Friendships in Midlife: The Inevitable Fork in the Road

A sweet friendship refreshes the soul.” – Proverbs 27:9

I blame our girls.

Twenty eight years ago, when they were in third grade, Jenny and Emily plotted to spark a friendship between their parents so they could spend more time together.

The Winglers were transplants like we were. We’d moved to California from New Jersey a few years earlier for graduate school, while Kenny was a Navy physician newly stationed in San Diego. Jenny’s mom, Marta, had a rich Tennessee drawl, so I assumed they were Southerners. However, when Jeff and I later met Kenny, we were amazed to discover that not only had he grown up in New Jersey, too, but that he and I had lived in the same apartment complex as babies.

The Christmas Tradition Begins

That first Christmas I learned that Marta, like many other Navy wives, would be alone with her two kids, so I invited them to spend the day with us. That was the beginning of our tradition of spending Thanksgiving and Christmas (and other special occasions) together for almost every one of the past 28 years. Jenny and Emily each had a little brother, so we had the perfect combination for a family friendship. The kids were all creative and bright, played together well, and kept us entertained for hours with their hilarious skits and songs.

Each Thanksgiving Marta brought the cornbread dressing and I made green bean casserole. After awhile we didn’t even need to discuss the menu in advance. Marta liked my gravy and I liked her pecan pie. She knew my son Jon preferred the cranberry sauce jelled in the shape of the can, and I knew Andrew would eat Cool Whip but not whipped cream. Kenny—I suppose because he’d had a class in surgery in medical school and also owned an electric knife—always got stuck carving the turkey. After dinner we’d laugh our way through family games of Balderdash or Pictionary before breaking out the guitars and singing for hours.

A Friendship is Formed

Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too?” – C.S. Lewis

A friendship is about something. Ours was about raising our kids in the Lord. Our kids attended Awana together, played on the worship team at school, enjoyed basketball, ice skating, and cheerleading. We parents sat in the stands, drove them to lessons, and prayed them through their childhood and adolescence.

Friendship isn’t about who you’ve known the longest, it’s about who walked in to your life, said “I’m here for you,” and PROVED it.” — Unknown

Marta brought her Bible and stayed and prayed with me the morning Jeff had surgery for prostate cancer. Kenny sat in the hospital with us the whole day my son had knee surgery. On another occasion when Jeff was out of town, Kenny followed an ambulance speeding me to the emergency room where he then spent hours waiting with me as I received treatment.

One year we were young and broke enough to have arrived home from a trip without a dollar left in our wallets. We walked out to the parking lot of the airport at 11 pm and realized our house sitter had forgotten to leave our car there. We had no cash either in our wallets or at home to pay the $75 a cab would have required. We called Kenny, who graciously got out of bed and came to pick us up and drive us home.

In addition to being an always reliable prayer partner, Marta has been a great help to me in my career. She agreed to be part of a team that would read and code 10 books when I did research for my doctorate. Later, when I began to write my book, she invited me to join her critique group and they helped me to transition from an academic to a more natural voice. And cut words. Oh did they help me cut words! A gifted writer herself, since then Marta has spent untold hours editing for me each time I’ve prepared an important submission.

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” – William Shakespeare

The Fork in the Road

As I said before, we have the girls to blame.

Now that we’ve reached the age of retirement and because of the children who initially brought us together, we are going our separate ways. Jenny and Emily have each married, had children, and live now at opposite ends of the country. Kenny & Marta’s only grandchild lives in the Pacific Northwest, and so that is where they’ll go. The house where we’ve spent Christmas for all these years is on the market, and their gaze is now fixed on their life ahead with their precious granddaughter nearby.

Times change. And change is hard. How do you replace lifelong friends when you come to that fork in the road that will separate your paths?

The answer is: You don’t replace them.

You can’t replace them.

But as the Girl Scouts taught us, we must learn to “Make new friends and keep the old, for one is silver and the other is gold.” I have to believe that the same God who gave us this gift of friendship has others waiting for both of us. We have to trust him for friends both near and far. This priceless relationship that will last for eternity began when I reached out to newcomers with a simple invitation. As we grow older and face these inevitable forks in the road, we have to maintain this outward focus.

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss

I like this attitude and recite these words to myself every time my sweet granddaughters get back on that plane to Tennessee.

But I promise you this. If they start singing “A friend’s a friend forever when the Lord’s the Lord of them” at the Wingler’s going away party, I just might have to leave the room so I don’t drown out the video with my audible sobbing.

Change is inevitable, even in the most steadfast of friendships. Take courage if you face this particular transition, and remember that “the road to a friend’s house is never long.”