The Single Most Important Thing A True Friend Can Do

It binds you together like nothing else.

It was like one of those “meet-cute” scenes in a Hollywood movie, minus the romantic undercurrent. I met Debbie, a newcomer to my New York City suburb, through a mutual friend over lunch a few months back. She’d lost her mother. I’d lost my mother. She’d lived in London. I’d lived in London. Our sensibilities and our senses of humor just clicked. A scheduled walk around the park led to drinks at the pub around the corner. We fostered an instant connection and the friendship chemistry was apparent.

If we’d met in our 20s, we might have wound up bridesmaids at each other’s wedding. But now that we’re older, with hectic schedules carved in stone, the whole friendship thing is a lot more complicated. Demanding careers, kids and elderly parents devour the vast majority of our time and energy, and so can get in the way of building on a real connection with a new person you don’t share a history with.

And that’s just the way things shake out as you age. When you’re living those halcyon days of high school and college, thrown into the same environment for years with the same pool of people, it doesn’t take much to forge a new friendship. But for me at least, I no longer have the luxury of time I enjoyed in my younger years, when every squabble with my parents led to a 30-minute debriefing with my friends over the phone. Now, the hours are just too precious.

It’s an interesting process, reaching such a level of self-awareness that you’re able to sort through friendships and weed out those not resilient enough to stand the test of time. But as someone who comes from a small family, and who considers her girlfriends as life-sustaining as water, it’s been tough to take inventory of the relationships I’ve cultivated through the decades and to realize, with a heavy heart, that many have reached their expiration dates. After all, how many friends can a busy mother of three realistically maintain? Perhaps no more than you could count on one hand.

So I find myself taking stock, prioritizing even those people I’ve known for decades and figuring out exactly who I want to spend time with. Just because I went backpacking through Europe with someone in my early 20s doesn’t mean I have to keep reaching out to them if we no longer have anything in common. So what kinds of friends do I really want to hang on to in midlife and beyond? That is the real question. And the answer? Those who show up.

Indeed, in my experience, the single most important thing you can do as a friend is show up. When your friend has her first art exhibit, show up. When she’s going through a divorce, show up. When her father dies, show up at the funeral, even if it’s a four-hour drive away. When she’s worried about one of her kids, stash the cell phone and really be present while she’s telling you about it. When I turned 40, 20 female friends traveled a very long way for a special dinner — and I’ll never forget they made the effort. Those friends who go out of their way not only to visit, but to touch base via text, email or phone just to say hello — even when they are slammed at work — are the friends I want to hang on to.

One of my oldest friends recently marked a milestone birthday with a weekend celebration in New Orleans. Between work and kids, a three-day trip halfway across the country to hang out with my friend — and a handful of her other closest friends — wasn’t exactly convenient. But at the last minute I decided to go. I showed up. And I’m so glad I did. The sense of togetherness I experienced — and the look of appreciation on my friend’s face — were priceless. Celebrating these kinds of moments with your besties — when you know it means the world to them — binds you together like nothing else.

Illustration by Greta Kotz