Friendship Like Teabags in a Single Pot

I.B. Singer, in some book of his, says, unforgettably, “No one gets through life unscathed,” and as we get older, the truth of this sentiment becomes more and more excruciatingly immediate. One of us has been diagnosed with a chronic illness, another’s teenage son is in a terrible car accident, a third deals with a parent’s deepening depression. At the Lilith office, four of us—Susan, Leslie, Naomi and I are all around the same age; Sarah, younger, fits right in. Most of us have been in each other’s lives for ten years or more, and there’s a collective sense that, in some fashion, we are but one big, pulsing organism. One of us publishes a book and it feels like all of us have; another of us, in middle age, gets the courage to sing in an off-Broadway cabaret, and we all, vicariously, sing in that cabaret, riveted by our astonishing courage; another spends 15 years shlepping towards a doctorate, and we all groan as we trudge to the doctoral salt mines; one of us wins an award and we rejoice collectively.

Two months ago, Susan phoned me and her tone was dire. “Call back now,” was the message she left on the machine. My mind automatically flipped to the thought that I always have when, for years now, we Lilith workers gather around our deeply disheveled editorial table to brainstorm the next issue. “Breast cancer,” I prophesied to her when I phoned her back. Each of us, over the years, has looked across our big office table and thought, “One in eight. Who’s it gonna be? Whose Damocles’ sword is swinging low?” But this time it wasn’t “breast cancer.” It was our first widow, Naomi, made so through heartbreaking circumstance.

“Why?” we thought, as Naomi is the uncontested lamed vovnik among us, the one most pure of spirit, who had just spent the weekend in the Boston hospital room of her childhood best friend, singing favorite prayers and old school songs to her as she lay in a coma. And Naomi was the one who had davenned each afternoon, in an intermission from work, at an Orthodox minyan that only grudgingly allowed her presence, but where she had committed to going for a year in order to say kaddish for her father.

The night before Gil’s funeral service, three of us gathered at Leslie’s house for a sleepover. It was an evening—a night— where the real agenda was deeply unspoken. It wasn’t in our muted chatter in p.j.’s, or our shared musings about “why now?” or “why?” or in that terrible feeling in our guts. Rather, the agenda was our longevity as friends together, our steeping in that, like teabags in a single pot, and our sense that so much life—I mean the actual thing—has unfolded between us and among us, with our families, our health, our careers, our commitments, our failures. Our real agenda, indeed, was the knowledge that none of us do get through life unscathed. That we had, indeed, become each others’ lives, not in the sense that we could really erase each others’ hardships, but in the sense of our long-term commitment, honed over years, to be a big safety net for each others’ tsoris, to feel helpless against life’s sorrows together, to be witness to all this unfolding.

In an issue of the magazine about friendship, we dedicate this Lilith to you, Naomi—avatar of friendship, of scholarship and of uncontested sainthood and wisdom. We pray that we—your humble Lilith substrate—bolster that slender word “I,” and provide you strength for the journey ahead.