Monday, July 30, 2012

The Parthenon of Friendship

July 30 is International Day of Friendship. I'd like to share a poignant story of one of the deepest friendships I've had the privilege of being a part of over the years. Hope you like it.
The unraveling of history on a trip I took two summers ago to see the Parthenon in Greece presented an unusual twist—I found myself contemplating the profundity of the association called "friendship."

Our group of men, women, and children from eight families comprising thirty-two members, traveled on this trip to Greece. To be frank, the friendship we have shared for nearly three decades hasn't made a meaningful dent in the global landscape. It's not as if we've collectively helped avert a national disaster, or staged rallies to find a cure for cancer, or established a non-profit to benefit the poor. Neither have we faced the horrors of war nor have we a story of adversity to share. Our commitment was—and remains—to make something of ourselves and to maximize opportunities to help realize our humanity within our spheres of influence, i.e., our families and communities.

Eight young men converged at the same college in 1982—JC Engineering College in Mysore, India. With the first brick in this "Parthenon of friendship" laid, these young men, many of whom were the first in their families to attend professional college, graduated in 1986 with degrees in computer science. Leaving behind the only country and family they had ever known, they set out toward the horizon of economic prosperity. Their destination? The United States. Their possessions were scant: a suitcase of essentials. But indomitable spirits and the friendship they shared would carry them afar—a discovery they were yet to make. Many enrolled at American universities for further studies—the first in their families to do so—while others pursued their professions. Geographic co-ordinates aside, the challenge of assimilating into a new culture, from both personal and professional perspectives, was yet another first. Not unlike the Gold Rush, these prospectors then journeyed to California, converging in Silicon Valley. They rented studio apartments or clung together with roommates in larger residences, and either hitched a ride or rode the bus to work. Through sheer hard work and thrift—qualities they would later strive to instill in their children—the young men were able to buy their first used car, upgrade their dwelling, and support themselves and their families back home.

Marriage was the men's next milestone. The new brides, me being one, came from varied professions and backgrounds, including engineering, literature, pharmaceuticals, and business. Many amongst us were the first in our families to break tradition and mosey outside of our cultural confines. Many rejoined school for higher education; others engaged in professional pursuits. Not having any immediate family around, we readily became each other’s "family," meeting regularly, celebrating religious holidays, and catching up on the latest happenings. During these gatherings, the men typically talked sports, the stock market, and politics; the women discussed that and everything from bonfire to bling. Personality differences aside, the emotional distance between individuals was quite palpable.

With time the hard-baked topsoil yielded, helping ease the transition from formal to familiar. We began to feel comfortable seeking support during times of need. If a person fell ill, we made them dinner. If someone needed a ride to the airport, we obliged. If a person relocated, we helped them move. If a person traveled, we entertained the home-alone spouse. Soon a realization descended upon us, that we held and honored an overarching ring of values foremost of which were respect for education, self-sustenance, conformity, consensus, and reverence for elders—values considered to be virtues in our culture. We couldn’t have known it then, but this was a prelude to the insights yet to unfold in the years ahead.

Our friendship deepened as we hosted baby showers for each other, interacted with each others' extended families, and babysat one another's kids. The men became adept at managing baby rituals: changing diapers, keeping nighttime vigil, and surprisingly enough, surrendering to juvenile charms. By now we had paid up our student loan, purchased our first new car, and made a down payment toward our first home. Our blooming earnings afforded us to visit our families in India and finance our parents' trips to visit us, and in some cases, move in with us in California.

Periodic gatherings thrived during which the men talked sports, college tuition, and politics; the women engaged in layered conversations about that and everything from dancing to discipline; the little ones reveled in the spotlight. The gal-pals then started a lunch club to meet and share tips on managing tiny-tot infantries, relieving work stress, and surmounting marriage woes. Some of the men networked at weekly "happy hour." We leaned on our parents, extended family, and especially on each other for wisdom to navigate life’s complexities. This support network helped ground us, and as we would discover, sustain us through the challenges that were to unfold.

There came a period during which the women faced the gut-wrenching decision of trading our soaring careers for a "stay-home mom" status. Personally, I wanted to witness every major milestone in my children’s lives: the first step, the first word, the first day of school—precious moments that can go unnoticed amid life’s chaos. Debates ensued as we speculated the "rights" and "wrongs" of the issue and evaluated our options. Can I handle the adjustment? Will I miss work? Could my family still afford the mortgage? Letting go of the professional identity that we had strove to build was a struggle as was getting past the mind-set that equated staying home to a prison-term, not a privilege. Eventually, many of us embraced that role. To compensate for the "loss," I turned to writing. We became active in our children's schools. Some attempted part-time gigs; others became involved in charitable projects. These new interests added a sense of fulfillment and balance to our lives. Only years later, as we watched our children grow into their own, did we understand the significance of the decision to stay home: the understated steps of motherhood had allowed us, emotionally and spiritually, to climb so much higher than the glorified rungs of the professional ladder.

As our friendship continued to evolve, our hearts expanded to compassion's true meaning. I remember one night, several years ago, when I woke up cringing in pain. A series of twisting and piercing spikes dug into my chest as I lay curled on my side. A band of pressure then began to squeeze, wring, and tighten my heart. I was only thirty-one years old and a healthy mother of two with no history of any illness. But the pain tore through my chest with such vigor that I thought I was having a heart attack! Not wanting to alarm my husband or awaken my children, I stumbled out of bed to use the bathroom, to no avail. Hunching forward, I staggered to the kitchen sink, one hand on my chest, the other feeling the wall for support, gasping and grimacing, my movements sluggish and awkward like those of an intoxicated person. Turning up the faucet with my fist, I slurped some of the water cupped in my trembling palm, again to no avail. An instant later the pain rocketed and I dropped to the floor, whimpering. A wave of nausea hit and uttering disjointed groans I started to crawl back to the bathroom, when my husband appeared. Immediately he dialed 911. The ambulance arrived, strapped me to a gurney, and transported me to a nearby hospital. Meanwhile, my husband called up a classmate, who within minutes raced up the seventeen-mile stretch to our house, in the middle of the night, without an ounce of hesitation, to watch my two young children so that my husband could be with me at the hospital. Assured of our children's safety, we proceeded to peacefully attend to my hospital business, which resulted in a we-don't-know-what-happened-but-you're-disgustingly-healthy-so-we're-discharging-you diagnosis. The point is, we will always be there for each other, no matter the emergency.

Family cookouts, gal-pal lunches, and happy hour toasting continue to the present day, during which the men talk sports, retirement, and politics; the women explore that and everything from pino noir to perimenopause; the children—from the roaring laughter and the piercing screams that accompany it, I have to believe that their yearning to spend time with each other rivals that of the adults.

So, as I marveled at the vestiges of the Athenian Parthenon, I wondered with nostalgic warmth: what is unique about the friendship shared by these eight families? Nearly thirty years in the making, and still going strong, what is it that keeps us together? It was natural for the men to nourish their friendship—they are classmates. The women didn’t have the advantage of pre-screening each other, yet we proceeded to light and launch a friendship of our own. The children regard each other like family. Like any relationship, we have our flow of ups and downs, silly times and serious times. Some have faced more hardship than others. Yet the pulsating need to connect and draw from each other’s emotional reservoirs is a powerful, resilient force.

Much like the Parthenon has weathered wars, pollution, and climatic changes, this pool of eight has weathered the death of parents, job layoffs, family pressures, marital discord, illness and hospitalizations, and other life situations. Sincere appreciation for each other's strengths has helped us accept each other’s quirks and imperfections. We don't judge each other by wealth or position. We feel secure having honest conversations without a stream of expectation. Frustrations and disappointments are as much a part of the banter as are successes and accomplishments. Even in this age of technological advancement, we reach out not to our mobile devices but to each other’s wisdom. Each person has something to teach the other, and as a whole, the exchange is enriching.

As conscientious adults we have striven to reinvent ourselves, making constructive lifestyle choices such as putting family first, steering clear of drugs and other self-destructive behavior, and shaking off today's consumerism-fueled lifestyle. From professional pursuits and world travel to finding life's purpose, we have demonstrated to our children the physical, emotional, and spiritual reaches of a good education. We cherish opportunities to be with our children be it reading them bedtime stories, hurtling them to activities, disciplining them, or lecturing them on ways to curb food waste. A highlight over the years—and I speak for all—has been our children's interactions with their grandparents. To say that they light up each other's lives would be a libelous understatement. Given that our beginnings sprung from a small suitcase of essentials, we could not have imagined fashioning the life that we live today—a life filled with "stuff" for sure, but also joy, laughter, stability, compassion, and health.

Looking back, did we realize the American Dream of success and financial security? Yes, through prudence, discipline, hard work, and a determination to succeed. Have we explored opportunities to develop our humanity? I would like to believe we've made an attempt. Have we made mistakes? Well, about that…. Have we learned from our mistakes? Indeed! From the dispersing dust of our life and work, there arises a tiny speck of hope that we are passing on to our children the gift of values—values that will empower them to become contributing, global citizens.

Friendship is a celebration. While we all have other friends too, this enclave of eight families represents the building of something very basic: a span of emotional links that has bridged our differences, propelling us into the future. Drawn together by chance in 1982, this relationship symbolizes the bond the men have shared for nearly three decades. (They celebrated their 25th year college reunion last year.) It represents the efflorescence of the female power of attachment. And further, it exemplifies the meaning of life for our children.

As I ponder back, I'm really glad we invested the time to build a solid relationship, as time is the only element that can weave together early pieces of events into a meaningful collage for the future.