Several months ago, I had a severe brain stem injury. I was standing in my kitchen with two close friends, David and Andrea, unable to get my words out to say that something felt very wrong. Fortunately, they noticed my speech was strange, and while I was unable to say so, I was hugely relieved to see that they were alert to a problem and would get me help.
During my recovery, five of my closest friends formed a band of angels around me. While none of them coordinated their efforts ("You take Wednesday morning; I'll take Friday night"), each of them intuitively showed up so that for one full week I was never alone. Richard would be there all night on Wednesday, Victoria would be there all day on Thursday and so forth. It would take me two full hours to get to my kitchen each morning, though only 10 steps away from my bedroom, because it caused me excruciating pain to lift my head. But caffeine had such an ameliorative effect on my headache that I would walk very slowly, with my head at a 90-degree angle to the floor, just to make it the coffeemaker. So my friend Jimmy started arriving early each day with a Starbucks drink in hand.
Things that had always seemed like the smallest, least significant efforts seemed for a while like almost insurmountable challenges. And my best friends were there.
It's very scary having something wrong with your head. I had never before had anything deeply wrong with me physically, so I had never felt the level of vulnerability that comes with serious illness. When the clouds had blown over, when the physical crisis was handled, I was overwhelmed with gratitude—to God, to my doctors and to my best friends.
We live in a world of easy friendships—people here for you when it's easy, so-sorry-but-I-have-an-errand-to-do-now when it's not. When I reflected back on how my one small group of beloved friends had cared for me when I so needed it—driving me to the hospital, staying with me during difficult procedures (Victoria and I joked about writing a column, "What I Wore to My Spinal Tap") and staying at my house with me so I wasn't alone—I realized that their care and concern had been as important to my recovery as were the ministrations of top-notch doctors. During every moment of that painful, and even frightening, time, I discovered the single most important thing that any sick or ailing person needs to know: that I was not alone.
I will never see these friends in the same way again. We're now back to easy banter, arguing over Chinese or vegan, rushing home to watch Bill Maher, processing our issues and laughing over stupid things. But at a moment when the laughter stopped, when I needed help I could not provide for myself, my band of beloved angels showed me their wings.