That is a really difficult question for me; it has taken several decades for me to have an answer that I feel comfortable with. I do have an answer now - loyalty.
I have had other answers in the past but they always felt a bit like whichever tattoo design I was considering at the time - cool, thoughtful, even true - but not really worthy of engraving into my flesh.
Loyalty is not my latest catch phrase, not something I just started thinking about a few days ago. When I say that loyalty is the most important thing in my life I mean that the pattern of my life, as it has played out so far, is one of connections and separations that can each be labeled as either loyalty or disloyalty.
Every so often I have an extended period of life review to reconsider past decisions, get myself grounded and look toward future actions. My most recent life review has been in progress for a couple of months now and the verdict is in. The one thing that I treasure in my friends is loyalty. The few times I have severed a relationship, a lack of loyalty has been at the core of that decision.
I will explain with one story, maybe one of the most important in my younger life. When I was 19 I met a beautiful young man, about my own age. I was a college student, gingerly stepping out into the grown up world. Ron was a beautiful country boy with a quiet masculine demeanor, a roguish sense of humor and the simpleness of most of the other country boys from western Tennessee. His tan hairless skin was always charged with electricity and he was as elusive as heck. When we were together he had a talent for being fully present. His attention was like a laser beam and even though he was no intellectual heavy weight, he held my attention night after night.
The thorns on this rose were two-fold. He smoked pot and was uneducated. I knew then that we were an unlikely match but my heart was set on him in a singular way. I have always been too clever by half so eventually I looked elsewhere for serious companionship and we enjoyed each other's bodies intermittently for a few years.
I took a job waiting tables at a shitty Mexican restaurant in Memphis and soon struck up a friendship with a young waitress, Autumn. In one of life's weird coincidences, Autumn turned out to be the younger sister of Ron's best friend and next door neighbor. I had known Autumn's older sister for a couple of years before meeting Autumn on the job.
Eventually Autumn and I moved two thousand miles away to Oregon on a whim one summer. Our boredom with Memphis life was so overwhelming that a one-way Greyhound bus ticket sounded better than anything going on in Tennessee. I eventually ended up in northern Idaho, filling my life with adventure, romance, discovery and self-discovery.
Ron and I had not spoken much before I left Tennessee but I immediately began to miss him. I called Ron about a week after leaving town to inform him of my excitingly spontaneous adventure. He was so angry and I could tell that under the anger was hurt. We never spoke again.
Eventually though, after a few years in Idaho, my thoughts returned to Ron and I began to wonder what I had lost. Were our differences really so fundamental? Had I given up the one true treasure that had fallen into my lap so many years before?
My heart began to turn towards home. I decided that I would finish my college degree in Tennessee and get on with the business of being a grown up. If I said that finding Ron was not one of the contributing factors in returning to Tennessee I would be telling a lie. He was somewhere between the back of my mind and the tip of my tongue - not really sure where exactly.
I rented a U-Haul truck, loaded up my furniture and pets and headed across Montana. Somewhere in Wyoming I pulled off onto a farm road and slept that first night with the sound of coyotes and wind in my head. At first light I was up and back on the road. A couple of hours later I stopped to fuel up. I pulled back out onto the highway with a gas station coffee nestled into my lap, ready for the new day, hopeful and expectant. A car full of boxes and blankets pulled into the gas station just as I turned left back out onto the highway. I was still a bit sleepy so I must have been mistaken, but the face behind the steering wheel was Ron's.
I have since learned that extraordinary coincidences are not as uncommon in life as you might think, but at the time I could not conceive of the possibility that Ron was moving west just as I was moving back east. I knew it could not be true. I had seen his face and yet I didn't turn the truck around to check. It was just too unlikely.
By the time I reached Nebraska I was sure I had lost Ron a second time. There would be no turning back, no way to find him without knowing his destination. And besides, there had been another man in the passenger seat. If Ron had been in that car, and if he was moving west, I had lost him for again and to another man.
Autumn had long since returned east and we had stayed in touch so when I got back to Tennessee we talked often and I poured out my heart to her regarding Ron and my longing to find him. She thought the encounter on the highway couldn't have been Ron but she said that neither she nor her sister had heard from him in years. Apparently there had been a falling out between Ron and the sister at some point and they were no longer friendly.
The next couple of years were pretty dreary for me. I worked a difficult job that I hated and lived like a miser to save enough money to finish my undergraduate degree. My thoughts often turned to Ron and I developed an ache in my heart. I realized that leaving him without a word was unforgivable. I had loved him in my heart but assumed that I could always find him when I needed to. Now I couldn't find him even to apologize.
Then came the internet. One of those early search engines eventually rewarded me in the most cruel way with Ron's obituary. I still can't think about that very often. In truth I can't fully remember where I was or exactly when I stumbled across that bit of death-dealing. I think my mind has created a half-assed firewall against that day. I can only remember that it happened.
The obituary was posted on a personal blog page by "a friend" so I emailed the blogger and explained that I too had been a friend and that I did not know Ron had died. He replied to my email with a phone number. Upon calling the number, I learned the most dreadful news of all.
Ron had never left Memphis. During my time in Idaho Ron had become infected with HIV and had developed AIDS. He had died only a few months before and I had been living in the same vicinity as he for a few years. Even worse, this friend (unknown to me) knew a great deal about me. During our phone conversation I learned that Ron had been intensely in love with me. He would pour his heart out to this man about how he had loved me but had never told me of his love and how I had left him. This stranger recited the details of my appearance over the phone, my facial features, my abundance of body hair, my mannerisms, my speech patterns. He knew stories of some of the crazy escapades Ron and I had gotten up to all those years before.
As you can imagine, this revelation seared my soul and I shared my pain with my commiserating friend Autumn. She was, as always, a reliable shoulder to cry on when I needed it. That was about 12 years ago now. From time to time, the story of Ron and my selfishness came up between us and eventually Autumn tossed me one final bombshell.
One day, probably in 2006, Autumn admitted that she had not been ignorant of Ron's whereabouts when I returned to Memphis. She had known about his HIV status and had even talked with him, but hadn't told him about my return. Autumn decided to lie, in her words, to protect me from getting HIV from Ron. In all this sad tale, this is the most capricious and cruel twist, at least from my point of view.
I suppose she lied for understandable reasons. Her intention was to protect me but I have never felt thankful for that. Having lived out in the big bad world on my own for quite a while now, I have managed to avoid lots of trouble on my own. I'm not helpless in the face of danger and I wouldn't have been in danger of dying from contact with Ron.
A couple of years ago Autumn and I had a large disagreement about something completely different and parted ways, but our split was already waiting to happen. Both Ron and I had longed to see one another again and I know we could have found resolution for our relationship. Autumn stood in our way, mute, until all hope was gone.
I couldn't trust her after 2006 and you can't be friends with someone you don't trust. I believe Autumn did what she thought was best, but she didn't act as a loyal friend. A loyal friend would have counseled me, perhaps even cautioned me, but would have then trusted me with my own decisions.
I admit to having blindsided more than one so-called friend with a loyalty test from time to time. When I sense that a friend isn't a real friend I do something outrageous, something sure to provoke them into showing me whether they will take my side or abandon me when the heat is on. I prefer seeing a person's true colors to living with doubt. That technique has saved me a lot of grief over the years.
I never gave Autumn a loyalty test. Instead, she blindsided me with a lie so enormous that I can't forgive her. And I can't see it as anything other than disloyal.