True romance: The people we choose as family
The one about life, death and true love in friendship form.
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?” - Stand By Me
Natalie & Monica, 1995
Three weeks ago I woke up to four missed calls and two texts from Melissa, a best friend from childhood, a girl I’ve known since we were single digits old, and knew the news was not good.
Call me, the first text read.
15 minutes later.
Dude, call me.
“I think someone has probably died,” I told Cory flatly, dread blooming in my chest.
I was right.
Less than a year after she lost her mother, our closest friend Natalie’s dad died unexpectedly. I immediately booked plane tickets and was landing in Utah less than 48 hours later.
Joe and Janice were like parents to me when I was a teenager. Although the circumstances of life had intervened since then, like dropping the needle on a well-worn record, they were the kind of people you could easily slip back into the same groove with as if no time had passed.
Theirs was a love story spanning more than fifty years, full of the good and bad that life dutifully serves up like a moody short-order cook. When I think about Joe and Janice the image that most often comes to mind is an old black and white photo from the late sixties, I’m guessing. Barely in their twenties, they probably weren’t even married yet.
They sit astride Joe’s motorcycle, her arms wrapped around his waist, fingers laced over his stomach and her chin resting gently on his shoulder as the sun glints off his classic black horn-rimmed glasses. Both wear the sweetly innocent smiles of the young embarking on their first romantic love.
The photo thrilled 16-year-old me dreaming of my own future romances. They were just a few years older than I was then and I wondered if a love like theirs glimmered on my horizon.
My home life during high school was chaotic, unstable and scary. Fear, helplessness and embarrassment littered my emotional landscape. When the situation in my childhood home escalated to violence, as it often did, I would hang from my second-floor window, drop roughly to the ground and scamper the mile-and-a-half to Natalie’s house.
I moved so many times during high school that I can’t count them using both hands. I lived with my grandma for a stint during my freshman year after a family member hit me with a pool stick, leaving a purple-black bruise running down my arm. Later I moved into the home of another friend for a time in 10th grade when my home again felt unsafe. I moved briefly to my dad’s house in Colorado for the start of 11th grade then moved home and lived with Natalie, Joe and Janice on and off throughout the rest of 11th grade before moving into my own apartment, which is where and when I got pregnant. I moved back to Natalie’s house by the time I got an abotion in the weeks before 12th grade began and then moved to my aunt’s house in Idaho for the beginning of that school year. I briefly moved home for a few months of my senior year then moved out for good right before graduation.
I was in my junior year when, one night, a family member strangled me until my bladder gave out and darkness invaded my vision. Luckily, someone knocked on the front door at that moment and I used the opportunity to jump from my bedroom window and run barefoot in the snow to Natalies’s house. After I declined to press charges when Joe summoned the police to investigate the bruises around my neck, he and Janice urged me to move into their tiny three-bedroom home.
They bought a bigger bed for me and Natalie to share. They bought me a dresser and Janice doubled up on her purchases of Ruffles Cheddar and Sour Cream chips that I hoovered the second a new bag appeared. We had dinner together every night as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy played comfortingly on the tiny TV in their kitchen. I never felt safer.
Monica & Natalie rockin’ denim like nobody’s bidness circa 1993.
They put my school photo next to Natalie’s in one of those hinged trifold frames that open like a book and were all the rage in the early nineties and prominently displayed it in their bedroom. My stupid 11th-grade picture was on their dresser. In their bedroom! A fact I had forgotten until Natalie texted me a photo of the frame - still holding the same photos - she found while cleaning out her parents’ basement.
This forgotten act of acceptance and love breaks 45-year-old me wide open every time I think about it and I burst into tears upon reading this part to Cory before I hit publish. I’m the age now that they were when they invited me to live in their home so I well know that introducing a new person into the precarious dynamic within a family is no easy feat, especially in a house not much bigger than a mobile home.
They really saw me. The real me. Not the cool-girl, nonchalant facade I diligently perfected throughout my teens but the vulnerable, scared, sad girl constantly seeking refuge from instability and violence.
In a bizarre twist of fate Joe and Janice - who wouldn’t realize it until they met and fell in love at the age of twenty - were born in the same hospital, delivered by the same doctor just over an hour apart. March 27. Which also happens to be my birthday. Birthday triplets. Something I am only now understanding provided me, the perceived outsider, with a deep sense of belonging. The shared birthday was the universe’s sign that I was meant to be with this family.
Joe, Janice and Monica
Death has a way of clarifying life. It’s an icy wind that blows away the cobwebs that gather in our routines, as we go about our autopilot days driving to and from work, checking texts, replying to emails, buying toilet paper, streaming Netflix, chauffeuring kids. Death is an ‘Oh fuck, this shit is all ephemeral and tenuous and I am frittering it away on email and alcohol and obsessive thoughts that don’t even matter.’
Joe and Janice were an institution. They were the adults in the room of my life. Their existence was an intensely stabilizing force no matter where fate carried me and their deaths as incomprehensible as the crumbling of the Twin Towers.
I spent much of my week in Utah with Natalie, going through Joe and Janice’s house. Initially, it felt wrong, illicit even. How do you clomp into the personal space of two adults you grew up with and just start opening cupboards and drawers and pilfering through their possessions, their private lives? It felt like breaking and entering or walking into a chapel in the middle of prayer.
But their presence was strong and reassuring. Even though Janice had been dead for many months, Joe hadn’t touched anything. Left it all the same as if she was simply at the grocery store and would be returning at any moment.
Death alchemized the most mundane items into precious treasures worthy of contemplation. Was this the last pair of shoes he wore? Was that her final bottle of perfume? Her hairs tangled in the bristles of an old brush sparked a memory of her in curlers, hunched over a mirror at the kitchen table, carefully applying make-up. A sprinkling of stubble on his razor holder reminded me of hugging him, his rough cheek against mine as he gruffly told me to take care of myself.
Here were lipstick tubes, compacts, blush and eyeshadow cases she had used to artfully apply her face. There were Joe’s colognes, socks, dapper fedoras. I tucked his freshly laundered boxers into his beautifully organized underwear drawer and methodically went through dozens of Janice’s purses from throughout the years, discovering packages of gum, mints, tissues, notes, make-up and business cards that likely hadn’t experienced sunlight in years.
We uncovered an Ulta’s worth of used and unused Merle Norman cosmetics in Janice’s drawers. We discovered the horn-rimmed glasses Joe wore in that photo from so long ago in his top dresser drawer. We found notes from Janice instructing Joe how to heat the dinner she left in the oven and marveled at how, after more than fifty years with this man, she always signed even the most unimportant missives with ‘I love you.’
“Put this in the oven and bake at 350 degrees for twenty minutes. I love you.”
All of this, I thought looking at the home around me, is evidence of decades of their life together, well lived and loved. More than half a century of togetherness in the air and under the covers and tucked away in closets, drawers, and cupboards. We spent days going through it all. An intense undertaking infused with savage beauty. Here is what is left of these two vibrant people who were such a permanent force in my life story they very nearly seemed immortal.
As we organized their closet, giggling at the precision with which he organized his things and outright laughing at her seeming inability to throw anything away, I got to know and understand them in an entirely new and deeply personal way. In life, I knew her as a quietly strong maternal figure but in death she became a peer, a friend, a woman, like I am now, with secrets tucked away in purses, drawers and the top shelves of her closet.
I am exactly the age she was when she consoled me after my abortion. I try to view 16-year-old me through their eyes. What must they have seen in me to cause them to love me when so many other parents were telling their daughters not to hang out with me, that I - or my family - was trouble?
I opened my arms wide, gathered as many of the clothes hanging in her closet as could fit into my arms and hugged them to me. Pressing my face into her wardrobe, it still smelled faintly of the fruits and spices from the various perfumes she always wore. I could hear her gentle laughter at a joke her sarcastically witty husband cracked. I could feel her fingernails raking softly through my hair as I cried into her lap and remembered her, a devout Catholic, organizing the pills the doctor had given me after my abortion and gently encouraging me to take them without a shred of judgment, just raw compassion.
We took shots of Joe’s favorite whiskey, lifting glasses toward the ceiling “to Joe!” as we cleaned out cabinets, nightstands, bathroom drawers and did the final loads of dirty laundry he left behind. The experience was more sacred than church, holier than prayer. At times we laughed until we cried as we discovered the private proclivities Janice and Joe manifested in the possessions left behind.
At one point, in the darkness of night, we attempted to lug thick, black trash bags full of Janice’s make-ups, creams, lotions and all manner of beauty implements - to the garbage. It took all three of us, Natalie, Melissa and me, to heft the heavy bags as they tore and leaked who-knows-what onto our clothes. It was so late at night and the scenario so uniquely bizarre our bodies sagged weakly with raucous laughter that echoed gratifyingly through the house where Janice and Joe lived and ultimately died.
At times the air seemed to crackle around me with their presence and I talked to them as I worked, periodically pausing like a deer spotting humans deep in the woods to fully experience the electric current arching around and through me.
An only child in the wake of the death of both parents in such a short span of time, I witnessed my dearest friend conduct herself with profound composure amid a traumatic, life-defining scenario and fell even more in love with her, if possible, marveling at the person she has become. I love her as deeply as I’ve ever loved anyone in my life, a platonic love so intense it almost feels romantic. I would follow her ass, with its signature sway, directly into the fiery pits of hell if it was a physical destination. Mostly because of who she is but also? That ass is hypnotic, ask anyone from Orem Junior High circa ‘92 and its magnetic powers have only increased in the intervening decades leaving me powerless to resist.
“Friendship, generally speaking, is the redheaded stepchild of the social sciences. Romantic relationships, marriage, family—that’s where the real grant money is,” Jennifer Senior opines in her terrific article for The Atlantic, It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.
Our culture is obsessed with love and romantic relationships, idealizing them to a dysfunctional degree. People moon around in search of their soulmate, twin flame (gag!), or the one who “completes me” (fucking Jerry Maguire fallout 25 years later) but you don’t hear so much about tried and true friendship not just as an important life-fulfilling goal but something worth fighting for once you find one. How many friends do you know who have gone to therapy together to work out differences?
Yet I’ve had a long-term love affair with these women - Natalie and Melissa - for more than thirty years and yes, it is a love affair. There is a conception of enchantment, dare I say romance, lacking in our collective notion of friendship. Not because it isn’t there or isn’t possible but because society has glorified the soulmate and shellacked friendship with a platonic, passionless patina.
The writer, Rebecca Woolf, is a widow who often shares co-parenting duties of her four children with her best friend, Veronika.
“Veronika and I had a similar courtship, I think, to my romantic relationships. A love at first sight. I said something to her pretty soon after we met, like, "I feel like you're the one," and I meant it. There was something so deep between us that was as close to any great love I've ever felt and years later, she has become my primary partner. Our relationship is platonic in that we don't have sex but everything else about it resembles the kind of soulmate-esque loving relationship people go their whole lives looking for. We even have tattoos of each other's names. Because of our relationship, I have never felt like I needed or even wanted a primary romantic partner. My platonic girl friends are the only long-term relationships I need -- and the staying power between us is something I have never felt with a man in any kind of long-term relationship. Committing to friendship and prioritizing our love has made me a better woman and parent and has completely altered my perspective when it comes to love and the unnecessary weight we put on sex when it comes to our love stories.”
ITEM: It’s worth noting I have a relationship with Woolf that is undefinable. So many of our relationships are undefinable because we don’t even have words for the nuanced relationships that exist outside established societal norms. I love Rebecca. She sees me in a way nobody else ever has and is one of the truest friends I’ve ever had. I’m also in love with her, have slept with her and am sexually attracted to her. I feel connected to her on an electric, supernatural level but there isn’t a word I can easily employ to briefly explain to you who she is in my life. Friend isn’t right. Girlfriend implies romantic or monogamous commitment and neither of those scenarios applies. Not having the words to define these crucial relationships leaves us in reductive, binary territory similar to our obsession with gender labeling; male or female, friend or boyfriend. But just like gender or sexuality, every relationship falls on a vast spectrum.
The longevity of my childhood friendships has infused them with a sturdy passion that stands the test of time. Our love inspires ceaseless devotion and the comforting security of knowing we will show up for each when the shit hits the fan, even if we haven’t spoken in many months. This is not something I can say about any of my past traditionally romantic relationships.
Spending a week in the company of women who know and love me unconditionally, who complete me in ways Renee Zellweger’s Jerry Maguire character, Dorothy, could never imagine when she uttered one of the most memorable lines in cinema history, forced me to reevaluate not just the most important relationships in my life, but what relationships I want to be important. Something Jennifer Senior ponders in her article on friendship.
I was undergoing a Great Pandemic Friendship Reckoning, along with pretty much everyone else. All of those hours in isolation had amounted to one long spin of the centrifuge, separating the thickest friendships from the thinnest; the ambient threat of death and loss made me realize that if I wanted to renew or intensify my bonds with the people I loved most, the time was now, right now.
The time has always been right now. But I haven’t always been great at showing up. Selfishness, social anxiety, boyfriends, marriage and children have all kept me from intensifying my own bonds with the people I love the most. But the death of Natalie’s parents has highlighted a life truth: Showing up for the people I love is a legacy I am willing to work hard at building. After all, as Senior also points out, “friendship is the rare kind of relationship that remains forever available to us as we age.”
Joe and Janice are gone. We are the adults in the room now. What used to be a seemingly impenetrable barrier between life and death is somewhat transparent. Where once time seemed to stretch endlessly before us like a desert highway at noon, the inevitability of death imbues the horizon like sunset. And that’s a good thing. Our culture avoids discussing death but closeness with death intensifies life.
I’ve never felt comfortable with the way western culture views death. Most religious leaders would have you believe life is a test and the real stuff happens in the next life or “afterlife.” But that creates the illusion that right now is just a prelude and you waste a lifetime living for a fantasy, chasing a future event that will never happen, at least not in the way the man at the pulpit promises. The panic to live resides in all of us in an uncomfortable, uncontrollable way but dying is actually one of the great events of life.
As the incredible Alan Watts noted, what makes the difference is the point of view, specifically, our attachment to ourselves as separate entities instead of a sense of identity with the entire universe. If you keep identifying yourself with some sort of stable entity that sits and watches the world go by you don’t acknowledge your union, your inseparability with all that is. But you are not a permanent witness of the flux. You are the flux. And will remain the flux even after death.
Late 19th-century psychologist Havelock Ellis said “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on” and so it is in death. My feelings about Janice and Joe are a mingling of letting go and holding on. Born an hour apart and died less than a year apart, it is time to let them go. But I can hold on to their legacy of unconditional kindness that lies in their daughter and all the lives she touches including her three beautiful daughters as well as mine and, as a result, the lives of my children. Like throwing a handful of wildflower seeds into fertile soil, watch their kindness spread and grow and continue to fluorish in each new season of life.
If there’s one thing I learned from Joe and Janice, it’s the importance of showing up unconditionally and compassionately for the ones you love. Over and over and over again.
Life is short. Love as hard as you can and keep trying with a commitment mentality similar to the one we traditionally employ within romantic relationships. Show up for the friends you love, the people who show up for you. All that is real and true in the world are the relationships we build with each other, everything else is dispensable.
People come into your life and for reasons nobody can explain, they leave an indelible mark. Circumstances collide, personalities gel and it all inexplicably works. And then they’re gone. “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened," Dr. Seuss said and it’s trite but true.
Born an hour apart and died less than a year apart after half a century together. Like releasing a colorful bouquet of balloons into an azure summer sky, I’m sending a massive thank you out into the universe for placing this family on my path. Happy March 27th to the birthday triplets, long may they ride the cosmic lightning of coincidence and commitment.
“Death is not the opposite of life but part of it.” - Haruki Murakami
Check out holistic psychologist Nicole LePera’s Instagram, she’s so fantastic.
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