Learning to be a Friend

If the past year and a half has thought me anything, it is the importance of connecting with others, most notably loved ones. Those inherited, and chosen. As always, the irony of life is you don’t know something is important until it’s gone. I think we can all attest to that. With this global pandemic, it became increasingly difficult to meet with, and socialize with friends and family without the fear of putting them at risk. Nevertheless, during that period, I was able to reflect on how – even prior to COVID-19 – I had gotten so caught up in my daily routines between work, learning how-to self-care, and spend time with my husband, that without realizing it, I was already living in a bubble. I wasn’t making much space for nurturing my friendships. The worst is that somehow, I felt social media was compensating for that, helping me connect with my friends instead of actually connecting. With an ever-increasing to-do list, my relationships were based on doing more than being together. Scheduling occasional dinners, and celebrating milestones with friends were few and far between, usually whenever I was not exhausted from the weekday’s mutt in a rut. Those moments became another task I was checking off in my planner, instead of being completely present, not wanting anything other than that moment as it is, with friends. Whatever free time my husband and I could find, we had to make a choice between doing something or being still, and would often relish any quiet, alone time to disconnect. We were not aware we were relinquishing something we were taking for granted: our friendships.

I genuinely love my friends, but these days I often wonder if they know that… even if they’ve ever known that? A natural born introvert, I often enjoy the company of deep thoughts over conversations. My alone time is sacred to me. However, over the past year… really for a few years now, I can’t help but question: Am I a good friend?

It recently dawned on me that the majority of my best friends had to chase, and tackle me down to become my friends. Some have tracked my contact information through multiple failed attempts, and mutual acquaintances to get in touch with me. Others have relentlessly invited me to go out, showing up to my classes, house, and workspace until I ran out of excuses for not joining them. My tendency to be alone did not make me an expert at fostering relationships. The constant wave of changing friend groups I had growing up, have made me very nonchalant about people walking in and out of my life. I don’t take it personally if people choose to remain friends with me or not. I never want to put the burden of expectations on anyone. A noble approach? Maybe. But the reasons for my questioning ‘how am I a good friend?’ runs deeper.

Reconnecting with others always breathes new energy into my life when I didn’t realize I was gasping for air.

I have realized I know very little details about my best friends. In wanting not to pry into people’s business, for some of my friends I can’t recall their birthdays, their parents’ names, and what the latter do for a living. For others, I have never met any members of their family, or even visited the house they grew up in. I don’t call and chat with my friends over the phone every day, or meet up with them every weekend, or even every other one for that matter. And when I am GOING THROUGH IT – critical moments in one’s life when you would “need” a friend – I don’t have the reflex to reach out to them either for support or solace. And YET, they are my best friends!

What type of friendships are these? The guilt was palpable the more I pondered about what type of friend I was. So, I began my own investigation, reaching out to some of my friends for answers, and paying closer attention to my conversations with others to see if there were any noticeable red flags. They all reassured me that they loved me as I am (and vice versa!), and wouldn’t change a thing about our relationships, often reminding me of why we were a part of each other’s lives to begin with. Whether it is my cousin Brine with whom I can spend months or years without talking to her, and catch up for lost time in just a two-hour call. My childhood friend RR who always calls periodically to make sure I’m alright. My sister-friends Peaches who send me personal notes marking every anniversary, every milestone, every memorable life moment. My inseparables Clarinette and Nana who are the pillars in the most life changing moments. Or my adventurous fofihna, who over cigarettes, a cup of coffee, sitting on a balcony, we talk about nothing and everything. They reminded me we are always there for each other in the moment. I count my blessings for having countless other unnamed best friends who are such an integral part of my life. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel I am a lousy friend. Because more often than not, I find myself – time and time again – alone not by chance, but by choice, when most of the time, I wish I had someone to talk to. Why is that?

If leading by example were to have shaped me, then I am a definite mix of both my parents. My mother is paralyzingly antisocial, to the point, I honestly think she is afraid or “se méfit” of everyone. She doesn’t broach conversations or hang out with anyone other than her family or those associated to them, generally by marriage. Growing up, my parents raised me with a tight, firm grip, which meant I practically never went out unless I was chaperoned or accompanied by an older family member. When I was younger it didn’t bother me much. I was always surrounded by twenty first-cousins at any given time, and we kept each other fairly entertained. My bestie — ‘til this day — was my cousin Brine. We were the only two girls of the same age in the family. Like ying and yang, our contrasting personalities complemented each other beautifully: I was the introverted, shy, girly girl who brought calm to her extroverted, bold, tomboy fire. But over the years, many of my cousins either went off to college or moved away to other countries during the 1990’s trade embargo in Haiti. Brine had moved to Canada (heartbreak!), and I found myself intrinsically alone.

The fact that my home country’s social and political situation slowly deteriorated didn’t help much either. It just brought more fuel to my mother’s paranoia and arsenal of excuses for not letting me go out. One of my favorites of her justifications was “I don’t know [so and so’s] parents. They are not my friends, so I don’t feel comfortable sending you to their house or a party where I don’t know who these people are.” To which one day, in exasperation, I eventually responded to with “Of course you don’t know them Mom! You don’t know anyone. You have no friends!”

My father is the stark opposite of my mother. A true social butterfly, he knows everyone, and everyone knows him. I can’t walk anywhere in Port-au-Prince without someone shouting at me “ABC Electronics!” in reference to my father, and his shop. My dad’s easy-going, laidback, and disarming charm, makes it easy for him to navigate through any social circles, and to build long lasting relationships with a myriad of personalities regardless of their blue- or white-collar backgrounds. I admired that about him, and loved seeing him in action. “Treat everyone like you would treat yourself, because in life, you never know who will show up for you when you most need it,” were words he lived by, and whose time-proven truth I witnessed and experienced for myself. I wished he had applied this social consciousness in my iron fist upbringing, but he really gave my mother free reign to make the decisions on household matters. But then again, the more I think about it, what father is inconvenienced from not having to worry about their daughter being out in the streets?

My father’s example is probably the one I took most at heart when it came to building my friendships. Because I couldn’t help but feel that if I took my mother’s approach, I would witness life pass me by, instead of living it. I was extremely shy when I was young. Until one day I realized if ever I wanted something, to get people to know the real me, or to stand up for myself, well I’d better speak up. It was a decision that fundamentally changed my life. I became a social bird with a varied group of friends that included everyone from the Mean Girls to the Geek Squad, and all the rainbows in between. But eventually, by my early teens, many of my friendships would get stomped by the simple fact that I couldn’t go out. Many of my newfound friends grew frustrated or simply felt insulted that I couldn’t join them for any social activities outside of school, whether it was sleep overs or grabbing an ice cream at the local parlor. Thinking me indifferent because they couldn’t fathom that my parents were that strict, I lost some friends along the way. I had to wait until my senior year in High School, and my college years for my parents to loosen their grip a little. But by then, old habits of being alone and distant had already sunk in.

It isn’t about who you’ve known the longest, because a friend may always be waiting behind a stranger’s face.

In my first year of college, I truly blossomed personally and socially. I thrived being in a diverse, international student body, and delighted in the freedom to go out wherever and whenever I wanted. College was everything I had hoped, dreamed, and wished it would be and beyond. But the honeymoon was short-lived. My family faced some financial strains, so I had to get a job to cover out-of-school expenses to make ends meet. I made it a priority to focus on my studies and work, falling into the comfortable patterns of leaving little time for anything else. It took some very persistent friends to yank me back to life.

I am a definite product of my environment. Although I am conscious, one needs not to be a victim of it. Like I’ve said before, being alone has also been my choice. I struggle all the time to find the right balance between making time for others, and for myself. In today’s quickly shifting world, I often feel pulled by competing priorities, and scramble to center myself in what matters. I am not one to shy away from being alone with myself, to face the bad, the ugly, and miraculous. But the truth is, I really feel I can be a better friend. There is a long-standing guilt within me for missing out on the moments that matter, such as when my friends’ sister and mother passed away from cancer, and I wasn’t there. Or how my friends’ children are growing up, and they are having to acclimate themselves to being around absent Auntie Isa. Or when my gut tells me some of my friends are in the thick of depression, financial, and relationship difficulties, and their first instinct is not to call or bother me because, quite frankly, I have never been the type to make them comfortable to do so. I strongly believe that relationships reflect who you are. And I am not loving what I am seeing. That nudge ‘how am I a good friend?’ is my own awareness that I want to change.

The beauty of friendships, and connecting with others, is that they inspire and challenge you to bring out the full potentiality of who you fully are. The company I keep does that for me daily, and I want to share my undivided appreciation. I want to go out of my way to visit friends like RR. Bring infectious joy to every moment shared like Dimples. Make time to gather over bacalhau like Ma, Julz, and Suz. Be a conscious parent-Auntie like Liline. Always be a phone call away like Care Bear and Nana. And have the infallible ability to make any friend — from old diaper to ‘newfound met through ex-boyfriend’ besties — feel like family, like my Peaches. More often than not, when I do step out of my alone bubble, reconnecting with others always breathes new energy into my life when I didn’t realize I was gasping for air.

What I have learned over the years, is that friendships are not about quantity, but quality. It’s about surrounding yourself with people who level you up to be at your best, flaws and all. Who will ride with you in a bus as much as in a limo. Who are as happy for your happiness, as you are for your own happiness. Who give you total freedom to be yourself because they love you for no other reason than because you are, you. Friendship is a gift with no return receipt. It isn’t about who you’ve known the longest, because a friend may always be waiting behind a stranger’s face. In my life, I have been blessed with the loyal companionship of old friends, and the kindness of total strangers that have equally been immeasurable catalysts in shaping who I am. The reality is, no matter how lonely I might feel, I am never going through anything alone…I can always choose my family. Time doesn’t take away from friendship, nor does separation. I know my friends love me, but learning to be a better friend is my own way of loving them back.

Illustration by Alexa Masucci

With Love,