The Human Spirit: Make yourself a friend

In friendship you're not afraid to reveal your fears, nuttiness and dreams.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
Judaism places a high value on friendship, but it provides no ritual for mourning the death of a friend - no week of bereavement, no 30 days of less intense mourning, no limitation on listening to music or dancing at a wedding. And if your dear friend lives far away, as did my friend Sarah Wernick, then you miss the catharsis of the funeral. You have to find your own way to deal with the sadness and loss. In the past, I have written about two different Jerusalemites, one a woman and one a man, who began food charities as a way of honoring the memories of their close friends. I'm not there yet. I keep getting asked "what's wrong" by those sensitive to changes in my manner. The dermatologist proclaimed my atypical rash a reaction to something painful. The hairdresser decided my hair had gone suddenly frizzy from "something emotional." Who knew? Over the last two years, ever since Sarah was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive endometrial cancer, I visited as often as possible. Any invitation in the US, any inexpensive flight that came across my travel agent's desk, became the vehicle for getting to Boston. In October, before boarding the plane here, a message from Sarah's husband of 41 years warned me that her health had taken a dire turn. There was no public transportation from my first US appointment in upstate New York, but I had the extraordinary and unexpected good fortune of getting a seven-hour ride door to door to the hospital in Boston. Ours was a friendship of nearly three decades. When we first met, our sons, now grown men, were in the same synagogue nursery school class. Our family had arrived in Boston with three children under four for a sabbatical year connected to my husband's scientific research. Sarah immediately invited us to spend the afternoon at her house with its backyard swings. On the way there, without telling me why she was stopping, she bought kosher snacks and paper plates for us because she didn't adhere to Jewish dietary laws. She was, however, devout about hospitality, generosity and honesty. Fall turned to icy winter, as we spent afternoons nursing, and changing babies, teaching the kids to churn out pasta on a new machine she bought, visiting kids' libraries, kids' museums, rummage sales. WE TALKED through it all - the way women's conversation weaves a tapestry from one subject to another, careers, food, books, family and God. We were taking the baby steps of a friendship that would grow as surely as the kids outgrew the swing set and tike bikes. She'd earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Columbia, but had given up academia to be a writer. Back then Sarah wrote pithy restaurant reviews for the local paper. Eventually, she became a columnist for Working Mother magazine, a lecturer at the Nieman writers' conference at Harvard and a renowned health writer. Her bestsellers, the Strong Women Stay Young series, published in 13 languages, including Hebrew, were co-written with an expert from Tufts. She won prestigious prizes for her book on lung cancer, a subject that drew her - a militant non-smoker - because she believed that the sufferers rarely received adequate sympathy, attention or advice because many of them had smoked. Sarah pushed me to buy my first computer way back in 1983 when hardly anyone I knew used one. She was the computer jock, assembling her own hardware from the manuals. Back in 1990, I found the first e-mail program that would allow us to communicate six days a week, sharing everything. We also had an on-line hevruta, passing manuscripts back and forth without sparing criticism. OVER THE years and decades, my arrival in the US turned into the catalyst for writing retreats, theater evenings and spa visits. "Our friendship was unexpected," she said on that visit last month which we both knew would be our last. I knew what she meant. She was always on time; I run late. I'm impetuous, hyperenergetic, cellphone addicted. She preferred not to leave home, needed her sleep, thought things through. We lived 7,000 miles apart and we had strong and different opinions on subjects that mattered: politics and religion. When we were together, we argued into the night about war and peace, about God and heaven. Sarah never wore makeup and twice in these discussions she asked me to wash my face. Once, we were holed up in a winter writers' retreat in Cape Cod. I was trying out a pungent mango masque and my face was ghost white. Another time, we'd come back from one of my lectures and I was still wearing stage paint. She couldn't talk to me, she explained, if she couldn't see my real face. The word "validate" in English translates into the Hebrew le'amet - with its source from emet, the word for truth. A friend sees your real face because in friendship you're not afraid to reveal your fears, nuttiness and dreams. It's one of life's great satisfactions if you can get it. Sarah liked the idea of going to Boston's new Mayim Hayim community mikve when her cancer would finally vanish. It was one spa date we never got to keep. Sarah Wernick died at home on November 6. In our last meeting, in a friendship that was pregnant with words, we said what was on our hearts and then we sat quietly after a while and just looked at each other. No makeup. So, listen to the Talmud in Avot: Acquire a friend. And Sarah - admit I was right about heaven.