What can you say about a friend who saved your life, except “Thank you, thank you, a million times, thank you”? It wasn’t a physical act of derring-do that saved me, like pushing me out of the way of an oncoming car. It was a well-timed act of kindness.
Now that this special friend has lost her own life, the gratitude overwhelms―again.
As my friend fought brain cancer these last two years, my thoughts often went back to her life-saving act, and I’d smile. Over this last month, when the family’s email announced a dire turn, I thought of her daily and wished―prayed―that the saving grace she’d afforded me could be extended to her.
There are not enough words in the very capacious English language to express my gratitude. But there are words to describe the act and this special friend. She was a very private person (yes, they still exist in this look-at-me age), so I will not identify her by name. But I can identify her by her character. Besides, it somehow seems more apt to refer to her as Friend, because that’s what her act epitomized.
We met in our first jobs out of college. We felt lucky to land at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C., doing research for members of Congress on policy issues. I was quiet and diligent, she radiated down-to-earth clarity and fun, an aura that drew me to her. We went out for late lunches, the better to talk in a quiet setting. We became friends, went to movies, parties, she introduced me to her friends. Then I went off to graduate school in Italy for a year. When I returned I got involved with the man who’d become my first husband, and I saw my Friend less.
When I eloped, I did not let my Friend know―which tells you the terrible, terrible mistake I’d made: If I couldn’t tell my down-to-earth Friend about my marriage… She’d met the man once, before the event. I’d been smitten by his charisma and looks; she immediately saw the arrogance and condescension.
When we finally met for a “catch up” lunch, which she instigated―by now the marriage was straining badly at eight months, I was dying of miserableness―I did my nice-girl best to put on a brave front. I was too embarrassed to describe any of the awfulness. But my Friend saw through my performance.
Here’s when she saved my life.
She leaned across the table, dropped her voice, and said: “Carla, I’m not going to ask the details, but I’ve never seen you so unhappy and distressed. Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to get copies made of my car keys and my apartment keys, and if ever you need them, you are to use them.” She sat back. “Are you hearing me?”
I did. From deep in my distress, I could see the lifeline she threw me. Next day she dropped off the keys to me at work; it penetrated that she thought my situation was urgent. Days later I found the pretext to leave my soon-to-be-former husband, landing on my Friend’s doorstep late at night with suitcase in hand. Days after that, she organized a group of her friends, and their cars, to move me out of my old life.
From there, I got to my feet fast and found my voice, a strong one. I joined the women’s movement, got into civil rights work, then into writing. And, crucially, I married Mr. Infinitely Better, with whom this year I will celebrate 40 years of excellent marriage.
My Friend went on to a worthy career serving as the engine of a liberal nonprofit in Washington. In that role, and with her vibrant personality, she met legions of good people doing good work, who came to love her devotedly. She married and raised three remarkable and caring children, was ever-present in their school activities, heading one fundraiser after another. She was, naturally, a pillar in her community.
(She married the man who, in the several weeks I stayed with her, I spotted as “the one” among the many she dated. How I could offer marital advice was pretty outrageous, given my disastrous record at the time, but perhaps for that reason I could sense the solidity in “the one” that anchors and sustains a marriage. At their wedding reception, he thanked me. And I went on to marry it―solidity―myself.)
I have often pondered what it was that made my Friend extend her hand in my hour of need, what makes anyone extend themselves. Maybe it was my Friend’s family background. She came from wealth, from a family prominent in their state’s history, but the family bore their high status without ostentation, the emphasis instead being on service. Thus my Friend’s long service in good works. She once said that, with her comfortable background, she felt she could never ever “moan.” Maybe moaning less means being better able to hear the world?
Still, extending your hand to a person in need, taking that responsibility, is different from serving a cause. Human neediness, staring you in the face, can repel. Though my Friend never reminded me of my nadir, would never have wanted me to feel obliged to her, and would have waved off any credit for saving me, once, about twenty years ago, I brought it up at our annual catch-up dinner. When I asked why she did what she did, keys and all, she simply said: “You were in trouble.” I thanked her for, literally and figuratively, giving me the keys to my best self. Both of us were nice people, I said, but best to be the active, not passive version. The evening ended in laughter and a long hug.
And, repeating my Friend’s gesture, I have extended my hand, too, to people in trouble. I could do more, I know. I tell myself: You were blessed once, so pass it on.
I put all this in a last letter to her, after I received the family’s news of her dire turn. The notecard carried a line from Emily Dickinson, “My friends are my estate.”
Rest in peace, Dear Friend. You defined humanity, and friendship, at its best.
Carla Seaquist’s latest book is titled “Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality.” An earlier book is titled “Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character.” Also a playwright, she published “Two Plays of Life and Death” and is at work on a play titled “Prodigal.”