Old friends cannot be created out of hand. Nothing can match the treasure of common memories, of trials endured together, of quarrels and reconciliations and generous emotions. Antoine de Saint-Exupery
And for this I had no response. I had just introduced Amy to one of my oldest and dearest friends, a man known for his (hilarious) irreverence at times but not complete lunacy. So I just stared at him.
He clarified: “She’s great. Pull the trigger already.”
That kinda helped, but I was stuck on “pat the pony.”
“Pat the pony?” I ask.
“You know, you’re at a pony ride, and the pony comes by, and you like the pony and want to take the ride, so you pat the pony. So, pat the pony already. Marry her.”
That was it, his entire counsel on the matter. He finished and rolled his eyes in a “ya dumb idget” sort of way and wandered off. Yes, I know, there are so many ways this could be taken wrong. But my friend is no misogynist or knuckle-dragging troglodyte. This is the same man who, 18 months later, would perform our marriage ceremony and say of Amy: “You are as true picture of grace and courage as any I have ever known,” which was so true and I was so grateful for that truth and I was so caught off-guard by his perfect summary of Amy that I would make noise like a choking frog trying to hold back a sob. He would also quip during our courtship that Amy must have been been waiting for “a man with more baggage than Princess Di.” Also true.
Oddly, and somewhat disconcertingly, I mark “pat the pony” as counsel that would change my life, a moment of bright clarity in the midst of a dark muddle. Amy and I have been married 12 years now, years that, for me at least, must be described as blissful. We’ve created two little extraordinary beings and – with the good grace of my two resilient older children – blended a family more or less harmoniously when blending can so often be fraught with hardship and heartache. When I get my wits about me and pause in life’s inevitable rush I’ll say to Amy, “Thanks for marrying me” and she’ll always reply, “Thanks for asking me.” Sappy? Yep. Also true. (You know sometimes she’s just thinking, “You’re welcome.”) But I didn’t know any of this at the time. I was bone-deep scared. I had been married and divorced, and it was horrible for all parties. Who wants to recreate excruciating pain? I was jammed up, stuck. Others were giving me similar counsel. What made his few slightly odd words move me, ultimately, to act? To answer that question you need to know about ‘The Guys.’
When I graduated from Westmont College in 1988, I took a trip to Africa with eleven other guys. The details of the trip are unimportant except to note that this group, and a few others, starting meeting twice a year soon after we returned, once for ‘guys weekend’ and once for ‘family weekend.’ Over time this group was to be called “The Guys.” (Cumulatively we had 56 years of liberals arts learning – 14 guys times 4 years – and “The Guys” is the best we could come up with. Go figure.) I started this post in Issaquah, WA having just returned from my twenty-eighth ‘guys weekend’ in Big Bear Lake, CA of which I’ve missed two, give or take. Always the same moderately tired cabin. Always the same group of guys, the same slightly fraying jokes, a little more alcohol and a little less fire in the belly. We started the weekends playing football in the snow. We now play cards and bocce ball when we stop talking ailments and aches. We laugh a lot, bicker sometimes, share, pray, play, annoy one another, support each other, laugh, grouse around the edges and carry on.
To say we are not a monolithic bunch would be an understatement. We spent a season e-mail debating political issues until, exhausted and perhaps a shade more humble by the intractable differences in the way each of us see and experience life, we just stopped. The intimacies between particular members wax and wane but, as a group, we’ve been together through new marriages and dead marriages, promotions and lost jobs, kid successes and illnesses, minor annoyances and major disagreements. Still, the conservative church elder hunkers down with the reclusive pseudo-anarchist to watch a movie; the basketball coach plays HORSE with the corporate VP who can’t play tether-ball without doing physical damage to lawn furniture. I am bookish and kinda nebbish and hang out often and thankfully with one guy who taught me to watch golf on tv, drink scotch and smoke cigars and whose basic decency and kindness far exceed mine. I am most similarly hard-wired to another guy with whom I can’t agree on . . . well, anything, except that we like books and ideas. But he’s wicked smart, spooky perceptive at times, and our differences and debates have helped me be, perhaps, a little less insufferably certain. And so it goes with us all.
As young 20-somethings, fueled by not a little by hubris, a lot of testosterone and a big, beautiful narrative of God’s extravagant love, we were out to conquer the world. Now, twenty some odd years later, when I think of “the guys” I think of this piece from Frederick Beuchner’s Brendan:
For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn’t leapt forward and caught him.
“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.
“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.
Gildas with but one leg. Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan had said stopped all our mouths. We was cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.
“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said. “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”
“Pat the pony” was just that, a helping hand when I was falling, a word that could only be heard because of our long, shared history together. There have been many, many other helps from “the guys” that I can’t begin to enumerate, all made possible by a shockingly pleasant surprise that years of good (and imperfect) friendship have rubbed down, smoothed off, the ego and posturing that is so much of the currency we trade in daily life. You don’t get away with posturing or ego with ‘the guys.’ At all. Ever. It’s just not possible. The personalities are too strong and our memories are too long. Which is probably why I introduced myself to a new marriage group with the following: “I don’t need new friends. I’ve got mine and I don’t do justice to those relationships.” That’s both rude and true and the vehemence with which I said it, with a catch in my throat, gave me pause then and does still. “We was cripples all of us.” What a strange grace to know and live that together.