published Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Clif Cleaveland: Bedrock friends a special class

Clif Cleaveland

Last week, a close friend of 58 years died. As I mourned his loss, I reflected upon that small band of loved ones whom we might deem our bedrock friends.

Over the course of our lives, we will establish countless acquaintances in schools and workplaces, perhaps in unexpected destinations while relaxing or pursuing projects or serving in the military. We may use the term "friend" broadly to identify people with whom we have relaxed conversations or shared encounters at sporting or civic events. We may see some friends occasionally at alumni events, concerts or while pursuing shared volunteer responsibilities.

If we are fortunate, we will have a handful of long-term friends who belong to a special category. These are the people we can call or contact even after long intervals to ask for advice or support or simply to chat. Our conversations with these friends can be resumed as if there had been no break in the thread of communication. In times of trouble, they will ask, "How can I help?" Or they may call and say, "I need your help." We can celebrate success with them or commiserate at times of disappointment. If we are really fortunate, our bedrock friends will live close by.

A bedrock friendship will evolve and become richer over the years. My friend and I met during freshman year in college. Subsequent encounters involved a growing nucleus of close friends as we worked on campus projects or tackled what we perceived then as issues to be addressed. Why was our university segregated? How should we address overt cheating in some of our classes? Why did the administration seem deaf to our concerns? There were large and small matters, some quite trivial in retrospect.

We were roommates during our senior undergraduate year. Separate career pathways after graduation meant that we would see each other infrequently, further complicated by our growing families over succeeding decades. Birthdays, anniversaries, class reunions, hikes and rare shared vacations were interspersed with occasional phone calls and emails. A month ago, our families met for supper in Santa Fe, N.M. We picked up where we had left off, thinking aloud about public education, the sorry state of confrontational politics and the evolving lives of our children and grandchildren.

At his memorial service, family and the nucleus of close friends "tucked him in," the wonderful term employed by the presiding pastor, by each putting a scoop in the garden site that held his ashes.

I compare life to a patchwork quilt. Certain events, planned and accidental, will contribute patches. A musical performance or a painting may earn a patch for taking our thoughts in new and profound directions. Other patches may stem from texts that we read.

Family members, neighbors and friends will each contribute patches of various size and shape to this evolving piecework. Teachers and coaches from all levels of our education will be represented. A variety of personal and group encounters will teach lessons in courage and compassion.

Close kin -- our immediate families -- and bedrock friends contribute lengthy patches that are woven in and out of the fabric, giving it strength and continuity. Our personal quilt or tapestry is a growing composite of people, experiences, thoughts and feelings.

The special friend that I celebrated last week helped me define my thinking and my actions across a broad spectrum of issues. We shared love of families, patriotism, respect for teachers and colleagues, and the desire for a civil society. Our deliberations created islands of reflection in hectic environments. Our views were not necessarily identical, as each of us sought to define and live a kind and significant life. That quest goes on.

A bedrock friend may die. Their influence upon our lives happily continues.

Email Clif Cleaveland, M.D., at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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