I don't have a huge amount of friends, in real life.
I make the distinction between real life and not real life because the fact of the matter is, I have loads and loads of friends in my not real life. I belong to a few different online communities, some no more than forum boards, others much larger. Similar to Facebook, but only in the good ways like catching up or learning interesting things or sometimes "meeting" (or should I say "reading") someone new due to an association with a friend or a friend of a friend.
Friends who aren't friends, in real life.
Online, we have our own lingo for that: IRL. IRL (In Real Life), I have never met Jeannette, but I watched her battle infertility just as I did, watched her heartbreak as pregnancy test after pregnancy test came back negative, and I literally shouted with joy when she finally saw that plus sign. She's been with me for a good long span, and we've seen each other cumulatively through 4 of our 5 combined pregnancies. Someday, we'll have that drink together, just like we've always promised, in real life.
Marna and I found each other long ago on a forum board at iVillage dedicated to spouses who've lived through betrayal. She saw me through some very shaky years, and I'd like to think I returned the favor. She's probably my oldest (as in "longest") online friend, and her comments and responses have given me strength when I desperately needed it. I can tell her just about anything. But we've never met, in real life.
I don't remember how Eric came to me, probably through a friend of a friend, but oh, how wonderful that we found each other. I read his posts about his life, his struggles, his deep and abiding love for his family. I sent encouragement through a keyboard when his lonliness surfaced, and the day he announced his engagement to his long-time partner, I wanted to dance around the room. The only reason I didn't was because he can't legally marry in his state. Yet. One battle at a time, and he fights those battles in ways I can only begin to touch on. He's a helluva guy, and I wish to God I could say I've met him...in real life.
I have a good five dozen others I could gush all about, like Jill and her love of Twilight books, or Carrie, who came to me through Jill because Jill knew she had an autistic son, too. Milly, is part of the core group of women on a very private board that's seen me through some serious pain with a lot of wisdom and strength. Suzanne was with me in the early days of the iVillage board and went on to become a published author who sold a lot of books. Rachel has a daughter nearly as precocious as mine. Phil has no kids, but he's always got warm words for my kid stories, and a heart of gold that he reluctantly reveals in his posts from time to time. Dan, Jessie and Dominica came to me via an online writing contest - and have the distinction of having actually met me "IRL". Jan follows me wherever I may blog and never fails to comment (thank you, Jan!). There are too many to list here, Sharon, Jennifer, Denise, Jeff, Lynne, Kathleen, Brooke, Marva, Emmy, Jackie, Crystal, Gary, Kelly, Leslie, Brett, Sharon, Patricia, Christine, Jan and Sarah...and if I've omitted a name of great importance, it's because they're in good company - they're all important to me.
Maybe that's because I don't "friend" indiscriminately. I never looked at forum boards or Facebook or blogs as a contest the way some people do. My friends list is only moderate in it's proportions. If you're on my friends list, it's because I think you've got something to bring to the table. Some bring more than others in quantity, and some in quality from time to time, but they all have a voice and they all have their wisdom and to a person, every one of them has been there for me at a time when I needed them so very much to be. It may have been through a blog post or an email or a personal message on an internet forum, but it's no less of a contribution just because we're not breathing each other's air at the time.
Which brings me to today. I logged into a forum I've been active in for nearly ten years, and my world was pulled out from under me. My friend of many years in that forum lost his wife of more than two decades yesterday, too damn young, and very suddenly.
To say that he loved her does them both a disservice. They didn't just love. They were love. They embodied it, lived it, breathed it on a daily basis. His posts are a welcome thing every day, and he's been quite prolific over the years. His daily cartoon postings start me off with a smile, his helpful workplace and do-it-yourself links have really been a service. Those aren't the posts I stuck around for, though. No, I wanted to hear him talk about his wife. She was his first, and only girlfriend. He'd share tidbits of their lives - a great backyard barbeque prepared with love for family or friends, a ride on a subway train where they held hands as they read their books in companionable silence. He told us over and over how lucky he was, and the picture he painted of this calming, gentle soul that was his rock was as vibrant to me, and to everyone who knew him (virtually, of course) as if we'd stood beside him on his wedding day and welcomed her down the aisle ourselves. Theirs was a love that made us all believe. As one of my friends so aptly put it, they were Westley and Buttercup. And it was love. True, true love.
I sat there today, reading his short, but heartfelt message of thanks to all of us for our support, his thanks for being the guy lucky enough to have lived a life of love with this woman, and I was torn apart. And one glance at the forum board anytime today saw the same outpouring from hundreds and hundreds of people who knew him, without ever having had the chance to meet him. We're all mourning with him, and our arms are around him today as surely as if we were sitting on the couch next to him. And at some point, when all the relatives go home and he's alone in that house with nothing but the memory of her, someone will be there when he logs in at two a.m. and needs a shoulder.
Because this is real life. Pain and loss and grief and support and love. Those are the things that are real, and flesh and blood aren't the only ways to embody that or share that. It's a new age we live in, and my friends are my real life, no matter if they're sitting across from me having coffee or half a world away with a laptop.