I got a present last week.

Except, apparently, this present has been in my possession for some time—I just didn’t realize it.  Kind of like the last Christmas present – the one that’s hidden behind the tree and under miles of wrapping paper that’s been torn off other gifts, usually found sometime after the opening frenzy. I don’t know exactly how long my unwrapped gift has been lying around, waiting for me to notice it, waiting for me to recognize and appreciate it, waiting for me to even just believe that it was really there. I’m not even truthfully sure when it first dawned on me that there was a precious gift waiting for me to unwrap.  All I really know for sure is that last Thursday evening, sometime between the spontaneous bouts of tears I’d battled all day, a voice rang out in my soul, loud and clear. It just said:  “Surprise!”  It was so loud that I stopped my usual litany of “realistic”, often emotionally draining, thoughts and paid attention. Surprise?  What surprise?  The answer:  “Guess what?  You have friends.”   Instead of scoffing at such a ridiculous notion, as I have internally done for the last 30 years, a new well of tears filled my already swollen eyes.  Unbelievable as it may be, for the first time in my life, I actually believed that incredible statement.

This whole past month has been an emotional war for me:  it has really taken a toll.  I’ve cried pretty much non-stop. Memories I’ve deliberately worked very hard to squelch have relentlessly dogged my every waking moment, and some of my non-waking moments as well.  Most terribly of all, I was terrified that I was about to lose something precious to me.  I was convinced, initially, that some people I deeply admire and respect thought it best that I just go away. Had it not been for my daughters, I fear that that’s exactly what I might have done. After all, no one wants to be where they aren’t wanted—especially if they know they’ve earned the rejection.  Fortunately,  my daughters did have a place with those same people and I simply did not have the strength nor the heart to selfishly punish my girls by taking them away from a source of tremendous goodness in their lives. I couldn’t do it. So I prayed. And after I prayed, I decided to accept at face value what the people kept telling me:  “Come. We don’t want you to go away.” I didn’t really believe them, then, but I didn’t really have a choice either: my girls expected to go.

So I took them and tried, best as I could, to hide.

Except these people wouldn’t let me.  Despite real reason to be angry or tired of me, one person in particular made it a point to call me every other day, determined to keep in touch. I slowly became convinced that this one person must truly care. Someone, at the foot washing ceremony, turned around, called my name and hugged me.  Those things  made things somewhat easier but I was still feeling terrible emotions. Smiling was hard. Frankly, it still isn’t as easy as it should be: my eyes are still swollen from spontaneous tears that continue to plague me.

But, last Thursday, I was able to meet with someone whose opinion, wisdom and esteem I deeply respect and trust.  I walked away from the meeting deeply emotional.  I was emotional for a lot of reasons.  Memories I had not intended to share surfaced, for one, leaving me afraid that I had burdened someone I care about, and with whom I have longed to develop a friendship for what feels like forever.  Beyond that, though, I was emotional for another reason, a deeply cleansing and healing one. I walked away believing that the very people I feared I had disappointed still cared about me, some enough to advocate and fight for my mere presence. People, that’s called friends.

Wow.

I don’t even know what to say in response to that.

My family loves me—they are my friend. My sister is still the only person with whom I can laugh without inhibition (one day, I want to be my sister), for instance. With the exception of my immediate family,  I have never had a friend.  The reason is simple. I don’t let them get close enough because I know that, once they do, they will leave.  I mean, what else would they do?  I’m a fruitcake, when you get right down to it.  I’m more emotional than a teenage girl without a Prom date on my good days.  When I’m not wearing my smile (read: mask)  that’s designed to convince others I’m a happy-go-lucky gal, I’m serious to the point of ridiculous. And, if you ever were to get past the smile, if you ever didtry to cut into a piece of the fruitcake that is me, you’d discover that my brain is almost certainly dysfunctional. I don’t think normal thoughts—in fact, tell you the truth, many of the thoughts that I do have are so irrational that it’s hard to wrap a normal brain around them.  Some like to think I’m really intelligent. No, not really. Trust me, my brain is loony.  Add to that, I’m not funny and I have no extraordinary talent to speak of, besides the writing and teaching things. But anybody can write. Indeed, the individual with whom I was meeting is a published author as well. And my seven year old daughter is a fantastic teacher; she has me beat by miles.

Bottom line—I know myself too well.  I know that it doesn’t make sense to be friends with someone who isn’t fun to be around and who can, in fact, be quite emotionally draining. I’m not saying I’mcompletely terrible. But it’s kind of like looking for gold, getting to know me is. To find a piece of gold within me,  you have to first wade your way through a bunch of  —stuff–. and, most of the time, thestuff  is just…. unmanageable. So, sometime in elementary school, I gave up on friends.  I quit trying to make them somewhere around the fourth grade. I convinced myself that I was a leader, and that would have to replace having friends.   Honestly, the idea makes me nervous because I don’t want the people I admire and love to leave me, like other people whom I cared for have left. Instead, I do what I’m good at:  I focus on children, I smile a lot and then I go home where I can release the real me onto paper that can’t leave.

At the meeting I had on Thursday, I was very honest and forthcoming. I didn’t really intend to be. I really just wanted to get to know someone better. I really just wanted the chance to express how glad I am to still be there, and how much the place and the people and this person in particular mean to me. I just wanted an opportunity to develop a friendship. I wanted to try. Instead, emotional fruitcake Tiffini ended up being the emotional fruitcake that she is;  I ended up sharing intensely painful, degrading and shameful truths. When I got home from the meeting, I couldn’t really talk about it .I was just emotional, worried that, after my fruitcaki-ness, my sharing of awful things, I might have driven someone I respect and who is special to me away, might have ruined the last chance I had of getting to really know and befriend this person. That upset and worried me. Yet, a day or so later when this person saw me again, I was hugged and introduced to a spouse, invited to lunch.  I  walked away truly believe that, despite seeing the flawed, emotional fruitcake rather than the overbright, smiling leader most people see, this person cares. And understands. And cares. Cares enough, even, to prefer the fruitcake me as his friend.

It is mind-boggling.  It is humbling.

And it is healing.

You know,  years ago, when I began blogging, I initially made them all private, didn’t publish them.  But then…. truth be told, blogging became a way for me to say what I needed to say, be who I really was, and pretend that someone out there read it and understood it and then read the next one I posted instead of just shaking her head in confusion and finding a shorter, happier blog to read.  A longing for friendship has always been there.  I just didn’t think I knew how to make a friend. I thought it took some kind of skill that, because we moved so many times growing up, I never had a chance to develop.  I thought that making friends meant learning how to be funny. I thought it meant doing things I didn’t understand, like making appointments to go to flea markets and yard sales on Saturdays. I didn’t think I was capable of making a friend.  I knew I could teach. I knew I could lead. I knew I could host a good birthday party. I knew I could write, and, by the grace of God, find respect and understanding through the writing..  In short, I kind of pictured myself as a female version of Thoreau, living isolated in a cabin in the middle of the boondocks, staying connected to humanity through memory and the occasional, random visitor.

I thought I was supposed to be a hermit.

And yet…

Apparently…

While I’ve been going about the business of being a leader,  others have taken note of personal things I’ve blogged about and of the overall, fruitcake me.  For some unfathomable reason, they have concluded that I am worthy enough to be their friend. I don’t know why. What I do know is that their friendship has, over the last couple of weeks, healed pieces of a heart that’s been broken for a long time, has filled in a hole I didn’t even really believe existed. And, furthermore, they’ve reminded me that true friendship is about the entire person.  It’s listening attentively and actively asking sensitive questions designed to gain a deeper understanding—even when you know the person has failed horribly.  It’s accepting a sincere and honest apology, and releasing it rather than holding a grudge.  It’s looking at a person too vulnerable and hurt to hold the mask and inviting that person in—knowing full well that what that person has to offer probably isn’t laughter.

I feel like I’ve unwrapped a precious present.  I don’t know exactly how to repay it.  Pain still beats in my heart.  I feel like there are memories that keep crowding my brain and my soul, clamoring for me to release them and yet at war against my fear of voicing intense shame and life-long guilt. The gusts of sudden tears around  the break of day, lunchtime, bedtime and after midnight are still swelling my eyes and face. But the present has been unwrapped, and I keep staring at it in awe, replaying conversations and expressions, hearing that people I don’t know have advocated for me.  Every time I think of one of the recent phone calls or one of the recent meetings or encounters I’ve had since Easter with people I trust, admire and respect — tears well up again. How do you thank people for caring and for listening  and for surrounding you in what feels like a group hug rather than walking away?  How do you rise above your own shortcomings to try and become someone worthy of this gift called friendship?

Or do you?

Maybe the point is to remember that I was given the gift when I was at my weakest and lowest moment – when the smiling mask had been thrown far away, when all that was exposed was ugly, flawed, shameful, confused and sorrowful. If the friendship can remain even in the presence of such raw emotion then maybe that’s a testimony to the fact that it’s strong, and will remain. Maybe just being myself is okay after all.

I used to think of friends as being those people you called to lament the horrible fact that the Prince, the one you were destined to marry, just married someone else. I used to think of friends as being those people that babysat your kids every once in awhile, or who you sat laughing with over stupid stuff. I’m sure that’s all true. But I’ve learned lately that you don’t have to ever see someone for that person to be your friend. A friend is someone who looks inside you and sees the gold nugget and not the junk surrounding it.  A friend hears the cry for help and heeds it .A friend silently offers firm support and open arms. A friend is a precious gift.

Thank you to the one or two of you who have taken the time since the invention of Facebook to help me mend broken, cherished friendships. My life has been enriched and blessed because of it.  Thank you to those of you who have, over the last month, went out of your way to tell me in deed and in word that I am welcome, that I am appreciated and that I am your friend. It is a lesson and a gift that I cherish and hold as precious. I don’t deserve it, and I don’t know how to repay it — but I do want you to know that I see it, feel it and will forever be indebted for it.  Thank you.

Once the excitement of opening an unwrapped present wanes, what your left with is a lasting sense of healing grace and peace that comes with knowing someone thought of you, someone cares.

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