One of the reasons I looked forward to moving back to the town where I grew up was that my best friend through my teenage years was still there. After I graduated from high school, I moved a lot and was back in my home town infrequently—once was to be a groomsman in his wedding.
He was a groomsman in mine.
When I moved back, though, something wasn’t right.
We’d make plans to get together, and about half the time he wouldn’t show up.
When we did see each other, he seemed distant. Distracted. The most curious of all was when he agreed to be with my wife and me on my birthday.
It would be dinner at my house, and then we’d go to a concert with two of the world’s great jazz musicians, Chick Corea and Gary Burton. I spent a good chunk of change and got tickets for the three of us.
My wife went to considerable effort to make the dinner special. She knew how much this friend meant to me.
But he never showed up.
We waited for a courteous 30 minutes, then I tried calling him. No answer. I called his work. Not there. We waited an hour, then finally ate and went to the concert.
For the next several days I tried calling him, and finally gave up.
I knew he wasn’t dead. There had been sightings.
About two months later he called me at my office—something he had never done before. He sounded very matter of fact, made no effort to explain what happened on my birthday, but he cut right to the chase.
“I need to ask you to do something for me,”
He spoke in a flat, controlled tone. He didn’t even wait for my reply. “I need you to write a letter stating why you like me, and why you’re my best friend. And I need it by 6:00 tonight.”
I agreed without hesitation. But I had to ask.
“Can you tell me what’s going on?”
“I’m going to my AA meeting, and tonight is my night to tell my story. They said I needed a letter from someone who could say why they liked me. You’re the only one I could think of.”
After we hung up I just stared at the ceiling.
How could I have missed the signs of his alcoholism? What kind of a friend was I? The writing came easily. I wrote about what a gift he was to the world. I listed his talents, his traits, his acts of kindness, his humor.
I was specific in how much better my life was as a result of our friendship.
He stopped by the house promptly at 6, and I was waiting for him at the door. I handed him the envelope, and we shook hands. I told him that I was sorry and that I was proud of him.
He was silent and quickly headed back to his car.
He told me later that all he could see when he looked in the mirror was that he was a failure. Labels like drunk, divorced, disappointment, were the only ways he could see himself. He assumed that the world looked at him the same way. And that I looked at him the same way.
My letter gave him some new language: funny, loving, smart, friend.
He couldn’t see it. He needed someone else’s perspective.
Our friendship is still strong, more than 30 years later.
He’s healthy and sober. We live in different parts of the country again. His dad just died and we had a great conversation on the phone about loss and grief.
Since he called and asked me to write that letter, I have been more intentional about articulating to my friends what they contribute to the world.
I happily write them letters. You don’t have to ask me twice.