The Faithful

"“Do I love you this much?" she’d ask us, holding her hands six inches apart. “No,” we’d say, with sly smiles. “Do I love you this much?” she’d ask again, and on and on and on, each time moving her hands farther apart. But she would never get there, no matter how wide she stretched her arms. The amount that she loved us was beyond her reach. It could not be quantified or contained. It was the ten thousand named things in the Tao Te Ching’s universe and then ten thousand more. Her love was full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned. Every day she blew through her entire reserve." -          Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

My latest pick for book club was a wholly personal one. My friend Dorothy gave me a copy of the book right after my mom died, but it was almost seven months before I was ready to pick it up. For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Strayed writes about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, after her mom's death. What stuck with me most about the book weren’t the months she spent alone while hiking, or the blisters on her feet that she writes about in detail, or the weather or wildlife-related obstacles she encountered on the trail. For me, it was reading about how her life spiraled out of control after her mother's death.

I thought about this last weekend, while I was in California with some of my oldest and closest friends. We had gathered for Brooke's wedding, a friend since we rode our big wheels to nursery school together. We then spent years in Brownies, with my mom as our fearless troop leader. Last summer, Brooke showed up in New York for my bachelorette party, Brownie sash on. She said those are some of her best childhood memories, in large part because of my mom. Katie flew in from Australia for the wedding. Just a hop, skip, and a 14 hour flight for her. The line between friend and family is blurry with Katie and I; that's how long we've been friends. Katie is the kind of friend who flies halfway around the world when your mom is in the hospital, the kind who sits with you and makes you laugh when you think there is nothing left to laugh about, the kind who can be trusted with the most unpopular of errands (buying boxers for your dad, for instance). Andrea came from Chicago, leaving her baby boy at home with her husband.  Andrea has a laugh bigger than any room and a heart to match. She’s loyal and never forgets---not the bigger things like birthdays or even the little ones, like the color dress you wore to prom. Sara, my daily lifeline and keeper of secrets, was the only one missing---and miss her we did.

The wedding ceremony was a traditional Catholic mass, held at a beautiful old church in Santa Barbara---my first time in church since my mom's funeral. We sat together, observing the same rituals we’ve known since we were kids. The only off-script moment came during the Prayers of the Faithful, the part of mass when the congregation prays for those in need. The groom's cousin---leading the prayers---giggled his way through, while the rest of us looked on in confusion. Later, Brooke confessed that the prayers she and her husband had prepared weren’t waiting on the altar, and so their cousin was forced to improvise. More importantly, she wanted me to know what wasn’t said: a prayer for my mom they had intended to include in the ceremony. It was an acknowledgment that took my breath away, and I heard my mom so clearly in that moment, reminding me what good friends I have.

Back in Brooklyn, it was my turn to host book club. Just like every other one over the last six years, there was a heated debate about the merits of the book, but more importantly, there was plenty of wine and laughs. Overwhelmed with gratitude, I looked around at these girls who have become my friends later in life, who have held me up and righted my footing repeatedly throughout the last year. Rather dramatically, I announced that it was because of them---because of all of my friends---that I was not off hiking by myself somewhere, a la Cheryl Strayed.

My mom gave me the best and the worst of herself: her eyes, but also her hips and thighs; her brains, but also her impatience; her candidness, but also, at times, her candidness. There is no doubt, however, that she also gave me the gift of friendships, to which there is no downside. For that, I will thank her now and forever.