to Fred, “You are my friend now, and here’s what we can expect of one another.” We maintain contact not because we are obligated to one another but because we have mutual regard for one another. Friendships can lapse because of time and space. I don’t know what I’d do without these friends with whom I can talk, on whom I can depend, and whose company is my life raft.
My friends and I share language, history, and a common understanding that sustains us. They ask what I’m thinking and feeling instead of assuming that they know. They listen. Our time together is precious. The only strings that are attached to these relationships are the ones related to simply being there for one another in the best way that we can. Regrets when my time on the planet is up will be fewer by keeping these strings tied. The binds they tie make me a rich man.