Thoughtfulness. A gift, a note, a gesture; it is my purest pleasure to notice and act upon an opportunity to make someone happy. And so of course I treasure reciprocity in this endeavor, the unexpected considerations of others. I believe this is called a love language.
That said, I know I can be quite a frustration, as I find that I am frequently apologizing for the little inconveniences that I present to other people in this world simply by being here and being me. Being late or being way too early. Needing your help with my children. Again. Asking too many questions. Eating all the pecans out of the ice cream. I can be unintentionally inconsiderate and absent-minded, and I feel my best line of defense is to ingratiate myself to the people in my life with the sincerest statement I can make about my tendency to operate in a vacuum which is to say “I’m sorry”.
Arguably one of the most important phrases in our language. And just knowing this won’t do you any good. You have to learn how to say it. There is a right time, a right voice and a right way of placing it into that space between two people so that it matters.
And it does matter: knowing when and how, it could be one of your most defining attributes, your greatest flaw. This phrase, its palpable truth, admitting imperfection and a desire to be better, to empathize more deeply, it washes over humanity like water over river rocks. Turning them and shaping them into marbled, edgeless stones, beautifully rounded by the purpose and force of the current.
For transgressions great and small, I give this phrase to ensure that we are rounded and not cut by one another.
But there have been times when I kept the words to myself, not wanting to concede that I, who take such great pride in being thoughtful, could be so careless.
I made a dear friend my sophomore year in college. When we went out, she made sure we got home safely. When I needed her guidance, she listened intently. Her sense of humor sparkled and her grace in times of need was invaluable. When my father died, she was at the funeral. When I moved to Charleston, she visited. When I was married she was in the wedding, and when I had a baby, she flew down to see us and gave the gift of her undivided affection.
She left Virginia and moved to New York in 2008. She seemed so far away, I imagined her walking the sidewalks of that strict city, bold and single. Drinking dirty martinis in pencil skirts and talking to handsome strangers about important things like Syria and Climate Change. She was only available during the oddest of hours and remained uninterested in social media. Keeping up with her was a challenge. We left a great deal of voicemail messages, which grew shorter and further apart as time went by. I made the foolish assumption that she did not want to hear about suburban life, marriage, children, and spreadsheets.
About 3 years ago she married a man whose name I had trouble remembering. They were wed in a small ceremony at the justice of the peace with the intention of having a larger celebration when the time was right. The following Fall a group of her friends organized an after-the-wedding weekend in the Poconos. I was supposed to go but the expense of the trip coupled with my fear of flying plus a nursing newborn kept me at home. Or at least that is how I explained it in my email.
Needful children and crashing planes, while real and true, were selfish excuses for missing out on something that was important to her. It is so easy to convince yourself that your time and the demands upon your life are so unrelenting that sacrificing something of value to someone else is reasonable. That you aren’t behaving dangerously. And surely I did not ruin her celebration, but I was most assuredly not there. Not in any way. Not in any form or function. I was decidedly absent.
No gift. No note. No gesture.
We did not speak for some time until she sent me a message late this summer letting me know they had rented a house on Canon Street and would be visiting the following weekend.
We met twice for drinks, longer and less awkwardly the second time. Her husband was wonderful (I’ve learned his name now). We explored the city at night and basked in each other’s company. I called to tell the sitter we would be late. After midnight, we stopped for dim sum and gin cocktails at a little place off an alley, and laughed and laughed and I knew she had forgiven me, though I never formally asked her to.
And I realized something: one of the greatest and most overlooked aspects of friendship is that to be a really good friend, you have to be aware of how important you are within the friendship. You have to appreciate how much you do matter. How much you can hurt someone with the things you do and do not do. You have to be responsible, accountable.
You have to ask yourself: Does it matter to them? Would it matter to me? And if it does and it would: Go. Do. Be. Embrace your significance. And if you can’t, for whatever frightful reason, search until you find the phrase. Polish it. Wrap it in gold and gossamer. Place it tenderly before them. Be unapologetically apologetic.
They will leave New York one day, but they aren’t likely to move any closer. I don’t have plans to visit them yet but I will. I might need a prescription, but I will. I have to. We still don’t talk much, but I’m not sure that matters, we are where we were or at least in that place where you can be with certain people.
And if I reach down into the riverbed, the water is in motion and the stones are smooth and unscathed.