Patrick Sallee learned how to be a great friend from a friend he’s sadly about to lose.
Last week, an email popped up from one of the best people I know. But my heart sank. I knew from the subject line it wasn’t from her. She has been battling breast cancer for five years, and the long fight is drawing to a close.
The million things I want to say to her flood my mind.
I’ve never known a person who met life nose to nose like she did. She wasn’t an optimist who would tell you how great things were going … but she also didn’t wallow in self-pity. Over the course of our friendship, I learned a tremendous amount about life, love and toughness. But most significantly, she exemplified and taught me what it meant to be a great friend.
The first time I hung out with her, we were in Atlanta for a conference with the organization where we both worked. I was brand new, 25 years old, and had only been there a few months. With about a 20-year age difference between us, I wasn’t quite sure we would have much to relate about. I was dead wrong.
A small group of arrived a night early, and so we all decided to go out to dinner. Everyone orders a couple of rounds of drinks. The waiter asks if I want a third. As I go to answer, she jumps in, “Nope, he’s done. Two is plenty.” I can only imagine the look on my face at that second, but as the waiter left she said to me, “We don’t really know each other, but I’m not letting you make a bad choice while I’m around. Two drink max around work people. That’s my rule.”
This wasn’t a power thing, or a move to beat up the young guy. This was entirely: I see potential in you and I’m not going to risk you making a mistake because you are young and not thinking about the consequences. This was about having my back before I knew I needed it. This was thinking about someone else and being selfless and caring.
For most of our friendship we lived in different cities, so outside of a few visits back and forth, most of our conversations were on the phone. As I thought about our conversations and the hours of catching up, the feelings came over me that I left with every time I talked to her. I always: 1) learned something 2) became a better person 3) felt like I could conquer the world.
Through her actions, she taught me some of the key elements to being a great friend:
Focus on your friends
Being a truly great friend requires a lot of selflessness. It requires putting your energy and attention into other people. Do we spend the kind of energy on people that empowers them? Do we build people up? Do we approach every conversation with our friends in a way that when it is over, they feel better for having had that conversation and know without a doubt that they are cared about.
With all my friend was going through the last few years with her health, she spent very little time discussing it. She was always far more interested in what was going on with others. She wanted to hear stories about my daughters and get updates on our mutual friends. While she would certainly share, her energy was focused on investing in others.
Encourage your friends
After getting her husband’s email that day I sat and stared at my screen, thinking about all that she gave to her friends and family. She was an endless supply of encouragement. I remembered the night I called her in tears when my then wife told me she wanted a divorce. Listening to all of the pain and fear … her response: “you got this.”
We all put far too much pressure and doubt in our own minds, and need friends that believe in us… relentlessly, even when we don’t believe it ourselves.
Have your friend’s back
I always knew I could count on her to share my perspective, regardless of the obstacle I was dealing with. She was in my corner. While always willing to challenge me to think, I never doubted that her intent was to help me make the right choices and become a better person.
While we both are comfortable and capable in any professional setting, we also share an appreciation for a more colorful vocabulary. She didn’t even need the full story and definitely didn’t need two sides of it. One side mattered…mine. Halfway through a story she would interrupt me, “fuck ‘em.” This always got a laugh.
Let your friends know they are important in your life
The last time we talked, you would have never guessed what she was going through. It was one of those conversations where the news isn’t good, but the person is so strong and positive that if you didn’t know better, you might think things were improving. Knowing her, it was because she didn’t want people to feel bad for her. She talked about her life and how blessed she felt with great family and friends.
Over the last few years, with each conversation, it always felt a little like this might be the last time we talked. It was never said, but was always there. I knew it was there because every conversation ended with much more feeling than any other conversation I have with friends. It was always some form of:
Her: “I’m proud of you. I love you.”
Me: “Keep fighting. Love you too.”
We all have lots of friends we stay in touch with, keep up with on Facebook, text regularly or maybe if we get crazy, give them a call. But are we investing in each other in a way that makes a difference? Are we too busy collecting acquaintances instead of building deep friendships?
Our last phone call was longer ago than I care to admit. Thankfully we had the friendship we did and expressed how important we were to each other. I learned a lot from her and how she lived, but the lasting lesson I will take is how to truly invest in the people we care about.