25 years ago, my parents decided to have a small Christmas party in their new house, inviting a small group of their special friends. In some ways, the party has changed very little from its original incarnation. Every year, people subtly begin asking in September whether we have picked a date yet so they can mark it on their calendars. Every year, my mother bests herself with witty turns of phrase on the invitation. Every year, my dad makes sure that everyone’s glass is full at all times. Every year, there is a giant 12 foot tree in the living room. Every year, we take our family picture in front of it right before we open the front door. And every year, we invite only our special friends.
To be sure, that list has grown as other people have become special to us. And as children grew up and got married, warranting their own invitations. Indeed, Special Friends became a rite of passage for any would-be suitor. You knew it was serious if someone was deemed worthy to bring. And if they survived the gauntlet, well, you knew they were a keeper.
Baby Jack made his debut at Special Friends, a mere three weeks old. My dad walked around with him that night, introducing him to everyone as if he were a foreign dignitary or a member of the royal family. Will made his debut also, albeit mere days away from being born, prompting anxious looks from all the guests who were no doubt concerned he might make his grand entrance a few days early. And last year, they both came as full-fledged invitees, so excited to be included amongst the people that they consider to be family.
One thing has remained constant in the last 25 years. The night has always been known simply as Special Friends.
This year, as always, people began asking about Special Friends before the summer was over. But this year, they were asking whether we would have it at all. And there was a brief period this summer where my mother thought she couldn’t do it without Dad.
But if ever there was a year for Special Friends, this was surely it. This was the year in which we understood exactly how special our friends are. A year in which they did more and meant more than we could have ever imagined.
Special friends, after all, are the people you want next to you on the good days and the bad ones. And sometimes that happens to be the very same day.
They are the ones who are there for all your major life events – graduations, weddings, births, deaths – and also for the every day moments that are just as significant.
They know how you take your coffee and that cake (even an inedible one) makes everything better.
They forgive your faults but remind you when you need to do better.
They hold you up when you can’t stand and fill the silence when you don’t know what to say.
The know how to make you laugh. Really laugh. And they know when you need it most.
They are the ones who are there without being asked. Even when it isn’t convenient. Even if their lives are busy or they are hundreds of miles away.
They roll their sleeves up when you don’t know how to ask for help or when you think you don’t need it.
They were the ones who were at our house before we had even returned from Cape Cod. The ones who answered the phone, manned the door, brought us dinners, picked out our clothes, and held our hands.
They are the ones who were still there, long after those first few days. Because they knew that the hardest days would be the ones after everyone else had moved on. After everyone else stopped asking. They planned a fun day out for my mom on my dad’s birthday. They came en masse to Richmond for Peter’s wedding. They are the ones who call on a Tuesday night just to check in or send a text on a Friday morning that simply says “I love you.”
Because special friends are always there.
And when we thought about it, we knew that it wouldn’t be hard at all to have Special Friends without Dad. Because what that night is really about – what it has always been about – is celebrating how lucky are to have each other.
This year, the invitation said simply:
Now…more than ever…
Let’s celebrate the joy of the season with Special Friends
Our family picture looks different this year. But the night was everything it always has been. A collection of special friends, new and old, who have seen each other’s best and each other’s worst, celebrating the joy of the season, delighted to be in each other’s company.