Michael Harding: Even death can’t uncouple my soul friends and me

FRIENDSHIP WEEK: I am what my friends have made of me and I exist only in relation to them

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

I don’t have many friends and they are usually very far away, but I can’t live without them. Some of them I started out with, in school or college or in the first wild years of being free as an adult on the streets of the world. Some of them are new. Some are younger than me and some are older.

But these are not “mates” or “acquaintances” I met through work or drinking in public houses. These are soul friends, like lovers entwined unconsciously with my life, because I am what my friends have made of me and I exist only in relation to my friends.

Recently in a crowded room in Dublin I saw an old friend by chance. I went up to him and said, “I miss you.”

And he just said, “I miss you, too”, and immediately the fervour we had for each other years ago was reawakened.

And I love to see the names of old friends pop up on my phone screen. When I hear their voices again across the years I am filled with gratefulness. For example, I have a friend who once walked with me on a Donegal beach 42 years ago as we tried to figure out the meaning of the universe; when he phones me now we talk about nothing more than the weather. But I love when he calls.

I have another friend whose voice reminds me of the songs that were sung in the Trades Club in Sligo in the 1970s. When she phones we still promise each other the world.

And there was a boy who stood beside me one day long ago in a Cavan field, protecting me from a wild jennet, and when I am afraid or worried about life I still call his number.

Extreme situations

Deep friendships grow sometimes when people are forced to live together in prisons or monasteries or other extreme situations. Teams trying to climb a mountain or to win a trophy become friends even though perhaps at the beginning they might not even like each other. But they transcend their differences in order to achieve their goal. They come together at a level that secures a common aim without deluding each other with flattery or false affection. And yet in those situations people often discover lifelong friendships.

For me life itself is such a situation. Because I did not choose my friends. They were given to me in the accidental nature of life, and I must cherish them in order to fulfil my own life.

Strength of friendship

Friendship is so strong that I have sometimes walked away from a graveside, after bidding a loved one farewell, only to discover many years later that I am still harbouring them in my heart.

Recently I was at a funeral in Drumshanbo, and after Communion a friend of the deceased went to the lectern to share his memories. At the end of an eloquent speech he turned to the coffin and called his friend by name. He asked him to keep a place for him in whatever heaven he had gone to. Because not only does friendship reach beyond the veil of death but there is no language that can contain the experience of true friendship other than the language of faith, love and hope.

When I think of my friends I imagine them with me, not just for a few decades but for a thousand lifetimes, again and again reaching out to awaken me, because without them I would sleep forever. These are the ones who know my flaws but accept me and forgive me, and with whom I break bread in the poetry of the heart, in the places where language cannot reach.

Even now in the sleeping world, in the flotsam of unconscious agitation and anxiety I live in, friends ease my longing for completeness and awaken me with mundane acts of kindness. I have floated unconsciously in this world for more than 50 years but there is something deeper in me that longs for completeness and unity. And there is nothing in life I am more grateful for than the fact of friendship; that occasionally I have been woven by an accident of time or place into the fabric of another human life, so that not even death can uncouple us.

These are my companions, the ones who go before me into the shadows, taking half of me already with them across the great river, whispering “Be not afraid” as they drift into the pure land of heaven and hold a place there for me.

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