My Friend, My Teacher

Two women friends taking a selfie. One is a bit older with grey hair, the other with brown hair.
Me with my friend in May 2017

We stood eye to eye in the slight breeze of a perfectly beautiful day. I felt held in her presence and held her in mine. The sounds of cars on the road and conversations floated in the spacious silence. As much as I could hear everything, my attention was entirely on her eyes as she looked at me intently. I broke the gaze, rounded my arms around her neck and gave her a hug.

Even though she can’t identify me by my name or our shared stories, I still feel seen, remembered and appreciated. So often we self consciously wonder if we have impressed someone with our story, if we have made sense, or been misunderstood. We joke with people, hope to make them laugh, and tell stories. Yet, I have learned that what really matters isn’t the social exchange that happens on the surface, but the level of presence containing the relationship itself.

Earlier in our relationship and in her disease, my friend wanted to grieve the life she was losing, to be sad about her predicament, what would happen to her husband and daughter. All she needed from me was to empathize and to keep her company in her sadness. In between talking, laughing and exercising together, we cried, we hugged, and we sat quietly with one another.

Every week I arrived open, ready to receive her, to live in her story with her, to keep her company in a world that was increasingly lonely. When she sensed that something was wrong in my life, she sat attentive, open and ready to listen. Her warm presence itself comforted me. I knew she likely didn’t understand or remember all I told her. But, she offered me her presence and often that was the perfect comfort. Parker Palmer says, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is.”

As my friend has progressed into the later stages of Alzheimer’s, fewer words pass between us, there is more touching, more eye contact, and more mirrored emotions. The other day when I visited, I played a song that I thought she would recognize and remember. I watched her face as she listened. A single tear formed at the corner of her eye and ran down her cheek. My eyes started to water. I have no idea why or how the song triggered the emotion, yet I could give her a hug offering empathy and support.

Krista Tippett writes about her time working as a chaplain in an Alzheimer’s ward, “They taught me the gravity of nonverbal presence- of eye contact and touch. I learned to accept silence, not to fill it with talk, to respect the immensity of what eyes and hands alone could express.” 

I too have now learned this lesson about communication and intend to honor my friend, my teacher by practicing it in my life as fully as possible. 

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