In the immortal words of that 1984 Whodini track, “You can look the word up again and again, but the dictionary doesn’t know the meaning of friends.” If you’ve got inside jokes older than your parents’ VCR (seriously, when are they going to upgrade that thing?), consider yourself lucky. Because, unlike dictionaries, you know the meaning of "friends."
Lifelong friends are the ones who’ve seen you at your worst — not just those bar bathroom days that are now a scent memory approximating hairspray and vomit, but worse than those — and helped you be your best. They're the friends with whom you snuck tubs of frosting out of the cupboard for your first sugar-slicked rebellions, and the ones who sat in that semi-circle of prepubescent terror when you had your first kiss in front of too many people. (“Some you grew up with, around the way / And you're still real close to this very day.”)
As we age, sure, it’s harder to make new friends. And, we can lose touch with those old buddies who are off having babies when we’re trying to get noticed at work. Or, who are suffering through the wrong relationship for a third time right when we’re celebrating a wedding anniversary. That kind of stuff is tough. But, you know what’s tougher? Heavy-duty, extra-strength friendship.
In one of the more ‘90s sitcom plotline adventures of my life, I ended up on a college campus in middle school for Take Your Daughter To Work Day and behind the wheel of an agriculture department-issued golf cart. I was terrified of all wheeled transport after a few bike-related humiliations, but my friend egged me on to just drive. In minutes, I crashed us into a steel pipe jutting a foot out of the ground and more or less impaled myself on the steering wheel.
I was panicking, having had the wind knocked out of me, and was sure I would die without medical (or parental) attention. Five steps ahead, my friend knew getting her dad would result in certain punishment. In an effort to get me to pull myself together, she helped me grow up a little bit that day. "Calm down and just breathe,” she said. “You don't need me to get anyone. You're fine." And then, I was. We were at an age where I still counted adults as a source of comfort and stability, and she was instrumental in me learning to provide that for myself. We’re in our 30s now and our hijinks are much less Full House-like, but I’m still in awe of her ability to be such a damn grown-up all the time.
Many lifelong friends come built into our parents' social circle, and that common history allows us to cut the bullshit small talk and communicate in a personalized shorthand, instead. Once, on a joint family vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one such mate and I tried to cut through the back way to get to the beach. (This meant hiking through a patchy brush that led straight to the road separating our house from the shore.) The patchy brush, though, was actually an oozy sort of swamp that only looked like solid ground when the water sat undisturbed. We took a step too far and fell into a murky mess that stained our suits, scarred our trust of off-path beach wandering, and provided a permanent shortcut to laughter: Remember that time we walked straight into a swamp?
But, the thing about these friends is that they aren’t just our share-a-laugh-now-and-then crowd. They're the ones that show up when you're going through the kind of hard stuff that can’t even be talked about. They’ll know how many details should (and most definitely should not) be shared. Which only they can know because they’ve learned the nuances of your openness after seeing you interact with them over a lifetime. They may also take in your cat, even though they not-so-secretly hate cats, because you’re in no shape to be caring for anything, or anyone, but yourself. They know when that caring for yourself stuff has to happen, they encourage you through it, but they also won’t stand for it lasting forever. Because, these lifelong friends also teach us to be friends back. It’s time to help me take care of myself they’ll urge. And, if you’re the kind of friend they deserve, you’ll slink back out of your dark place because the sight of them approaching one hurts worse.
Though the pals in that Whodini song veer into some troubling territory, ("Couldn't trust her with cheese, let alone your keys") the track raises an interesting question: "Friends; how many of us have them?" Do you? If you have those core people you think about constantly — no matter how infrequently you call or visit — then, yes. If you have someone who will go to the depths of any dessert menu with you without pause or question, but will hold hands, pinch noses, and down shots of some ungodly wheatgrass concoction when you decide to, for real this time, try to be healthy, you do. If you have someone interested in your long game — those career aspirations you don't even like saying out loud — and without pressuring you the whole way will party with you whenever you get there, you do. And, if you have someone who'll celebrate with you when you haven't gotten anywhere and still need a damn party, then you definitely do.
These friends, the best kind, are our mentors, our mirrors, and sometimes family — better than family, sometimes. We are bound to them by swamp water and chocolate icing and something else that's much less viscous and much more unbreakable.