In 1997 I arrived in Geneva to work for a year at the headquarters of a relief organization. Feeling overwhelmed by my job and lonely in a city of overworked expats passing through for two to three year stints at the United Nations or other organizations with the rather nebulous goal of “changing the world,” I made friends with a group of women. I was 22, and all three women — one American, one German, and one Argentinian – were 30 years older than I and had worked for the same organization in various administrative capacities for the length of time I’d been alive. After one lengthy, boozy dinner of fondue and buckets of white wine, they quickly took me into their friendship fold and jokingly referred to themselves as “the Wrinklies.” We met once a week for dinner, and saw one another every day at the espresso machine in the hallway, in the fabulously lush cantina, on the expertly-tended grounds of our superluxe office building outside the city limits. We had inside jokes and secret looks. We gave each other little gifts: a cookie, a note, a bar of chocolate, a little token of affection spotted at a shop and slipped underneath an office door.
All three women (and myself as well) were unmarried, living alone, and working to assist people in real need in countries around the world. Despite the fact that I immediately felt accepted, supported, challenged and nurtured by each of them, when I first joined their weekly dinner group, I felt sorry for them. They weren’t married, they weren’t mothers – and at this time, and up until very recently, I clung to the belief that this constituted some failure on their part. They found me equally mystifying. Was I really worried about the size of my ass or trying to finagle a recent date with a man they thought (from my description) was boring and slightly odious? (He was.) Was it a good use of my time, they wondered, to hang out in bars getting smashed and looking to score and by doing this (they were rightfully doubtful) find “the love of my life” when I said I wanted to be a writer? Sure, sure, I said, but I dismissed their concerns, and mourned what I interpreted as their missed opportunities to have a real life, which I assumed would only start for me when I was married and a mother. I loved them, but in my mind I was remembering that old phrase I’d heard for most of my life, in hushed and shameful tones: old maid. I was also keen to make my life look “normal” and “acceptable” in some way because I have a disability; if I didn’t get the body part right, I reasoned (irrationally, although it seemed quite rational at the time), I could get the “what your life looks like” part right. While I was obsessing about how I looked and who would love me, these women were helping to save the world – not in a way that would win them accolades, certainly – but the work they were doing was important and life-giving. And there I sat, foolishly pitying them.
One afternoon at work while I was chain-smoking through my open window into a cloudy sky, there was a flurry of activity in the hallway. A few harried shouts. Running feet. The quick shuffling of paper. Someone working in one of the countries was attempting to obtain medicine for a child who was sick with what appeared to be a form of strep (I’ve forgotten in which country or if it was indeed strep). The child’s mother, calling to ask for help from what was apparently a decrepit payphone, was trying to get the antibiotic medication from a corrupt doctor who demanded a bribe, an insane amount of money that this woman would never make or likely ever see in her lifetime. My three friends were literally running up and down the hallway, in and out of their offices on my floor, faxing and calling, shouting into the phone, trying to find another person to shout with more authority into the phone to try and help this desperate mother, this helpless child. The medicine was right there. For hours they labored, trying to find a way to make it right in a place where mail was sent in bags labeled only with numbers, and where children died frequently from diarrhea and the flu and the various effects of hideous wars and wrenching poverty. I think we’re going to get it, I think it’s going to be okay, one of my friends said through my open doorway as she sprinted off to the fax machine. But it was not okay. It was too late, perhaps it was always too late. The baby died.
I heard the news and wandered to the office where my three friends sat, shedding silent tears and drinking, one by one, from a bottle of whiskey that had appeared from beneath someone’s desk – perhaps for occasions like this. I drank with them, silently, as the rain pounded the darkened windows. What I realized, sitting there, was that these women had been in these kinds of emotionally challenging situations for over 20 years. Together. They understood, together, as friends, and apart, as individuals in the world, the urgency of compassion, and that it often goes unnoticed but that this doesn’t make it any less important or vital or difficult to sustain and cultivate. And they also understood that you could try as hard as you possibly could, and disaster could still strike – mercilessly. Without warning, without fairness, and with fatal consequences. I wasn’t ready to change my man-chasing, embarrassing ways, but a seed was planted on that afternoon. Nearly fifteen years later I get out of bed each morning and am thankful that I wasn’t so myopically committed to old, tried myths about women’s roles that I couldn’t see what was happening in that room between those three women, or what was happening in my own mind.
The Wrinklies weren’t spinsters or old maids and they were not “failures” in any way. They were free. It was I who failed to see them, until later, for who they really were: educated, hugely intelligent, fascinating, financially independent. Women who led rich lives full of meaningful work, deep and lasting friendship, sex when they wanted it, time with the beloved children of their family and friends, conversations about politics and art and literature, culture, travel to remarkable destinations where they did not journey as unconscious tourists but as guests in people’s homes and hearts. Despite these full lives they owned their own time, they owned their days. I did not. I was too busy trying to find someone who would spend the days with me, as if this would validate my presence in the world.
Oh, but the times have changed; the world has changed. Has it? Is the old-fashioned story I was living in my early 20s so far-fetched in our “enlightened” world? Recently I overheard a man say at a yoga class, “Yeah, well, you get two women together and it’s like bitch central.” I could have told him he only needed one, in fact, and that would be me, but it also made me realize how much people diminish and poo-poo the real power and strength of female friendship, especially between women, which is either supposed to descend into some kind of male lesbian love scene porn fantasy or be dismissed as meaningless or be re-written as a story of competition. Here’s the truth: friendships between women are often the deepest and most profound love stories, but they are often discussed as if they are ancillary, “bonus” relationships to the truly important ones. Women’s friendships outlast jobs, parents, husbands, boyfriends, lovers, and sometimes children.
A year ago, when my then nine-month-old son Ronan was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, an always-fatal illness that would land him in a vegetative state before his likely death before the age of three, the first person I called was a friend (my mom). She immediately got in the car with my dad and started driving to my home in Santa Fe. After Ronan was napping, oblivious to his fate, I talked with my girlfriends for hours. “Talked” is a generous term: I wailed, shrieked, cried, sobbed, screamed, cursed, threatened, lamented and pounded my head against the wall. I pulled at my skin and my hair. I talked jibberish and shouted the word “blackness” over and over again. I was truly freaking out, truly inconsolable, in a Job-like state of hell that is still very present in my daily, waking life. But on Ronan’s diagnosis day I also thought of that afternoon in Geneva. I was that desperate mother now; it was my baby who was going to die, and soon. It was already too late. I literally could not bear it. I asked for help and I got it. My friends stood with me in the middle of the scary, sky-howling road I was on, knowing they couldn’t take away the pain of the experience, but promising to be there when I emerged on the other side of the grief tunnel when my child would be gone. I feel them, every day, standing there as I stumble through the blissful, heart-breaking hours with my son whose brain and body fail him a little bit more each day. It is not an exaggeration to say that I would not have survived – that I will not survive — without my women friends.
I was reminded of the Wrinklies, of my friends, of the ways in which they carry me, when I read A Train in Winter by Caroline Morehead, a remarkable book that tells the story of women French resistance fighters who were sent to Auschwitz and who survived by doing what women do: supporting, finding a way to love and nurture in situations marked by the absence of love, tenderness, sense, sanity, or even humanity. In a concentration camp they managed to make Christmas gifts out of string and sticks; they put on plays in their barracks; they supported the weaker women, often hiding them for roll call. They were “a team.”
Not a gaggle of bitches then, but women who survived against literally unthinkable odds, in a place where all the rules about how to be a human were disregarded, turned on their heads. When it was all over, the few that had lived returned home, but the connections they had with others weren’t as fierce, weren’t as strong. The ache of missing was intense: “Even when they were not able to meet, the survivors continued to feel bound to each other in ways that did not weaken with time. There remained a familiarity between them, a sense of openness and ease that they shared with no one else.” The book brought to mind movies that celebrate female friendship: Beaches, when a woman sits with her friend until she dies; Iris, when the novelist Iris Murdoch has been transformed by Alzheimer’s, her friends love her through it; Julia, when a distraught Jane Fonda tries to locate the child of her friend who was murdered during WW2. She wants to care for the child but she also wants part of the woman she loved. These are often called “chick flicks,” as if they had no truth or wisdom to offer to anyone but the silly, fickle women who shell out money to see them or rent them on Netflix.
The last time I saw the Wrinklies was in 1999 on a return trip to Geneva. The youngest of the three had had a stroke as a result of a brain tumor. These friends she’d worked and traveled and lived and laughed and loved with for over half her life rented a new ground-floor apartment that would accommodate a wheelchair, took shifts taking care of her, all the while holding down jobs that were about saving other people’s friends, other people’s kids, other people’s lives – not directly, no, but on the sidelines, behind the scenes, booking travel and setting up conference space and directing supplies and networking with people on the ground who were face to face with whatever crisis situation needed to be handled. I was nervous as I sat waiting in a pub to see them all again, afraid of seeing my paralyzed friend. Would my face show a reaction that I didn’t intend? Fear? Disgust? The three of them came in together, smiling. The unaffected two had learned to understand the other’s few words; they wiped her face, helped her eat and made her laugh. This was a snapshot of what my own deep friendships could lead to: transformation. I saw, on that afternoon, that it’s possible to transcend the limits of your skin in a friendship. That a friend can take you out of the boxes you’ve made for yourself and burn them up. This kind of friendship is not a frivolous connection, a supplementary relationship to the ones we’re taught and told are primary – spouses, children, parents. It is love. When the youngest Wrinklie died, I remember getting the news in my apartment in Berkeley, married, already knowing it wouldn’t last, and thinking she was lucky. And she was.
And so am I. Hugely so. While my child goes blind and has seizures and struggles to swallow and eat and disappears before my eyes into an early grave my friends have done the following: traveled across states and continents to visit me, called or emailed or been in touch every day, cried with me into chardonnay and tequila and tamales, written me weekly letters, taken me dancing, gotten me horribly drunk, fed me, hugged me, held me, conducted research, built blogs, baked, cooked, knitted, cried, shouted, organized fund raisers for Ronan’s expenses, offered their house for visitors, driven me to appointments, advocated for me, given money to me, reminded me that I was loved, responded to a bullet-pointed email with a bullet-pointed response, said “I wish I could save your baby,” and “I’ll do anything that helps. Anything at all,” agreed to go to a desert island with me after Ronan dies and drink Mai Tais and scream at the stars and cry into the sand and go to tourist nightclubs and act like teenagers. Every time (and this happens so many, many times every day) when I think there’s no way I can survive this, that Ronan’s death will kill everything good and hopeful in me, I’ll get a letter or a text or an email or a feeling and it will buoy me in a way that enables me to take another step forward, to be with my son, to help him die, which is my task.
Support, salvation, transformation, life: this is what women give to one another when they are true friends, soul friends, what the Irish call anam cara. It’s what the Wrinklies did for one another, what the French resistance fighters in Auschwitz did for one another, what women do for one another in real relationships with real consequences in real time, every day, what my friends do for me. We help one another other live and sometimes, we watch – and help – one another die. It happens in movies, sure, but it also happens every day, in real life – now, tomorrow, yesterday. It is transformative and transcendent. It is real. It is love.