My friend Frank (not his real name) answers his phone. He has this notoriously unreliable Bluetooth earpiece that he loves to use. Today it’s having a bad day. He sounds like a Martian. I tell him I’ll call back. When he answers the second time he’s no longer a Martian. I say, “Ah! It’s my old friend Frank – the one I know and love!” This joke brings him to tears because he’s not my old friend Frank, he’s the new Frank. The one who is fighting a disease that will shorten his life dramatically.
This sort of painful moment has become more and more common in our conversations. We’ve been doing these regular phone calls for several years now, starting long before the disease was discovered. In the beginning, our conversations were sometimes awkward, maybe even boring. But they were meaningful enough that we kept having them. Today, neither of us would give them up for the world. They have become a touchstone of sanity for us, a sanctuary from an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world. We have discovered that we love these conversations and we love each other.
The love I have for Frank has not come easily. Healthy love of any sort was not modeled for me as a child, and the culture that Frank and I grew up with was supportive only of superficial friendships between men: sports, work, golf, recreation, shared ogling of women, etc. In short, we grew up in a world where: “Men are strong.” “Boys don’t cry.” “Don’t be a wuss.” “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” And your value as a man was primarily judged by your job, the size of your house, the car you drove, and the beauty of the woman on your arm. Even though a part of me knew there was more to it than this, I really didn’t understand how to reconcile being strong with being loving.
Since those days when Frank and I were growing up, there has been a sea-change in what women expect from their romantic relationships. A key part of this sea-change is their desire for intimacy – the kind of intimacy that comes from shared experience and openly expressed feelings. The problem many men face with this is that we haven’t been taught how to be intimate. Worse, women still want us to be strong. “How the hell can I be strong and intimate at the same time?” If being intimate means sharing feelings, and talking about feelings makes you feel vulnerable, why would you do it? For many men, feeling vulnerable conjures up the lesson we learned as kids, “If I am weak, I will be destroyed.”
Frank and I have had to confront Death in our friendship because Death is loitering just outside his door. I have the luxury of pretending that Death isn’t hanging around my neighborhood. Of course, that’s not true – I just haven’t spotted him yet. Frank, however, has been staring Death in the eye. And he has been sharing with me how that feels. We have been learning about intimacy, whether we want to or not.
At the end of our conversation, Frank laments, “I don’t think I can do this.” Meaning live his life with Death breathing down his neck. One of the ways Frank and I are strong for each other is by not indulging self-pity. So, I say to him, “Yes, you do. You’re figuring it out as you go. Step by step. Day by day. Doctor visit by doctor visit. Awkward conversation by awkward conversation.” And he cheers up, because he knows it’s true. He just needed to hear it from someone he can trust. And he can trust me because of our shared experience. Because of our intimacy.
The answer to “How the hell can I be strong and intimate at the same time?” is just to start doing it. At first, it may scare the hell out of you, but if you keep going, it will get easier. You may even come to like it. And, like they say, if you don’t die from it, it will make you stronger.
I say I haven’t seen Death in my neighborhood, but the truth is my conversations with Frank have forced me to consider what looking Death in the eye means for me. This newfound intimacy with Death is changing how I relate with everyone. And I won’t give that up for the world.