Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Long (26 Years So Far) Story of Friendship

In the spring of 1980, I had been going out with Tom for four years. I was twenty-three and had graduated from college the year before. I had decided to take some time away from both academia and Tom, choosing to work in the Bay Area for a year before going to graduate school. Tom was in Los Angeles, and for the second time in our relationship, we lived far apart from each other.

The opportunity to travel to Europe alone was a welcome one. Although I loved Tom, he was not as committed to the relationship as I was, was not as communicative as I was, and seemed to be content with the uneasy status quo of our relationship.

Eight weeks into my trip, I visited a family friend in Nurnberg, Germany whose son, Stephan, was my age. To my parents’ chagrin, perhaps, I didn’t find Stephan to be the least bit attractive. At night, I wrote love letters to Tom, hoping that my absence would spark some openness and communication in him that hadn’t been there previously.

On the second day of my visit, Stephan mentioned that a fellow student, Thomas, would be picking up an assignment for university class they both attended. When Thomas walked into the room, everything – time and space – came to a screeching halt. As our eyes met, I immediately thought, “This is it. Love at first sight does exist, after all."

Thomas and I spent the next two days together, visiting Nurnberg and the surrounding countryside. We sat on grassy knolls and strolled over brick bridges and cobblestone roads for hours, spilling our hearts to each other, me in broken German and him in broken English. I was 23 and he was 20. I was American and he was German. I had a boyfriend at home…

When Thomas took me to the train station, it was supposed to be goodbye forever. We had shared a few stolen kisses, the kind that would be remembered quietly and secretly for the next 60 years as I went about the life that I had so prudently planned. This had to be goodbye. Although we had discussed the romantic idea of going to Florence together (where I was planning to visit a friend), the realistic possibility of such a trip was dismissed. As the train pulled out of the station, Thomas pulled a starched white handkerchief from his pocket and waved it in the air. Tears came then and lasted until I arrived in Munich where my aunt was waiting for me. What had just happened? What was I doing? Was I going to just let this all end?

I told my aunt all about Thomas. She must be the wisest “old spinster” who’s ever lived. She may have never been married, but it became quite obvious to me that she had loved…and perhaps lost. “Carol,” she said when we arrived at her house, “if you don’t let this happen, it will haunt you and your relationships forever. You must call him.” And she handed me the phone. I called Thomas. “When can I meet you in Munich?” were his first words. “Tomorrow.” That was it. The decision had been made and my life would change forever in the most unexpected way.

We met in Munich, falling into each other’s arms like long-lost lovers. Within an hour, we were on a train bound for Florence. Did I ever question my decision? No. Did I consider Tom at home? No. Did I ask myself whether what I was about to do was foolish or risky? No. None of that mattered in the least. All that mattered was that Thomas and I had decided to be together – in the most romantic city in the world -- less than a week after meeting.

We spent three days in Florence, much of it in the quaint pension we'd discovered shortly after arriving, but also sipping lattes, visiting with my friend (who – different story –turned out to be Thomas’ second cousin!), and of course, seeing David and other great works of Italian art. In the train on the way back to Germany, we decided that this could not end. It simply wasn’t an option. When we arrived back in Nurnberg, we bought Thomas a ticket to come to the United States when I'd begin graduate school at Stanford four months later. I spent the remaining week of my trip with Thomas, canceling all other plans. Was I thinking about Tom at home? No.

I cried in the airplane all the way home. Why didn’t I stay in Germany? How important is a Stanford education, anyway? My family was originally from Germany; surely they’d visit me! Land the plane! I want to go back!

When I arrived home, there were a dozen red roses waiting for me. Was I thinking about Tom then? Well, yes… ‘He never really loved me all that much anyway,’ I thought as I dialed the phone. ‘This won’t be hard for him. It’ll give him an easy out.’ I blurted out the entire story. “I met someone. I went to Florence with him. I’m in love.”

I could not have predicted Tom’s reaction. He was completely and utterly stunned. First into silence, then into anger, and finally into tears that continued for days. The shy and unassuming man whom I had regarded as uncommunicative, uncommitted and unemotional was suddenly professing his love to me and telling me that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me. But it was too late. My heart was in Germany.

During the next fourteen months, Thomas came to visit on numerous occasions, while Tom continued to plead for my return and to ask me to marry him and be the mother of his children. It took losing me, he said, to realize how much he loved me. I believed him, and felt so sad that he couldn’t express such feelings for me before I left for Germany.

With each visit from Thomas, the romantic magic diminished just a bit (though the friendship never wavered). He was visiting my country now and the cultural differences as well as the long periods of time apart were beginning to take their toll. The grand fireworks we had felt upon first meeting and in Florence had, over time, diminished into sporadic firecrackers. At the same time, Tom and I slowly began to see more of each other, and I reveled in his newfound expressiveness, openness and honesty.

Eventually, Thomas and I broke up during an especially static long-distance call. Tom and I became engaged and a year later, were married. That was almost 24 years ago.

In many ways, Thomas brought Tom and me together. Had I not met Thomas, not only would I have missed out on that beautiful friendship -- which continues today -- but I truly don’t think Tom and I would have gotten married. Sometimes it takes one love to bring another to life.

One might think that is the end of the story, but it is not.

In May, 2001, when my mother and I traveled together to Germany during her first remission after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Thomas and I met again in Ruhpolding, Bavaria. Our meeting then took place exactly 21 years to the day after meeting the first time in Nurnberg! We hadn't seen each other since a very brief and awkward visit, when he and Tom finally met, in LA shortly after Elisabeth was born in 1984.

We had exchanged Christmas cards for 20 years and e-mails every now and then, so I knew some basics: he was married with two kids and he was now the CEO of the company he had interned for when I first met him in 1980 (and the friend through whom I met Thomas was the CFO!). When he came to the door of our Bavarian pension, I knew he was 21 years older, and I knew he must have looked it (graying and somewhat heavier), but to me he still looked like he was 20 years old, displaying the vitality and optimism of youth in his mature, but still handsome face. We hugged awkwardly; did he feel my heart pounding in my chest? We visited with my mother for a bit, then went to dinner and visited in the restaurant till midnight when they closed. Although 21 years had passed, and there were still some language issues (his English was fine; my German had gotten very rusty!), we connected quickly and easily, as if barely any time had passed at all. I knew then that, although the romance didn't last, the soulmatey friendship definitely would. We shared photos of our families, talked about our lives, and reminisced. After the restaurant closed, we went to the town church yard and sat on a bench under the full moonlight and for the next two hours we talked more, catching up on each others' lives. He took me home, we hugged and he told me he'd be back at 8 AM and take me into the Alps for the day while Mom had her class reunion. I couldn't sleep that night.

The next day Thomas ate breakfast with Mom and me and, when Mom asked how he likes his eggs cooked, he answered, "I'll eat my eggs the way they are cooked," which sums up his personality completely: easy-going, accepting, optimistic, and supportive. We drove to Berchtesgarten and on to the Konigsee, hiked a few miles around the lake, found a rock in the water we could jump to, and then sat on the rock for the next 5 hours (see photo below) eating the picnic lunch we had bought at the local store. Later, we drove further into the mountains to a trailhead. He opened the trunk of his car and pulled out a box. "Look in here," he said. And in the box were letters, hundreds of them -- from me. He asked me to open my arms and piled the letters high in my grasp. Then took an armload of his own.

We hiked about half a mile to a clearing and sat in the sun reading letters that had been written so long ago. Some were funny, some were sad, some were very passionate. It was a profoundly emotional experience, one that I will never forget. I realized at that moment that we were all alone, completely alone, in the Bavarian Alps, and that had we wanted to, we could have done anything we wanted to, there and then. But like the day before, we shared nothing but a few warm, affectionate, friendly hugs. When the sky got dark and the clouds began to roll in, we began to drive back to Ruhpolding.

At one point, and for only the briefest of moments, a bright ray of sunshine broke through the clouds and shot an intense light beam to earth, directly in front of us. "Stop the car!" I shouted, and I jumped out and snapped this picture. The second I did so, the light beam disappeared back into the clouds. It was just a fleeting moment in a lifetime…

When we got back to town, Mom took us to dinner. Mom adored Thomas, and I'm sure she'd have wanted me to marry him then, though I know that she was very glad I married Tom, as she adored him -- but Tom had to grow on her over time, whereas Thomas charmed her instantaneously back in 1980... and again in 2001.

Of course, I couldn't eat a bite.

After dinner, Thomas shared his family albums with Mom and me, proudly showing off his wife and kids and telling us about his adventures over the past 20 years. He left shortly thereafter, again accompanied by a simple hug.

The next day, he picked me up to drive to Munchen where I'd catch a train to visit my god-daughter and her kids in Sonthofen. On the way, my brother-in-law, Craig somehow came into the conversation. I mentioned that if something happened to Tom, Craig would probably marry me out of obligation. Thomas said, "If something happens to Tom, you call me..." To this day, I don't know why, but I swooned inside like a schoolgirl.

He took me to the Englischer Garten in Munchen, a beautiful park in the middle of the city, where we sat at a cafe and sipped Eiskaffee and talked some more. Then he put me on the train, much as he had in 1980. But this time I didn't cry when the train left the station, knowing it might be another 21 years before I'd see him again. I was choked up, but it was more a feeling of amazement that this man, who I had met quite by accident 21 years before, was truly a lifelong friend. Even though our connection had changed from romantic love to friendship love, it had endured all these years... and I knew at that point that it would last forever.

It turns out that we didn't have to wait another 21 years to see each other again. Three years later, in April of 2004, Mom died of the cancer she'd battled so valiantly, and I had the profoundly life-altering experience of "living her death with her." Before Mom died, she suggested to my father that he go to Germany with his grandchildren, my almost-15-year-old twins, Aleks and Kat. Of course, I'd have to go along too, just to help. :-)

As my father and I planned our Fall trip, one of my first actions was to contact Thomas and ask whether he might be willing to travel two hours from Nurnberg to come visit us in the beautiful walled city of Nordlingen. Aleks and Kat had requested that we invite his two daughters, ages 13 and 15. Thomas e-mailed back that of course he'd take a day off to come to Nordlingen, but unfortunately his girls wouldn't be able to make it because they'd be in school.

As the train pulled into the station and I waited with Dad and my kids, a calm came over me and I felt completely at peace as we waitied for the passengers to disembark. But Thomas was nowhere to be seen. The train had begun moving forward again, but I couldn’t see Thomas anywhere. My heart fell into my feet and I stood there for what seemed like forever. Suddenly, a familiar smile appeared before me. It must have been attached to a body, which must have been attached to luggage... but all I saw was a smile. It was Thomas. My heart came back into my chest and then straight into my throat, as I made a fumbled attempt to introduce my kids to Thomas and re-introduce him to my father.

As we drove to the hotel where Thomas had reserved a room on the floor above us, we made easy conversation. Aleks and Kat were tired though, and seemed to just look forward to getting back to the room where they had recently discovered MTV on German TV and just wanted to “veg.” Dad excused himself for a nap, leaving Thomas and I to walk along the Nordlingen wall together. We talked completely openly – again in slightly broken English and completely broken German, just as we had three years before on the rock in the Koenigsee. We both noticed that, no matter how much time passes, being together feels in a way like it did on that first day, in the first moments we met, twenty-four years previously – comfortable, just right, and meant to be. Not romantic this time, but "true love" in the purest sense of the word.

We walked back to the hotel and met my father and kids for a long, leisurely, delicious dinner, sharing stories and laughing easily. After dinner, Thomas shared his slides of his kids on his laptop, and I shared pictures of our adventures on our trip so far. Aleks and Kat liked Thomas, finding him "really friendly." Yup -- that's him!

The next day, we all drove to Wurzburg and visited the Residenz together before putting Thomas on a train back to Nurnberg, saying farewell for perhaps another 4... or 21...or 24 years. And I know that, when we do see each other again, it will again feel as if no time has passed... because that is what a true, loving friendship feels like.

Although Thomas and I haven't seen each other since that day in 2004, our kids have met and spent time together! In 2005, when Elisabeth was 21 and took a semester off from Cal, she went to Germany to be an au pair for my neice who, coincidentally, was our au pair when she was 21. During her trip, she visited Thomas and his family, and he took her to see my aunt -- the one who years before had suggested that I not ignore my new-found feelings and new-found friendship.

Although that visit lasted only a few days, Thomas and his wife liked Elisabeth ("Little Carol," his wife called her affectionately) so much that they invited her to stay for two weeks before her return home. During that visit, I got to know his wife through a variety of phone calls and she and I established a warm connection which feels really good to this day! Also during that visit, Thomas shared (with my permission) the box of hundreds letters I wrote to him from 1980 - 1982, a time in my life when I was almost exactly the age that Elisabeth was then! It must have been a bit bizarre for them to talk about a person Elisabeth never really knew... and yet knew so well. And because I was at the same stage in life when I wrote the letters that she was at that moment, I was, in an odd way, able to influence her in a way I would have never predicted!

Not even a year later, Thomas' adorable 14-year-old daughter came to Seattle with family friends and stayed with us for a few days. She was very shy with me, part of it being a language barrier, and part of it being in what she must have felt was an awkward situation, especially since her friend Elisabeth was already back in school. She and Aleks, however, became fast friends and IM still today -- and the plan now is for Aleks to visit her family next summer when he goes to Germany alone!

Who knows whether Thomas' and my friendship will carry on through generations?!

I do wish that I could give Thomas a big 47th birthday hug today, because he needs it right now. But I know that he knows that he can always count on my friendship and that, no matter what happens in our individual lives, our friendship is something that will never leave either of us, ever. Our friendship was ignited instantly in a moment in 1980, but it will light our lives forever.

This is the birthday card I made for Thomas.

Happy birthday, my friend!

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Dixie said...

Wow. I am speechless. Just blown away. What an incredible, wonderful, romantic, passionate, loving story! So many years and so many changes and yet so much stays the same. And it's amazing how your family and Thomas' has connected and made a bond.

This would make a great novel!

Thomas: Herzlichen Gluckw├╝nsch und alles Gute zum Geburtstag!

Mike B said...

Wow too. I had a friendship like that for more than ten years, but I let it fade away when I made the jump across the pond. Nice to know that these things can continue to have a life after all.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. The greatest thing that ever happened in my life was meeting my future German Wife when I was stationed in Bavaria near the Czech border. The language barrier posed no problem as I believe it also was live at first sight!
pineapple Layne

Shriyansi said...

What an absolutely beautiful story this is! Even more beautiful because its true... I must say that its absolutely fantastic that Tom is as secure as he is - its a rarity (at least where I come from) and I'm sure you know how truly blessed you are to have him!

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