After the thunderstorm, Colleen and I sat on her porch on her 41st birthday, nursing warm beers. Cool air cut through what had been a streak of cloying days. Trees shot skyward, leaves jeweled in water and sunlight, reminding me in June 2021 of those I’d stared at for hours nearly 26 years earlier while sitting beside her on her front stoop the day after her dad died.
This time, she was helping me mourn a pregnancy I’d just lost.
Colleen pulled out a high school yearbook, had me read what I’d written at 16 years old: That years from then I wouldn’t remember the kids I’d eaten lunch with, but I’d remember her; that although we were on different paths in high school, I thought we’d always be a part of each other’s lives.
“How did I know?” I asked about my 16-year-old self, wiping tears from my eyes as I closed the book.
“How did you know?” she asked.
I said I felt like I knew more then, than I know now.
In November 2021, for my 41st birthday, I met Kristin in Atlanta. We drove to Tennessee and hiked up the side of Lookout Mountain, traversing the same steep, leaf-matted trail that Union troops ascended nearly 158 years to the day earlier.
At Sunset Rock, swarms of flies clouded our sightline and a sweet, sickly scent baked: someone smoking dope. The naked arms of a tree cut through our view of the river valley below. We stood, mostly silent, catching our breath, then, beginning our descent, continued the conversation we’d started over 22 years earlier and had picked up again that weekend.
Earlier that year, in April, at the trailhead of the Narrows at Zion National Park where the slot canyon began to hem in hikers and hedge out the sky, Nikki and I found an unclaimed rock in the sun. We dropped our bags, sat down, sipped from water bottles and talked about things past and present, things sometimes silly, sometimes traumatic, mostly mundane.
The sun’s warmth, the background noise of the creek and fellow sojourners, and the presence of a friend who’d known me for 26 years rolled over and comforted me, coming off 13 months of relative isolation.
This is how it went with friends in midlife. In a world where nothing made sense anymore, we covered as much ground as we could together. We searched for sure footing. We picked up the conversation wherever we’d last left off, no matter how far we’d come, how long it’d been. We helped each other keep moving forward.
I could lean my head against theirs. I could hug them, or wear a mask and keep my distance. Find a stoop to sit on across from them, or a mountaintop to climb, or a slot canyon to converge on a rock in the sun. We could say all the things that ever hurt us or scared us. We could say nothing at all.
We could unfold a Scrabble board, pick up a telephone. We could walk for miles or we could be still. We could dance.
When nothing made sense, when the world was falling apart, life as we knew it discontinued, when nothing held including my center, I could step out of my center and into theirs, find the orbit where our circles became concentric, feel my way to where we overlapped.
We could pitch a tent there and lay down our heads on the hard earth. We could ask all the questions and stare up through the branches and remember all the losses and pay homage to all the heartbreaks and humiliations. We could vent our frustration and cop to our shame, bare our ugliness or expose the tender apertures of chronic wounds. We could admit all the things about our aging bodies: how unfamiliar they were to us, how foreign they felt and how discomfiting the loss of control as we learned to navigate injuries and illnesses for the first time, like learning to walk, but in reverse and with no parent there to steady us.
We could point out to each other the cracks in the armor that only we knew about.
We could be the girls we were born to be: playing in dirt, spinning in dizzy circles, dancing and throwing back our heads, catching snowflakes on our tongues, opening our faces to the sun, kicking our legs to swing higher and higher, closer and closer, still reaching for that untouchable sky.
By 41 years old, I could stop expecting friends to understand everything about me. I could let go of wanting them to intuitively know what I needed and how I felt. I just had to know myself and be willing to tell them the truth. And I needed them to tell me the truth, too: what they needed, how they felt, when they needed me.
I could say no, if I needed to; I could say yes when I wanted to. I would know that they’d respect me, no matter what I said. They wouldn’t judge, although they might tell me what they thought I needed to hear, even if it was hard to hear. I might do the same for them, too, if it was important enough. I would always be honest.
With my friends, I didn’t have to pretend that I knew the answers to the big questions anymore. But I knew I could dare to keep asking the questions. They might not understand but they’d always listen. They’d laugh about them with me, or help me laugh about them when I couldn’t. They’d throw their questions on top of my pile and we’d strike a match and let it all burn until it blazed. A bonfire of laughter. A bonfire of tears.
That day on Colleen’s birthday, bonfires of laughter and of tears both behind us and before us, I told her I thought I’d been a hard 16-year-old to be friends with. I had high expectations of people, held them to unreasonable standards.
She said I was emotionally mature. I was honest. I cut through the crap.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Do you?”
She said she’d heard that one reason people hold others to high standards in this life is when they’ve come back with a specific purpose. They’ve been through it all before in some past life. They don’t need to impress anyone now. They know what they’re there for and want to get started.
“What’s your purpose?” she asked me.
At 41 years old, I don’t know my purpose.
I know, at least, though, that I don’t need an answer as long as I have a friend like Colleen or Nikki or Kristin to fill the space beside me under the trees, in the sun, on the rocks or the sidewalk or the phone. A friend who dares to keep throwing question after question onto the pile with me while we both look up, our eyes crinkling with laughter or maybe with tears, the smoke rising, the flames touching the sky.
Emily Dagostino is a writer, wife and mother who lives in Oak Park, Illinois, and works as a communications leader in not-for-profit healthcare philanthropy. More of her creative writing can be read at EmilyDagostino.com.