On Wednesday, February 20, 2008, we got about six inches of snow. I remember because I had to get Bridget to the hospital for her scheduled c-section by 7:00 a.m. Little Paddy was on the way! He was born around 9:15 that morning and spent the day in an oxygen tent, due to his lungs not being quite ready. Around 10:30 a.m., I glanced at my phone and noticed I had three missed calls. They were all from Mike.
I met Mike at a summer camp in 1998. Over the next 13 years, we’ve hung out, gone to wrestling matches and baseball games, talked on the phone and crashed each other’s parties, graduations and family functions. On that snowy day, Mike was the only person not in our family who called to check and see how we were doing: Was the baby here? Was Bridget OK? Did we make it through the snow? All of these questions were waiting on my voicemail. No other calls from other high school or college friends. I think I sent out a text message announcement and received few texts in response.
When I called Mike and told him the news, he screamed and dropped the phone cheering. I know that I was in a pretty fragile state, with Patrick under the ventilator and Bridget still recovering, but I got pretty choked up listening to how excited Mike was. When we hung up, it was clear to me that Mike was, and still is my best friend. We’ve argued, celebrated, mourned, and worked together over the last decade, and I can’t imagine my life without him.
A friend sent me this article in last week’s Times about friendship. The author analyzes our relationships in the modern world. It’s a love story for friendship, and at one point, the author states:
“Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be.”
I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to hear Mike tell me stories about how people at his work or at his high school called him retarded. I cannot imagine a friend of mine being put down like that every day of his life. But when I hear those stories, it reminds me that Mike is a young man living with a disability in an extremely un-inclusive world, not just my friend. Our lives are woven together and will be for the rest of our lives. I know that no matter where Mike goes, I will be in touch with him once or twice a week. We’re linked together.
So what about the relationships between the voluntary members and paid staff of Starfire? Are those friendships? Well, no, not all of them. Just as elsewhere in life, at Starfire there are people you click with and people you don’t.
This article was timely because of the questions posed by Janet Klees in Louisville about friendships between people with a label of disability and the people supporting them (check my recap of that conversation at the end of this post.)
I purposefully didn’t put our group answers to the third question we discussed on Day 3 of the Summer Institute: What do we know that others outside of Starfire might not know? One of our answers to that question is that people with disabilities and people without, even in a paid relationship, can indeed form deep and caring friendships. We all know that at Starfire because we’ve all got them. Some of them take years to recognize, as my friendship with Mike took me, but that’s one of my jobs: to help the people I work with recognize that beautiful possibility more quickly than I and to leave themselves open to it. It’s not required, but it’s allowed, and it’s beautiful to see when it happens.
I’ve got another friend who spent a week with Starfire last week and is now interviewing our staff and members, asking them what Starfire has that feels so different…and how we got it. We’re not sure exactly, but I think it has something to do with friendship. We pay people to be excellent in their work: to maximize choice, to minimize exclusion, to find new ways. We don’t pay them to be friends, but it happens nonetheless. All of us accept who we are, with our potentials and limitations, and we challenge each other every single day.
Tomorrow night, Bridget and I are going out with some old and dear friends. Three of them have significant physical disabilities. When we meet at the BW3’s in Western Hills tomorrow night, there will be three of us that got paid to help the other three eat, swim, change clothes and get around a long time ago. But we haven’t done that work in 11 years, and no one will know that any of us were once paid to do that work. Tomorrow night, we’ll be six friends catching up after not seeing each other for a few months. Three of us will help three others eat and get around. We’ll have some wings and beers and tell old stories on each other, and at some point, we’ll talk about Bobbi Jo, our lucky 7th, whose funeral three years ago was the last time we were all in the same room. We’ve all stayed in touch in different ways and frequencies since then, but it felt like a good time to get everyone together again. And as difficult as it’s been to coordinate our schedules and get everyone there, it will be a damn good time and well worth the trouble. Our friendship is impossible to some, and insincere to others.
But we know what they don’t.