Friday, October 12, 2012

Who Among You Has a Friend? My Tribute to Annie

 "The language of friendship is not words but meanings." -- Henry David Thoreau

On a cold, rainy morning recently, I went for a walk out on the rail-trail in Morgantown.  Autumn, my favorite season, is here and for whatever reason this has always been a period of reflection for me.  The weekend before, Annie Wojciechowicz, a dear friend, had paid me a visit and I was replaying the event in my mind.

I met Annie's husband, Dan, over 20 years ago when I lived and worked in Chicago.  Dan and I developed a friendship through our love of the outdoors, exploring the Wisconsin woods and waters.  In short order, I was introduced to Annie and their two kids, Dan Jr. and Nick.  They resided in Kenosha, Wisconsin and lived a pleasant, family-centered life.  At the time, I was in a hard rock band and played the role with the long hair, ear rings and musician lifestyle.  Frankly, I'm not sure if they viewed me as anything more than a curious novelty act at the start but they let me into their lives and they've never been able to get rid of me since :-)

After a few years, I moved to Montana where all or part of their family came out for several vacations.  In fact, in a few instances, Dan Jr. was sent out by his parents just by himself.  Him and I would hike miles up into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness or the Crazy Mountains, carrying huge backpacks, and fishing high-alpine lakes to the point of exhaustion.  I am not exaggerating in the least when I say this was true, tough, and somewhat dangerous adventure ... no kidding.  He was just a young boy back then, a kid really, and I do not know of many people who would entrust their son to a guy hell-bent on doing these sorts of trips.  But they did and I can honestly say I had the magnificant pleasure of watching Dan Jr. grow up right in front of my eyes, catching cutthroat trout along the way.

Autumn is here ...
Many, many things have happened in the interim leading up to 2012, both to the "Wojo" family and myself.  Our stories could fill a novel, as with anybody's story, but now is not the place to expand on all that.  Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to interact with Dan and Dan Jr. as much as I would have liked to over the years.  This is a shame because the guys are wonderful people with whom I've built a store of precious memories.  This is the way life works sometimes; we get busy and "stuff" happens.  However, with Annie, our relationship grew for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, Annie is a good conversationalist.  Mind you, this is not "how's the weather" conversation.  When you have conversation with Annie, you plunge in neck-deep and bare your exposed soul.  This is in-line with one of my values.  Her and I have had many such conversations over the passage of time, sharing in each other's facets of life.  Secondly, Annie has a taste for adventure travel and is not afraid at all to tackle new things, and reach for new heights.  Once again, this is another value of mine her and I share.    

Last year, Annie came out to West Virginia to visit me and we went whitewater rafting down the New River and rock climbing on the New River Gorge.  It appeared a repeat visit was not going to happen this year when all of a sudden she had an abrupt change of heart last month.  I cannot help but wonder if she came out to see me in part because she knew I had been dealing with some personal challenges since the spring.  Of course, she would never confess to that but great friends have the innate ability to sniff out when you are struggling, even if it is never verbalized.  So, she flew in for a whirlwind weekend so that we could reconnect.

On Friday, her first day here, we decided that we would go for a big hike up at Cooper's Rock State Forest to get caught up, to bullshit, and to reconnoiter a route for an upcoming charity run I was hosting.  Within a few minutes I had found my comfort zone as I have always found her to be warm, intimate, and open.  You don't have to put on airs; it's like putting on your favorite pair of old sneakers.  It just "is".  

Hiking through Cooper's Rock State Forest.
The next day we went whitewater rafting on the Upper Gauley.  For those of you not familiar with this legendary stretch of water, the Upper Gauley is one of the most difficult and advanced whitewater runs in the United States.  It is absolutely no joke.  As our guide Cory (of Class VI-Mountain River) later said, it's like losing your virginity to a porn star.  But with Annie this was of no concern whatsoever and there was to be no negotiating the selection of this river for our adventure.  I was either in, or I was out.  

To be honest, I was scared shitless out of my mind the first few Class V rapids we shot.  Even though I finally learned to swim two years ago, I still have a healthy respect and fear for water, even if it is was placid Walden Pond, much less the churning hellfire of the Upper Gauley.  Several times, I was either a.) almost ejected from the raft; b.) struck with a paddle from those seated fore and aft of me; or c.) down in the middle of the raft clutching the strapping like grim death.  There were massive undercut boulders, twisting hydraulics, huge plumes and long wave trains of water, large ledge pour-overs.  Between this and heeding the constant clarion calls of "Left Forward Two" and "Left Back One", I wasn't even aware of Annie's welfare.  By the time we got down to the take-out point, I was mentally exhausted from the total focus and intensity of the experience.

On Sunday, after driving back to Morgantown, we went for a nice, long walk on the rail-trail, hung out in my apartment, went shopping for my new couch, before heading to the airport up in Pittsburgh.    
     
Look out!  Annie and I shoot the Upper Gauley!
As time passes, people change.  Accordingly, relationships change as people's lives ebb and flow into each other in different ways.  I always likened it to manually building a rope.  As time passes, you hope to weave more and more strands into the braid to make it thicker and therefore stronger.  Sometimes, the opposite occurs.  Sometimes, strands become frayed and, unfortunately, if enough strands become frayed, then the braid will ultimately snap.  If one is lucky, if one is so blessed, two people will build a rope so strong that it will endure forever.

On the night after our whitewater trip, Annie was chilling out on her hotel bed listening to me sing and play my guitar with that knowing smile of hers.  As the last chords faded away, I decided right then and there that Annie needed to know how much I value her friendship so this post is dedicated as a tribute to her.

My friend Annie has faithfully stood by me through thick and through thin.  She has been genuinely thrilled for me in those moments where I have been able to experience the pleasures of life, such as in achieving a goal, or living by my principles.  On the other hand, she has helped me through the pain of life, helping me through deaths and divorce, and talking me out of a deep, black hole too many times to mention.  Never once did I feel shamed but was only ever the recipient of unconditional love.  Her actions perfectly align with her words, a good hallmark of integrity.  She is convicted, intelligent and insightful in a manner that forces me to reexamine myself, even if it stings.  Great wife to Dan, great mother to Dan Jr. and Nick,  I consider her a valued member of my cosmic family.  Her energy, and positive, engaging spirit keeps driving me forward and makes me a better person.  Is that not one of the fundamental reasons why we were put on this Earth?

Annie has trouble sleeping at night.  Always has.  She also genuinely doesn't like the spotlight turned on her so predictably she will be embarrassed by this post when she gets around to reading it at 2 AM.  But you need to know the difference you have made in my life, my friend, and I'm sure other lives, and you need to know that while I certainly appreciate the wild adventures we've shared, it is more how you explain cooking and recipes to me, and the "Good morning!" text I receive first thing when I wake up, that make all the difference in the world to me.

Who among you has a friend like this?  A "come bail me out of jail and don't ask why" kinda' friend?  I'm hoping the answer is all of you!  Are you going to wait to tell them?  Bring them flowers to their grave?  Tell them now!  I ask that anyone who has read this far to quickly post a comment with the name of such a friend along with one or two sentences explaining why.

Annie and I overlooking the Cheat River.



19 comments:

  1. deanna williams. no matter what hell her life is in she always has an ear. I try to afford her the same courtesy.

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  2. Beautiful and endearing.

    Candice Selgado is my Annie. She is always understanding and never judges me. She is uplifting and never fails to make me feel at ease. I am incredibly thankful to have her in my life.

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    1. Nice, Cheryl. You are as lucky as I am.

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  3. Bill Potts. Rinn Siegrist. (No explanations needed. :-)

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  4. Chris Rotermund, listens, models, snarks and laughs.

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    1. If he "models", then he must be a great friend!

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  5. Lovely tribute to your friend, Phil.

    Beth Conatser. She's loyal to the death, never judging, always welcoming. Anytime we spend together, though the interests we share are few, it's like the best time whether we are doing something remarkable of just hanging out and talking. Of everyone I know I can most be "myself" with her.

    I too lost my virginity to the Upper Gauley. I was young and dumb and had no idea just what I was getting into and how treacherous it was, I only began to fear when they released that dam at the crack of dawn and looked at the sheer volume of water shooting out.

    And, I can totally see you as a long haired earring wearing rocker. :)

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    1. Ha, thank you, URG! Sounds like you are lucky to have Beth in your camp. I'm glad you can empathize ('er, sympathize?) with the Gauley trip :-)

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  6. Lauren Yahiro… I met her at work over 27 years ago. We became friends and remained friends even after I moved to a different state for several years. I feel I can always count on her, no matter what. She is considerate, fun, smart, hard working, a keen skier, and always eager to join me (us) for all kinds of adventures. Sounds maybe strange but we are very similar and very different at the same time. I hope I could give her in return what I have received.

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    1. Great, Anne. I'll look forward to meeting her in a few days then. I have no doubt, knowing you, that you give her plenty in return in your friendship.

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  7. Phil, your Blogs ruffle my feathers in a persistent but gentle way. I often reflect on things after reading your postings. You have great insight. Thanks for being so open and sharing your thoughts, feelings and parts of your life. Seems like you have found yourself and know who you are. That is really wonderful. I’m still working on this figuring-out-who-I-really-am part but I can say I have come a long way from the days when I was in my twenties or thirties or even in my forties. I admit I’m a very private person and tend to try to manage on my own. Asking for help or accepting help has never been easy, although thankfully, I have made great progress in this area. I look forward to my journey of (self-)discovery and to living my life to the fullest. And you, mi amigo, keep Blogging!

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    1. Anne, I think finding yourself and knowing who you are really has no endpoint; it is a constant journey. In the words of Carl Sandburg, "Man will never arrive, man will always be on the way." For me, it is important to be open and honest about who and what I am so I try not to edit my thoughts too much when I blog. And thank you for taking the time to read the post!

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  8. Dan Lehmann: He introduced me to trail running 10-years ago and has been the greatest friend and a mentor ever since. I wouldn't know what to do without him.

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    1. Adam, it was good seeing you yesterday! Congratulations again on your new title of "Dad". Hope your family and I can knock out a Black Bear dinner together soon.

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    2. Good seeing you as well Phil -- even though I had a hard time recognizing you in a place where I never dreamed you'd materialize. I have family near Morgantown, so next time we're up that way I'll try to get in touch.

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  9. Lost Dog has been with me since 1994: duck hunts, goose hunts, canoeing the Gallatin, archery elk hunting, deer hunting, greyling, marriage, M.S., divorce, AT, marriage, Granite Peak, Ross Philip, WSU, Easter rehab, PhD. Though I've been distracted for months, it only takes minutes to reconnect. You don't name your first and only son after your best friend for nothing. Love ya! Dr. Turk

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    1. Ross, I am sincerely touched by your words. They made my day. The sentiment is mutual. THANK YOU!

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