Sometimes the needed medicine is a quiet, serene atmosphere where every word and its full meaning can be heard and absorbed, where there is privacy to explore and soothe the hurt places, and time to linger and reacquire one’s game face before returning to the fray.
Two couples visited last week. Better friends to each other over the years than to us. Highly successful careers, they did it all: vacationed together with their young families, toured Europe regularly, water-skied the Gulf coast bayous, snow-skied the white slopes of Aspen and Steam Boat Springs; even bought a small plane and a large sailboat together. The friends had it made and seemed to be golden.
Then, they went too far. Got into a high-risk business together. One bailed out safely, though trimmed. Guilty. The other got sheared. No longer young, and having to start over. Rough.
Both couples trekked out to our retreat in the hundred-acre wood. One couple came on Monday, the other on Wednesday. Getting out of their car to unlatch the gate, they bumped along the dirt and gravel road, past the flowing spring, father away from the troubles that had brought shadows to their eyes.
No one died, although it felt that way. But a friendship fractured. These good folks still love each other and are trying to find a way to live with the brokenness and go on, through the tears and pain. Not an easy task.
As hosts and friends, we were in an awkward position. when should we speak? When should we listen? What should we say and what must we not say?
We were not able to solve our friends’ problems, but at least we could feed them well. Worry and hurt are enemies of good health. The situation called for something light to contrast with the somber mood. It needed to be colorful, and protein and vitamin rich, designed to nourish folks who spend their nights pacing the floor instead of sleeping.
We prepared the food in advance, so that the meals seemed to magically and effortlessly appear, like elf food. It was, after all, a necessary prop, not the main event.
Buck and I served the same lunch to both couples. Starting with rich red gazpacho, followed by peppery grilled salmon, served on fresh baby greens with raspberry vinaigrette. Dessert was a small scoop of old-fashioned pineapple sherbet accompanied by thin ginger cookies.
Between bites of salmon and spoonfuls of soup, each couple made the same observations. . . “It’s so quiet out here,” and “I don’t hear any noise at all.”
“The serenity. That’s what we love about it,” Buck replied.
Both couples arrived at Noon. Neither left before three. They lingered around the table talking, hands gesturing earnestly and eloquently.
“We’re busted,” he said sadly.”There’s nothing left. We have both gone back to work and will be in debt for the rest of our lives. Our retirement is gone.”
“But at least we still have thousands of frequent flyer miles,” his wife added seriously, too upset to recognize the dark humor in her remark.
Two days later, the other friend was at the same table, and anguished, “Why didn’t he call instead of having a damned letter delivered to me? For God’s sake, we’ve been best friends for 35 years. If we had talked, things might have gone differently.”
Those conversations will stick in my mind for a long time. Identical food, and mirror image narratives of our friends’ crack up.
We live in a noisy world where people lunch in the latest fusion-confusion trendy restaurants. It is next to impossible to hear all of a friend’s words, much less the layers of meaning, when environmental noise drowns out the subtleties. Out in public we greet one another for lunch with smiles and hugs, try to stay in the game conversationally despite the din around us, eat a meal which fills our bellies but does not nourish our spirits, and part with more smiles and hugs, strangely empty and vaguely disappointed.
Maybe in some more evolved future we will begin to define luxurious dining as sharing a meal in a quiet home where the food is handmade by dear friends, and the talk has power to move us.
When our friends, (both sets, three days apart), ambled down the sidewalk to their cars, heartfelt hugs and smiles ere exchanged. Buck and I held hands and waved them down the winding road.
We hadn’t solved all their problems, or seamlessly put their friendship back together again.But looking at each other, eyes filled with understanding, we knew that we had given them three hours of genuine listening ears, and asked thoughtful questions to get all the troubles into clear view, where solutions and peace might be found. That said, the fact is they have to play the hand they’ve been dealt.
Maybe we gave them an ace they can keep.