Friends I hadn’t seen in three years shuffled in. Dressed in our finest clothes, we exchanged tight-gripped hugs, and brief how-are-yous. If the environment was only a little different, this could be a college class reunion. If only we were in a banquet hall and not a funeral home. If only Annika wasn’t lying in a silver casket, her husband of 18 months standing beside it.
It’s not that this group of people, mostly a combination of church friends, college pals and a few university professors, had never seen death before. It’s just that death is supposed to visit the old, or people with cancer or those who are in car accidents. It’s not supposed to take a newly married 26-year-old, just hours after she’d emailed family and friends to say “Happy Easter,” and laid down in anticipation of the joyful Sunday resurrection, never to wake up again.
It wasn’t Annika I was lamenting for; it was the rest of us standing there. A scene kept playing in my head, a college lecture Annika and I had set through. The professor, illustrating how to draw emotion from an audience, summarized the final episode of the TV show M.A.S.H., in which a group of war comrades find a bottle of wine, and pledge that the last person alive will open it in tribute to the collective friendship.
The scene was a touching story then, now I realize it’s not just a TV episode but the unavoidable truth we must all live out. I looked around the room, mapping out the faces of my college friends, realizing that this scene will play out again and again, the group getting smaller each time. And finally, one of us will know the grief of outliving the rest, laying a rose on a gravesite and realizing there is no one left to share in the old memories.
Everything in life costs us something—in time, money, energy, love or emotion. Friends, real know-you-down-to-your-soul friends, come at a high cost. They guarantee a lifetime of broken hearts as we say goodbye, farewell and amen, again and again over the course of our lives.
Sadly, more and more people are finding that cost too high. Fifty years ago, the average person had three or more close friends and family members in which to confide. Today, that average has dropped to somewhere between two and one. The world-within-a-world of social networking has its benefits, but it’s also continually drawing us further into an “invent your own fantasy” identity and away from face-to-face relationships. This year, the average American will spend more time with their computer than with their spouse. As a study in the March 2009 International Business News so aptly put it, “Facebook, Twitter users among the loneliest in America.”
It’s easy to see why escaping to the social networking world is so inviting. On Facebook, you can hide behind a persona, be any version of yourself you can dream up. Online friends don’t borrow money and not pay it back, gossip or spill Gatorade in your car. They don’t show up at your house after just getting dumped and stay until 2 a.m. when you have to be at work in the morning. Online “friendships” are always efficient.
True friendship demands vulnerability. It requires that you rearrange your schedule, and intentionally plan time to spend with other people with no agenda. It demands choice, as sociologists agree that it’s only possible to have eight to 12 “real” friends, and attempting to manage more relationships than that only ends in a series of casual acquaintances.
After Annika’s funeral, the old college crew gathered at Denny’s (the location, 24-hour service and cheap prices made this a memorable college hangout, even if the food was terrible). The next two hours were Annika’s real funeral, as we celebrated her life loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear. Stories flowed like wine, and there was far more laughter than tears. Trevor stood up and told of his favorite memory of his late wife. She was African-American, and he was white. The two of them were babysitting a pair of Asian girls on a summer day and went out to a local pizza buffet. When a family stared in disbelief at the multicultural troupe, Annika’s deadpan reply was, “An Oreo will never make a fortune cookie.”
What we remembered wasn’t Annika’s Facebook profile or what she Tweeted, but her words, kindness and quirks, the perfect scenes of laughter she created. As we navigate our 20s and 30s, it’s easy to believe we have all the time in the world to connect and create unforgettable moments, as if everything ahead is just like today, only better. But the truth is these days are fading, and your current lifestyle, social circle and experiences are slipping away, even at this moment. This time in your life will be gone soon enough, as you graduate, marry, move, change jobs.
As the saying goes, “this too shall pass.” As Christians, this should not be a reason to despair, but a call to weigh very carefully what we give our time to each day, an encouragement to love with abandon. Realizing we have a limited number of days calls into question who we spend them with, and what is no longer worthy of our brief and precious time.
The party, and that’s exactly what it was, broke up around midnight, my jaw tired from laughing. Despite the mood, the truth remained: Annika was gone, leaving us brokenhearted. Each person in the room had chosen the ache that now dwelled within us, in our decision to invite Annika into our lives, and enter into hers. Friendship is heavy and painful at times, but only for a little while. Before and after the pain, it brings the things that make life worth living—laughter and acceptance and the knowledge that you matter to someone. Isolation hurts, too, but it’s a long, cold and constant pain.
It’s very human to try and avoid all pain, but the real question is what kind of pain we will face. We either suffer alone for a lifetime, or choose daily to pay the high cost of friendship.
Seth "Tower" Hurd is a radio DJ in the Midwest. He can be heard on Chicago’s 89.7 Shine.FM and Mid-Michigan’s 101.7 FUSE FM.