I believe real friendship is an action of love – the outward concern and regard for others. It strengthens when overcoming trial and, like wine, it grows tenderer and becomes more robust over time. Even when there is no contact, real friendship does not wane, for while it is an act, it is not particularly based on activity.
In 1996, I was diagnosed with cancer – Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. At the time, I was single, earning a very good wage and spreading my good fortune around with those I considered friends. I considered dozens friends, and a handful even good friends. Nevertheless, I was soon to learn something the great playwright Euripides wrote over 400 years before Christ was born, “… prosperity is full of friends.”
My diagnosis was a shock to me. I had only opted for cosmetic surgery to remove a lump from my neck that the surgeon had told me was probably just a benign tumor. As it turned out, the doctor discovered a cancerous tumor encapsulated in one of my parotid (salivary) glands. It had to be removed, which meant my facial nerves to the right side of my face had to be dissected causing facial paralysis, and just as serious, another tumor was discovered very close to my brain stem. The surgeon had to remove my right ear in order to get to it. God controlled my fate that day, allowing the surgeon to find it. You see, my Dad died from a tumor in the identical place just a year later.
I woke up in a hospital room riddled in pain with an IV in my arm, my head and neck tightly wrapped in a bandage, and my head partially shaved. My parents were in the room along with a few of their friends, but none of mine. That was understandable as I didn’t even know the surgery or my condition were that serious, so I hadn’t told anyone. But then another day passed, with only visits from the doctor, nurses and my mother, and then another ….
I asked my mother if anyone had called for me. No one had. I asked her to contact some of the people I considered, at that time, to be my closest friends, just to let them know where I was. She did. Another day passed. No one even bothered to call, let alone visit me.
My hospital stay was lengthened because I was running a temperature. I remember lying in that bed less upset about my terminal illness than I was about my lonely state. I never realized it before becoming ill, but I was now faced with the prospect that I had no real friends. My mind wandered to visions of my funeral, where only my parents and their friends, paying respects, would attend. How could it be?
I wasn’t blaming anyone though, except for myself. I had built my life in a way that attracted individuals to my lifestyle and not to me. I wasn’t feeling self-pity. It was more like a catharsis. My illness was acting as my ‘road to Damascus.’ That may have been all well and good except it didn’t help with my newfound loneliness. I prayed to God to forgive me for living a life that bore no fruit.
After prayer, I lay in the darkness. The pain from my surgery was rivaled by the shame I felt from my self-revelation – I could very possibly die without having one real friend. Tears ran down my cheeks. I was disgusted with myself. I mattered to no one and I had only myself to blame.
Then, as miracles happen, someone appeared at the door to the room. It was late. Visiting hours had passed, so it could only be an orderly. Then I heard my name … no, not my name, a nickname I was called only by a couple of my childhood friends, “Gerry!”
It was indeed a childhood friend of mine, Dominic. Dominic and I were friends from the time he was born, 11 months after I was. We grew up in the same tenement. There was a time when Dominic was like a brother to me. Then we grew up, my parents moved, and we grew apart. We both formed new acquaintances and moved on, but the connection that we forged in the first 13 years of our lives seemed to remain, perhaps in a docile state, but it was there … and now he stood next to my bed. My tears of sadness turned to tears of joy. I wanted to embrace him but I had not even stood on my own feet since the surgery. He helped me out of the bed and I hugged him even with the IV still in my arm.
I asked him what he was doing there. He said he had just found out that I was in the hospital – and that he ran over, as soon as he heard. Now consider this, Dominic owned a Snapple route in Manhattan in those days. He hadn’t seen or heard from me in years. Yet, the moment he heard, he raced to the hospital, after 14 hours of hard, manual labor (it was after 9 PM when he arrived and he was still dressed in his dirty, sweat-soaked work clothes), AND got past hospital security, just to be by my side.
It was then that I learned what real friendship was.
Dominic ended up visiting me regularly over the course of the next three months, while I recuperated from the surgery and began my radiation therapy. As my health faded, I lost so much weight, my hair fell out, and I could hardly stand on my own, but Dominic treated me as he had always treated me … as a friend. He wasn’t appalled by my physical appearance and he wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with me in public. In fact, he would show up with an additional motorcycle helmet and take me to lunch. I couldn’t eat because my throat was radiated, but that didn’t matter to me or to him. I enjoyed his company so much. It made me feel ‘normal,’ something cancer patients long to feel.
God was merciful. My cancer went into remission and I met my wife, who was to become my best friend a few months later. We double-dated with Dominic a few times and then I asked him to be in our wedding party. After that, we began to lose contact with each other. Once again, our lives grew in different directions. My wife and I moved out of state. We would only see Dominic once more and to this day.
I’ve only talked to him once by phone since then, but on the call it was like we talked yesterday. That’s how it is with real friends … time has no dominion. Dominic was there for me when I needed a real friend. That is something I will never forget. It is something I will value the rest of my life. Today, I daily consider the value of my friendships, with my wife, my sons, my brother, and with the few others I call ‘friend’ … Dominic chief among them.
My new novel, RISE TO THE CALL (Cris De Niro, Book 3), is about real friendship. In it, Cris De Niro returns to his childhood neighborhood to show his sons where he grew up. While there, he’s approached by an old acquaintance, Tommy Skully, who needs help. Neither considered the other particularly a close friend, but Skully will soon learn the power of old-neighborhood kinship and the meaning of real friendship.
You can check it out here: RISE TO THE CALL (Cris De Niro, Book 3).
I want all of you who read my books to know that I consider you all … my friends! God Bless!
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