Jim Higley rediscovers the bucket of friends that helped define his life while throwing a toga party or two.
Every once in a while my kids have to sit through my lecture about friends. I give it when one of their friendships fizzles, a pal peters out, or a BFF suddenly goes MIA.
This well-oiled talk of mine is about how living life involves a series of friendships that fall into two buckets. One bucket is filled with an assortment of friends that come and go out of our life for various reasons. Classmates. Neighbors. That goofy kid on the bus. They are all very real friendships, but they sometimes run their course and fade away. I tell the kids it’s normal. Don’t worry about it.
But I also explain that there is another bucket they do need to worry about. It’s a bucket with those few, select, lifelong friends we all, hopefully, have. For some of us, it may be one special person. They are the friends that are there for the whole show. The friends that are bluntly honest. The friends you turn to in good, bad, sad, and tough times. These friends, I tell the kids, are the ones you need to guard, protect, and hold very close.
I always thought it was a pretty good lecture.
But, one of the realities of getting older is the realization that you don’t know everything. Recently, I learned that friends don’t necessarily fall into two, neat buckets. I’ve discovered that there’s another bucket out there. It’s a bucket reserved for old friends. Old, as in the ones who go way, way back to an important, life-defining point in your life. Old, fantastic friends.
For me, I found that bucket of friends a few weeks ago when a group of 50-year-old men had a joint birthday party at a little VFW Hall near the wooded shores of Lake Washington in Seattle. I was one of those men. And collectively—about 30 years ago—we were a bunch of young fraternity brothers sharing a few, quick years along the journey called life.
I never intended to be a fraternity guy. I was a naive kid from the Midwest heading out West to a big school and content to live in the dorms.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to dorm move-in day. I stopped by the Sigma Chi house as a courtesy to a family friend. I was only going to stay 30 minutes. That was the deal I made with my dad, who waited patiently in a parking lot for me. But, I never left. Ever. I never moved into the dorm. I stayed at the fraternity, and I was happy to let them squeeze me into a closet they swore was a legitimate room.
My dad was mortified. This was the eighties, the era of Animal House, John Belushi, toga parties, hazing, and beer bashes.
But, for me, it was as if I had been instantly adopted into a family. A family nothing like the family of boys I was raised in. It was diverse. It was eye-opening. And it was held tightly together by the common bond of a group of guys, all defining who they were as individuals. We played. We made mistakes. We solved the world around us. We compared religious beliefs. We shared angst over girls, expressed dreams, and put words to who we wanted to be. And, somewhere in there, we went to school.
In the blink of an eye, those years were gone. I moved back to the Midwest. And, in a world that didn’t have Facebook, I lost contact with most of those men.
That was 28 years ago.
But, thanks to some very thoughtful spouses, who used our mutual 50th birthdays as a reason to throw a party, we recently reunited. And, in a few quick hours, I was given the gift of that third bucket. The evening was much like picking up an unfinished book, many years later, and flipping to the end to find out how the story ended—discovering which dreams were realized and which new ones were found. We shared stories of children and careers, but we also eased effortlessly to conversations of yesteryear—solving the world, discussing the new things we felt angst over and, for some of us, defining a new vision of who we wanted to be. It was a continuation of a bond that was built many years ago.
As I drove to the airport late that night to catch a redeye flight home, I thought of my mortified dad, sitting in the parking lot, waiting for me all those years ago. I’m not sure I ever told him there actually were togas parties. But I only remember two. And, there was a crazy incident involving a chainsaw and our sleeping-porch door. But no one was injured. Promise.
However, the biggest thing I remember was simply being a part of an extraordinary collection of young men—if only for a few years—and all of us finding our path in life.
That’s why I’m happy to have found my third bucket. And, who knows, maybe if I keep my eyes open, I’ll find a fourth.