Best friends–forever! What does that look like? Teens throw out the moniker with abandon, flattering their bestie with the rank of Top of the Social Ladder. Until… Until there’s an argument over a boyfriend. Or a dropped fly ball in the outfield that cost your team the game. Or your hormones rage and you shift your undying allegiance to another friend who suits your present needs better.
Best friends forever. Is that even possible in today’s world of cryptic texting, career relocation and polarizing politics? I assure you that it is! You might have to stretch back a couple of generations to find it but when you do–what a treasure!
So much so that I hopped a plane to get a taste of it. Several years ago I received a Facebook message from a woman who identified herself as the daughter of my mother’s childhood friend. Her mom hoped to reconnect with her best friend’s family. Would I accept a friend request from her mother? I was delighted and promptly answered “Yes!” The next day Jean’s name showed up in my Facebook account and we became…friends!
My mother, Katie, died from cancer more than 20 years ago at the age of 66. She had much more living to do but cancer is indiscriminate. Her memorial service overflowed with a rich variety of people for whom she had cared over the years. She was a beloved pastor’s wife who ministered faithfully alongside of my dad. She was a devoted wife of 42 years to my father. She was an outstanding mother who raised six children in eight different locations (including three different countries) over 32 years of active parenting. She taught us to work out differences and laugh together such that we are able to amicably manage a cherished family cottage LLC. We attained advanced degrees because of her strong valuation of education. My siblings and I lost our mom too early so I rejoice when I find traces of her more than two decades after her death.
1500 miles away from my Michigan home my mom’s BFF was bemoaning to her daughter the lost connection to Katie’s family. This daughter knew that there are ways to find people in our digitally connected world. So she took her mom`s phone and began to plug in our names. She and her two siblings grew up knowing the names of all six of us–in order! Since my hyphenated name ends with my maiden name she found me first. We Chapman kids knew the names of Jean’s three kids so I recognized Lori’s name when it appeared in my FB Messenger page. Her mother’s outreach was well-timed, I told her, because our family was planning a reunion on the lakefront that Christmas. Through our FB posts she would be able to catch up with Katie’s sizable family. That was the beginning of a new connection between my mom’s lifelong BFF and us. Not just the six of us. Jean has enjoyed connecting even with our children, her dear friend’s grandchildren, many of whom have only scant memories of their Grandma Katie.
God has a way of expanding our understanding of family when we open our hearts. Shortly after we became FB friends, I received a package from Jean. It arrived on a day when I had keenly felt the absence of my own mom. A breast MRI revealed a suspicious area so I had a biopsy done. I stayed still while technicians poked around for the right spot dictated by an x-ray image. As I lay there facedown, I thought of my mom whose breast cancer ultimately claimed her. It reappeared 14 years after the initial diagnosis as Stage 4 esophageal cancer. In nine months’ time my mother declined from an active, healthy lifestyle to dying. As I lay there immobilized, I imagined the worst. What would these tests reveal? Fortunately I was able to leave the hospital that day with a good report but not before I had revisited my mother’s final days when her life was measured by medical instruments. Deposited by my front door as I arrived home was a package from Arizona. It was from my mom’s BFF. “Thank you, God”, I prayed as I teared up. Jean didn’t know it but her box of fresh lemons from her tree served as a conduit to my mom. The support she couldn’t offer came instead from her trusted pal of more than 50 years.
So I spent my Memorial Day weekend with Jean and her husband, Art. They shared with me their lovely home near Phoenix and their charming cottage in Prescott. I hiked with her son and daughter-in-law. I helped to pull off a party alongside of her enthusiastic grandson who connected me to another of Jean’s daughters through Facetime. Her third child guided our tour through the stunning Desert Botanical Garden and Phoenix Art Museum. We reminisced about being together on the Lake Michigan shoreline more than 50 years earlier. I learned that this daughter–Lori Jean–shared my name because Jean liked it when she heard my mom share it at my birth (Laurel Jean). Jean asked to use it with changed spelling for her own daughter. Jean and I walked into downtown Prescott where Memorial Day weekend festivities were in full swing. I learned that Jean is an artist who shares my mother’s love for local art. She is a gracious hostess who still bustles around to feed her family and cooks for homeless families who find safe lodging at her church. She bakes with butter (the only way to bake!). She’s an avid reader and still uses her skills as a teacher to help migrant children. I couldn’t help but wonder what my mother would be doing if she had been given 20 more years to live. As I spent four days in the good company of Jean and Art, I knew that I was able to experience in some small way what it might have felt like to come home to my parents as an adult child.
More than anything we talked during my visit. We had a lot of catching up to do. My siblings sent me their questions about my mother’s early years that we suspected Jean would be able to answer. She attended the same elementary and high schools as my mother and spent summers working alongside her. They stood up in each other’s weddings. She knew my mom’s family, including her younger brother who was severely disabled from Cerebral Palsy. Jean remembers the first time the two pals were heading to my mom’s home. They were slurping down a Green River, a soda unique to Chicago. My mom knew she needed to prepare her friend for what she would encounter when she met her family. She explained how her brother was not like most brothers: he couldn’t walk or talk. His name was Johnny. After meeting him Jean wanted assurance from Katie that her brother would get better. Children assume that there’s a Band aid for every ailment. But Katie told her there would be no changes. Both my mother and her sister became social workers perhaps because of the demands placed on them as older sisters to a “crippled boy”. Mom learned early on to translate handicapping conditions into something understandable so that folks could respond with compassion, not fear.
I learned that Jean and my mom started working at age 13! This may have been motivated by her parents’ desire that she get a break in the summer from the challenges they faced caring for Johnny. I understood better why we were driven out of the home at age 15 to find jobs, work hard and save almost every penny we made for college. Jean told me that mom ranked fifth in her sizable class at Morgan Park High School. This earned her a scholarship into Miami U of Ohio and ultimately a degree in Social Work from Oberlin College.
I learned of an adventuresome side of my mom that she carefully curated for us. The summer she and Jean worked at a camp with a team of other young girls, my mom thought it would be fun to get up at 5AM and run naked through the woods before any supervising adults were awake. My mother’s leadership skills convinced the girls that it was a good plan so they streaked along a path mapped out by my mom—and they didn’t get caught. She never remembered to tell us that story, seeking to raise six well-mannered, trouble-free children! We turned out just fine with few moral indiscretions along the way but are glad to hear that my mother sowed her wild oats like the best of us in our teenage years!
Jean asked questions about the last chapter of my mother’s life. Death by cancer is a hard story to hear but she wanted to know how her dear friend had endured this final trial in her life. She pulled out a letter my mother had written to her four months before her death. Mom thanked Jean for the kindness she had shown her through letters and phone calls, small gifts and a lifetime of laughter. She didn’t say a word about her own battle as she squarely faced her mortality. My mom’s motto as she fought terminal cancer was “Each day is a gift” and she made sure to express her gratitude to people like Jean who walked alongside of her in the ups and downs of life.
So what’s it like to have an honest-to-goodness BFF? Having lived the transient life of a military brat I don’t have the luxury of a friendship that traces from childhood into middle age. But I know it doesn’t derive from constant texting or tweeting messages of fewer than 280 characters. It’s not fueled by funny comments on snapchat or the most inspiring stories on YouTube. It happens over long conversations, face-to-face, looking each other in the eyes and sharing stories that bring both tears and laughter. It’s recalling memories and creating new ones. It’s lived out through shared family moments that turn childhood pals we seldom saw into names we could recite in their proper birth order because we knew they were important. This weekend, in the gracious hospitality of my mom’s lifelong friend, I was privileged to get a deeper understanding of what a treasure it is to have a best friend forever! For that I am immensely blessed.