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In our age of loneliness and distraction, what does it look like to build lasting friendships? Today, two stories about the beauty and oddity of friendships. One man’s quirky gesture becomes an anchor of hope when all seems lost and a woman whose world is fading away builds something new with an unlikely neighbor.



#73: Let’s Be Friends

Note: The Love Thy Neighborhood podcast is made for the ear, and not the eye. We would encourage you to listen to the audio for the full emotional emphasis of this episode. The following transcription may contain errors. Please refer to the audio before quoting any content from this episode. 

AUDIO CLIPS: Love Thy Neighborhood… Discipleship and missions for modern times.

JESSE EUBANKS: It’s not a secret that we live in an age of loneliness and anxiety. In his most recent advisory statement, the current surgeon general estimated that the health effects of being lonely have just as much impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The rates of loneliness are worse than obesity and diabetes rates. This past January, the Washington Post published an article titled, “Wanna Be Healthier? Hang Out With Your Friends.” It turns out that having friends reduces the risk of premature death more than just dieting and exercise alone. And then there was a study, a study from the University of Virginia that found that when people were faced with climbing a steep hill – they were intimidated. But others in the study who had a friend standing right next to them – they rated the hill way less challenging. The article goes on to cite that friendships also seem to affect our immune system response. Participants of the study were given a small dose of a cold virus, and the people with diverse social ties developed less cold symptoms. So if friendship really does make the challenges of life easier, make our physical health better, and even protect us from the plague of loneliness, the question is – in this age of isolation and distraction, what does it look like to build these type of friendships?


JESSE EUBANKS: You’re listening to the Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Today’s episode – “Let’s Be Friends.” I’m Jesse Eubanks. Welcome to our corner of the urban universe.


JESSE EUBANKS: In the book of John, Jesus tells his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And in the Old Testament, God is said to have befriended Abraham and Moses. In other words, God really cares about friendships. And when we’re little, we get this. We go to the playground, we find other kids to play with, and after running around playing a game of Tag or the Floor Is Lava, we turn to some other kid that we like being around and we say, “Hey, let’s be friends.” But for some reason, once we become adults, that just gets a lot trickier. We may enjoy being with someone, might even enjoy the same hobbies, run around in the same space, but the idea of turning to another adult and saying, “Hey, let’s be friends” – that just feels weird and awkward. But sometimes that might be the exact thing that we need to do. Sometimes we just need other people to show us what friendship looks like as adults. So today we have two stories about the beauty of friendship, about their unexpected joys and pains, their ebb and flow. But as deep and complex as friendships can be, they often start out pretty simple. So for our first story, producer Anna Tran talked to one guy who used a single high five to form a lifelong friendship.

ANNA TRAN: Andy Gullahorn is a pretty easygoing guy. He’s in his late forties. He has a family.

ANDY GULLAHORN: I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and I’m a singer-songwriter. I don’t know what else to say about myself. That’s pretty much it. 

ANNA TRAN: Well, he doesn’t give himself enough credit. You see, Andy’s the type of guy who loves to connect with people just to have fun. Like this one time, he started a bowling league during his lunch breaks. Years ago, one day Andy saw that there was a really good deal at a bowling alley in the afternoon.

ANDY GULLAHORN: If you bought a, a lunch combo at the bowling alley, then you got two games and shoes for free. So I just met one friend for lunch there. I was like, “Hey, this is fun. We’re bowling, and we’re eating lunch. What could be more sanitary, you know?”

ANNA TRAN: They bowled, talked, ate lunch. The next week – same thing. Bowled, talked, ate lunch. Eventually his other friends heard about it and they also decided to take their lunch breaks at the bowling alley. Andy even made a spreadsheet keeping track of everyone’s score from week to week.

ANDY GULLAHORN: That happened for about 10 years. The number of guys who came through there that were on my spreadsheet was about 270 guys. 

ANNA TRAN: This type of thing isn’t new to Andy. Even when he’s on tour as a musician and singer-songwriter, games and having fun is something that he naturally gravitates towards. During a Christmas tour in 2000, Andy met Gabe Scott, another guitar player on the tour. And after playing a couple shows together, Andy realized that he and Gabe – they had a lot in common.

ANDY GULLAHORN: If I wanted to play a game or if he wanted to play a game, I always knew he was up for it. I was like, “Hey, you wanna do this?” He’s like, “Sure.” Maybe we should both prioritize other things in our lives. We’re like, “Oh, no, games? That sounds fun. I will prioritize that.”

ANNA TRAN: They were both athletic, competitive, and they had the habit of making up mini games on the spot when they had downtime during tour – games like whoever can keep this ping pong ball bouncing the longest wins or – 

ANDY GULLAHORN: This last Christmas tour we played hacky sack with a carton of creamer for like, you know, an hour or so.

ANNA TRAN: After that first tour in 2000, Andy and Gabe would see each other each year during the same annual Christmas tour. And because they didn’t live near each other, each time the tour would end, they would try to find ways to spend more time together. Multiple times they tried getting together to play something like racquetball.

ANDY GULLAHORN: Or do something active like that. That might have happened for a month or two, but then somebody would get hurt or we would be on the road. It was hard to, to be consistent with it. 

ANNA TRAN: So year after year they would see each other. They would get together sometimes. But then in 2014, Gabe actually moves only a mile and a half away from Andy. So one night when they were at a party, Andy says –

ANDY GULLAHORN: “What if I text you this Wednesday and we start walking towards each other and we meet in the middle point and give each other a high five?”

ANNA TRAN: Super simple. So Gabe – he agrees. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: And the joke was then if we do that every week for 10 years then we would get on our wives’ favorite TV show, CBS Sunday Morning.

ANNA TRAN: So the next week on Wednesday, they give it a shot. Andy – he leaves his house, and he’s walking in a kind of like a quiet city-like neighborhood. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: There’re about three streets that I’m walking. He’s only walking one street, uh, for a very long time. You get to a corner where you could see him kind of come around the corner from the north side.

ANNA TRAN: So they’re walking, they’re getting closer and closer, and when they reached the middle point at a nearby parking lot… (high five audio clip)

ANDY GULLAHORN: So we just met in the middle point and then just stood there in the parking lot (laughs) talking for – ’cause we didn’t know what to do. I mean, it was like, “Oh, where are we gonna walk?”

ANNA TRAN: They talked for a while, uh, about two and a half hours actually. And as they were wrapping up their conversation –

ANDY GULLAHORN: I remember saying, “Well, if we’re gonna do this every week, this is not sustainable to talk for two and a half hours every time.”

ANNA TRAN: So the next week they decided to add a twist. This time Andy brought a basketball, they left their houses, they walked towards each other.

ANDY GULLAHORN: And we did the high five, and then we created this free throw competition. That’s kinda what we did every time we gave a high five.

ANNA TRAN: So for the next few weeks, they kept a free throw competition going. They’d shoot basketballs and talk at the same time. Later in the week, Andy would actually keep track of all the high fives and what their scores were in his journal, and he also wrote down anything significant they talked about. Eventually they developed a system to signal when the high five would start. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: I’ll get a text or I’ll send a text, just like the high five emoji or whatever it is. So if he sends it to me, then I send back the hand – that says that we’re ready. And then he sends a guy walking picture and then I send a guy walking picture, and that means, like, we’re on our way. 

ANNA TRAN: So the whole process of walking, doing the high five, shooting the basketball free throws – that took up about an hour. But both of them, you know, being touring musicians with growing families, they started realizing that time was getting limited and limited. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: So it might be like, “Oh, I’m traveling Monday through Thursday, so can you do it Friday night?”

ANNA TRAN: Arranging a day for the high five became trickier and trickier. And then –

ANDY GULLAHORN: It was on a particular day where we’re like, we were both super busy. We didn’t have time to talk at all. We barely had time to walk.

ANNA TRAN: But then they got this idea. They said, “Hey, what if we did a silent high five?” 

ANDY GULLAHORN: So the rule was you can’t look at each other, you can’t smile, we’re gonna pass each other on the street and then just walk 20 paces and then turn around at the same time. So now we’re walking back towards our own houses. That way you still don’t look at each other, you still don’t smile, you still don’t acknowledge each other, and then you give each other a high five, and that’s the only acknowledgement and then you just keep on walking back home.

ANNA TRAN: Sounds easy enough. So, the day of the first silent high five comes.

ANDY GULLAHORN: I just, I remembered thinking, “Why am I doing this? There’s no way we’re gonna do this for 10 years. This is a huge waste of time.” Like the whole reason why I started doing this was to spend time with my friend Gabe, and now I’m doing this – I don’t even get to spend time with him. I’m just walking for 30 minutes, and then I’m going to ignore him somewhere in the middle of that.

ANNA TRAN: Andy’s walking and finally sees Gabe rounding the corner. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: And then at that point, I just started thinking about like, “Okay, I need to concentrate on not smiling, not laughing, not making eye contact.”

ANNA TRAN: They walk past each other, count their 20 steps, turn around, and –

ANDY GULLAHORN: It was way more fun than it should be. Once I gave him the high five and started walking back home, it really kind of galvanized the whole thing to me. It was like, “Oh, yeah, there, there’s something powerful about having your friend walk a mile and a half just to show up and you didn’t have to say anything ’cause you weren’t getting something else out of it other than just to say, ‘Hey, I’m here, and I’m committed to this.'” But I was like, “Yeah, I can definitely do this for 10 years.”

ANNA TRAN: From 2014 and onward, Andy and Gabe made sure that each week there was at least one high five – no matter what that looked like. It could be a drive-by high five where one person drives by the other person’s house, sticks their hand out the window for the high five. They would also do the high five in different cities when they toured together, on stage at venues they would play at, and soon enough their friends heard about it and started sharing their story with a lot of other people. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: People that come in town or wanna do the high five walk with us – like 70 people show up, and then we just kind of split into two groups and walk a loop and then everybody do a huge line of high fives at the end of it.

ANNA TRAN: Andy and Gabe also shared this love for breakfast tacos. They jokingly and seriously dreamed about eating these tacos on their high five walking route. And then towards the end of 2019, Gabe and Andy – they do their typical weekly high five, but then Gabe tells Andy something a little surprising. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: He came, he said, “Hey, I think I’m, I’m ready to quit music and open up a, the breakfast taco shop. Are you in?” And I was like, “No, (laughs) I don’t – I can’t open up a restaurant, but I’ll, I’d be happy to eat there.”

ANNA TRAN: The shop that Gabe opened was actually on the exact route of the high five walk. So Gabe decides to go for it. He quits being a musician and opens up a taco shop. And of course starting a restaurant is tough enough, but Gabe was actually trying to open this taco shop during 2020, which of course was during a lot of Covid shutdowns, but he really persisted. Gabe was able to get his restaurant off the ground, but because he was so busy, he and Andy did a lot of silent high fives week to week.

ANDY GULLAHORN: And there was a lot of that because he was so slammed getting the restaurant ready. I was busy traveling. But he was just working himself to the bone, just worn out. He wasn’t sleeping very well. He wasn’t eating very well. He was just working all day long. 

ANNA TRAN: Gabe works so intensely. It was really starting to affect his health, and he eventually got really, really sick. He got himself checked out at the doctors, and they told him –

ANDY GULLAHORN: That he was just fatigued. He needed to not work and he needed to sleep and he needed to eat.

ANNA TRAN: And then that same day –

ANDY GULLAHORN: His wife called me, and she was really concerned because he didn’t remember going to the doctor that morning. He didn’t remember who she was. And then he spiked a pretty big fever and we took him to the ER and, uh, turns out he had, uh, viral encephalitis and, and meningitis.

ANNA TRAN: So viral encephalitis and meningitis causes brain inflammation. The areas around his brain and spinal cord were swelling up, causing Gabe to forget and not remember things. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: His short-term memory was shot. His long-term memory was shot. He could remember some things, but there’s a lot of brain damage from the virus.

ANNA TRAN: Gabe could recognize people that he knew.

ANDY GULLAHORN: Like he would remember people, like the essence of the relationship, but he couldn’t remember specific events. 

ANNA TRAN: And because this was during Covid, hospitals were only allowing one person at a time to be with patients. So Andy – he organized a rotation of friends and family so there was always one person with Gabe each night.

ANDY GULLAHORN: Every time I would see him, it was a little bit of a relief, but also it was just a scary time. You just didn’t know what to think. It’s weird to see somebody who is kind of self-sufficient attached to all these IVs and wearing a hospital gown and, and losing a lot of weight.

ANNA TRAN: At this point, the high five was a big part of their lives. They had done it every week for six years. 

ANDY GULLAHORN: We had done podcasts about it. We had t-shirts, you know, with a picture of the two of us giving each other a high five that I, I was selling at shows. 

ANNA TRAN: But now, Gabe’s memories are shot. He was having trouble remembering family memories, special moments. And at this point, Gabe has been in the hospital for a few days now. It’s Andy’s turn on the rotation to be with Gabe, and he thinks to himself –

ANDY GULLAHORN: “I don’t know if I’m gonna be back in the hospital before the end of this week.” And I’m thinking, “You know, we’ve been doing a high five every week. I need to get this in for this week, whether he remembers what the high five is or not.”

ANNA TRAN: So this was on the fourth night Gabe was in the hospital. Andy’s sitting in the hospital room right next to Gabe’s bed, and as Gabe is coming back from the restroom –

ANDY GULLAHORN: I said, “Hey, this might be weird, but I need you to give me a high five on your way back to the hospital bed.” And he looked a little bit confused, like, “Okay, sure.” He, he was walking to me while he was wheeling the IV tower. He got to me and he gave me a high five, but he didn’t just give me the high five. He did a clap and a snap before he gave me the high five. Those are moves that he added to our high five maybe a year in, but that’s something that I never told him about there at the hospital. I was kind of blown away. All of these little insignificant weekly trips to give each other a high five has somehow worked its way into the wiring of his brain and the way that his body works and the way his body memory works, where those kind of habits are just so ingrained that even while his brain’s not working his body remembered.

ANNA TRAN: Gabe stayed in the hospital for about a month, resting and recovering. Once he was discharged, he went back home and got back into a life routine. What started out as a single high five became something that grounded Andy and Gabe’s friendship. This year will be their ninth year of the high five. Andy shared with me that in the past when he thought about building community, especially with Christians –

ANDY GULLAHORN: I think early on I always felt pressure to be like, “Oh, if I’m gonna do that, it has to be like a book club or a Bible study or a prayer group or something like that.” And the truth is, when I would try to do that, you know, it might last for a season, but those things are hard to sustain just because you feel like there’s a pressure to be something or a pressure to have it be heavy or, or important. 

ANNA TRAN: For Andy, it’s the small things that are the backbone to genuine relationships.

ANDY GULLAHORN: I think the life that gets shared over the long term over just doing ridiculously stupid or fun things, to me, has been really meaningful. 

ANNA TRAN: And this is not to say that Bible studies and prayer groups are not good ways to share life. But for Andy, experiencing meaningful friendships doesn’t always need to feel heavy, but deep meaning can be experienced in the midst of sharing sometimes ridiculous and fun moments. When I asked Andy about how his friendship with Gabe has shaped his faith in God –

ANDY GULLAHORN: If I can love my friend Gabe better by just showing up, um, I feel like that’s loving God. I don’t have to set my sights on some lofty thing that I have to do. It’s just like showing up and the process of showing up over and over again for a friend, but also the friend showing up for me. And I feel like the closer I get to my friends, the closer I feel to God. I feel closer to God when I’m with the people that he created.

JESSE EUBANKS: That was producer Anna Tran talking to Andy Gullahorn. Andy’s story was originally told in The Atlantic and also by his wife’s favorite television show, CBS Morning News. If you’d like to hear more about Andy’s story, go check those out. Okay, we have one more story after the break about how a woman whose entire world is fading away suddenly finds an unexpected friendship. Stay with us.


JESSE EUBANKS: Love Thy Neighborhood podcast. Jesse Eubanks. This next story comes to us from Plough Quarterly magazine. Lindsey Lewis reads the words of author Lisa Beth Sutton, who shares her story about how her neighbor, a woman with dementia, befriended her as a teenager. Lisa Beth is a Christian who grew up in a Bruderhof community, which has its roots in the Anabaptist tradition. Here’s story number two – “Letters from a Vanishing Friend.”

LINDSEY LEWIS: I laid my five day old baby down next to Ellen on her hospital bed. Ellen, age 85, had been unresponsive for the past few days, barely eating or drinking. Her room, filled with family, caretakers, flowers, and an overpowering scented candle, seemed almost uncannily peaceful, so different from the happy energy of Ellen’s home on my many previous visits. As I sat next to her bed and held her hand, I reflected on the improbable friendship that had blossomed between my then teenage self and the remarkable mind now trapped by Alzheimer’s, her helplessness so similar to the helplessness of my newborn daughter.

I was 16 years old when our paths were placed in each other’s way. Certainly I was not looking for a friend in her seventies, and she didn’t really need me. Her six living children and their families all adored her, and her dozens of grandchildren were constantly visiting. But when she and her husband Orish Ulu, who were old friends of my parents, moved into the apartment next to our family, they became part of our daily lives. In a Bruderhof house, each family has their own apartment, but hall and kitchen space may be shared. My parents expected my seven older siblings and me to show Ulu and Ellen the same love and respect we gave our grandparents, even if this translated into long Scrabble games on the nights when I had the most homework. This actually wasn’t much of a hardship. Ellen was terrific company. She loved to laugh, and to laugh with Ellen meant being reduced to helpless wheezing. She was an attentive hostess and conversationalist, brimming with interest in her fellow humans. Evenings in our houses were for conversation, board games, reading aloud James Thurber, Damon Runyon, and the poems of Jane Kenyon. With snacks and drinks prepared and served with great courtesy by Ulu and a revolving cast of friends joining in, it was a wonderful time, and Ellen didn’t like to see it being interrupted, even for a couple of days. Welcoming our family home from a weekend trip with a typed note – 

“Dear Marcus and Monica and every single one of you dear people, we hope and know that you had a wonderful time together, but you might think again before doing this to us. My God, excuse me, please think twice and consider our feelings. We are pretty fragile people. You can’t play around with our feelings. Will you remember that, and will you take it to heart? What if you came home and found us lying spread out on your floor, panting? Wouldn’t you feel a little bit sorry, a little remorse? So don’t do this again lightly, at least not all of you at the same time. Leave one of you at home. What about Lisa Beth? You wouldn’t miss her that much, would you? She’s not around very much anyways, and I need her more than you do. Take this to heart. One day, like on a Sunday, might be all right, maybe, but no more than one day. And, you know, I had such a longing for a game of Rummikub, even though Marcus cheats. My hand is shaking. That’s why I have to type. Your Ellen.”

Considering that at the time I was consumed by all things adolescent – music, novels, boys – it seemed odd that Ellen befriended me so quickly, and I’m not entirely sure why or when it happened. It may have started when my mom asked me to help Ellen clean her house every Saturday morning. Ellen would watch me work from her rocking chair, and the invariable discussion about what books I was reading made one hour quickly ooze into two. I learned never to walk into her house without an answer prepared for, “So, what are you reading now?” and learned also to be prepared to be chastised if I accidentally mentioned the John Grisham novel I had just picked up or some thrilling romance. “That’s not a book,” she would say with her withering disdain, and I would once again be urged to try one of her favorites – War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, or Pride and Prejudice. “Someday you too shall find your own Mr. Darcy,” she would say with a twinkle. 

Or it may have begun when I started helping her count out her pills for the week. She had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s on top of her existing health issues and found sorting the myriad little pills into the pill counter difficult. Or perhaps it was our weekly outing to the local sauna – according to her, some form of therapy during which, despite her horrific heart condition, she would plunge into the pond’s icy water on the coldest of winter days. However it happened, Ellen somehow had a way of understanding and listening to a 16 year old who was otherwise quite preoccupied with teenage drama. I didn’t notice as the months wore on Ellen’s Alzheimer’s was progressing, inflicting psychological pain as a result. 

For all her cheer, Ellen was no stranger to suffering. Earlier in life, she had lost her two youngest children – three year old Mark John from a brain tumor, then only seven months later, two month old Marie Johanna, due to the aftermath of a traumatic birth during which Ellen’s heart had stopped for several minutes. “I think such an experience can make you or break you, and it nearly broke me,” she wrote decades later. “My grief and pain accompanied me through the nights and the days for, well, for too long, considering that I was a Christian and knew where Mark John was and that our aching loss was his unfathomable gain. Only years later I was able to let go of him, and then I was able to experience that the sorrow had actually turned into a blessing for our whole family.”

Although Ellen had often told me about these two children, my inexperienced heart couldn’t comprehend how much pain their loss caused her. But this familiarity with pain helped her now as memory loss forced her to relinquish the much loved editing work she had done for decades. Other losses followed, including our weekly visits to the sauna when she became unable to walk that far or would forget why we were going in the first place. Yet none of this diminished our friendship. When I left home after high school, our conversations were transformed into an exchange of letters. I kept hers, hundreds of pages typed on a manual typewriter. 

“Dear Lisa Beth, I miss you terribly. I mourn for myself and for the dish rag I have become, limp and damp, and it’s because the house is unbearably empty without you and your mom and dad. We were still smarting from your (unclear)” – which means “your disappearance.” I looked it up in the dictionary – “and then this, your mom and dad’s (unclear). My stomach was churning and my heart was beating irregularly on the eve of their departure, and it has not lifted. As I write, my heart is palpitating. Maybe I’ll have a heart attack, and then everyone will be sorry. I hope.”

Every once in a while, my parents would let me know how Ellen was really doing – the panicked moments of forgetfulness that became more regular, the days that she would spend in her bedroom held down by a dark depression. But like many sufferers of Alzheimer’s, she often masked her pain well, and this daily fight with her disease mostly didn’t appear in the stream of letters which arrived once, twice, or sometimes even three times a week. Like these letters –

“I just finished War and Peace for the second or third time. It’s a fantastic work. I guess you’ve read it. Or are you still reading Sue Barton’s Student Nurse? Sorry. Lisa Beth, it’s unconscionable. I just looked up that long word in the dictionary. I had spelled it wrong, but now it’s right. I’m not sure what it means. By the way, while I was looking up the spelling in the “U” pages, I happened to cross a word that seemed to me to be of some importance – “unhouseled,” which means not having received Eucharist, especially shortly before death. Now, that’s pretty serious. We have to take it to heart. Well, that’s all I can think of for now. (Unclear), not goodbye, my dearest and best friend. I love you. Ellen.”

As time passed and I entered my early twenties, she remained the optimist. Her letters always encouraged me to keep going, work harder, believe more, though they now took on a new tone. In a way, just as Ellen’s mind was taking her to an unfamiliar place, so was our friendship unexpectedly taking me to a new, deeper place of faith. Ellen’s own youthful reading had started her on a path that led her from agnostic Judaism to Christianity and eventually to the Bruderhof. As other pillars of her life wobbled and then fell to the encroaching disease, she clung evermore tightly to these earlier foundations. She repeatedly referenced Father Zossima’s exposition on “the great idea” in The Brothers Karamazov, that true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than isolated, individual effort and that all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. For this, a man must set an example and so draw men’s souls out of their solitude and spur them to some act of brotherly love. Such passages had convinced Ellen that living a life of brotherhood was the answer to society’s problems, and I knew she hoped that I too would find the same cause worth living for.

While I struggled along a new path towards discipleship, Ellen continued to encourage me from a place of unconquered faith. She wrote, “Ulu and I have been thinking a lot about the words of Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God and then all the other things will be added, and I am experiencing the truth and reality of that promise. When I really focus on Jesus, everything falls into the right perspective. The thought is so great that the future kingdom can be with us, that we can be united already with God’s kingdom which is eternal, that Jesus can and wants to lead us as king here and now and in the future. There’s so much more to write, but I’d better stop now.”

Once again, the timing of her letters was perfect. My personal faith was at full ebb as I struggled to come to terms with the neurological symptoms of Lyme meningitis, at that time a very misunderstood disease. Only Ellen seemed to comprehend what I was going through in a way that none of my peers or my parents could. At one point, her weekly letter related the message of that week’s worship meeting as an encouragement.

“At our morning meeting, we prayed for protection and healing according to God’s will. Michael, the minister, read the story of how Peter walked on the water toward Jesus and when he was afraid of sinking and cried out to Jesus for help, Jesus reached out his hand. Lisa Beth, you are walking on the water now, and you know that we love you dearly and we pray for your protection and healing. One of your best friends, Ellen.”

Meanwhile, Ellen herself was deteriorating. Because of her heart condition, she experienced several brushes with death. “I got halfway up there once. Don’t bring me back now,” she said to a doctor during one of these episodes, referring to Marie Johanna’s birth. Later, as she lay in bed with her family around her singing their favorite hymns, my sister came in to say what she thought was goodbye. Ellen clasped her hand and whispered, “I can’t sit up now, but you’ll find a new Dorothy Sayers on the bottom shelf there.” She recovered and later said that she had decided she was glad to still be on Earth.

On the good days, she still came to the community’s woodworking factory for several hours to socialize with the other people her age while doing simple handwork. She attended communal meals and participated in worship meetings. She visited newborn babies and held them close, singing snatches of lullabies in tiny ears. In winter, she asked to be taken sledding long after she couldn’t walk. And for as long as she could, she remained the hostess, inviting the older ladies into her home every Saturday afternoon for a weekend ice cream parlor. But eventually, even these activities gradually disappeared.

As the Alzheimer’s progressed, Ellen’s letters, to my surprise, began to acknowledge the disease and allowed me to glimpse the fear she was experiencing as her mind slipped away. I was still living away from home, and her communications betrayed small but significant changes, her frustration that she couldn’t remember what used to come naturally – looking up words in her well-worn dictionary, for example, or write her name in her characteristic script. 

“My most dearest Lisa Beth, I just got your letter and I feel just like you. It seems decades since I last saw you. I hope you’ll come home before my Alzheimer’s (unclear) gets worse and I don’t recognize you anymore. No joke. It’s getting worse. I hope you’ll still love me then. Are you still subsisting? I am barely subsisting with this horrid weather. It’s supposed to turn back to normal. Normal? What is normal? For that matter, what is truth?” 

Later on, she gave me a window into how she sensed her growing inability to communicate with her caregivers. 

“I often don’t understand right and am known to give out false information. For that reason, whatever I say is taken with some degree of skepticism and knowing looks. They try to hide it, but I can tell. They think I can’t see because they bend over and cover their mouths. I pretend not to see, but it hurts. After all, these are people I love, and I think they love me. At least that’s what they say, but I have my doubts. Sometimes I do wonder, like when I’m in the middle of saying something that I truly think is important and notice that they start conversations while I am still talking. Well, I can’t blame them. The kind of things they say to each other must carry more weight, but I’ve grown used to talking to thin air. Everybody is very polite and they look as if they’re listening, but I can see from their yawns that their thoughts are far away. Again, it hurts. Lisey, I have to ask you a question and you must tell me the truth. Is it like that with you? Are you just being polite when you seem to be listening? If so, I’ll subsist. Is that the right word, subsist? Are you yawning even as you read this letter?”

I don’t think I answered her questions in so many words, but I can say with assurance that I wasn’t just being considerate. Our bond transcended the limited conversation she could still muster. Nevertheless, I am equally sure I couldn’t have always said that. Ours was not a friendship that either of us would necessarily have sought after. In a way, we were both drawn into it by the structure of the Bruderhof life. For one, we had proximity and trust because she and Ulu and my parents had chosen to dedicate their lives to living in Christian community. Our relationship budded in the intimacy that comes of sharing a fridge. The other thing we were able to share was time. In return for the practical services I provided to her, she passed on to me some of her hard won, so very hard won, knowledge of life. For me, Ellen wasn’t a mentor, but an example and a true friend. I learned from her about essential humanness, dignity, and the capacity to endure pain and transform it into faithful love. 

Everyone comes across chances in life that can bring people together and many encounters that could be the beginning of a friendship. Still, bonds like ours are increasingly rare. It seems that our society continues to waste tremendous wisdom by limiting intergenerational relationships. A 2016 study of 25 European countries reveals that young adults with friends over the age of 70 and older adults with friends under the age of 30 are minority groups within their respective age categories, and only 18% of the young and 31% of the old report two or more cross-age friendships. Findings from the United States show that young adults are more likely to live in age-homogenous accommodation than are the old, a tendency that has increased in recent years. How many friendships like the one I had with Ellen never happened because of this pattern? 

“I have called you friends,” Jesus tells his disciples. John 15:15. “Friendship is one of the most gracious of the creator’s gifts,” as C.S. Lewis famously said – and Ellen would’ve been so proud of me for quoting. “It is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself. It has no survival value. Rather, it is one of those things which give value to survival. Like all gifts, we have to be prepared to accept and use it.”

The last letter I received from Ellen was in 2014 when I, now married to the Mr. Darcy whom she had foretold, moved back to the community where she lived. During her last years, we were once again neighbors, although no longer next door. Ulu had passed away, and she was living with her oldest son and his wife. By now, Ellen was transported around the community in a wheelchair, rarely speaking, a far away look in her eyes. We still spent evenings together, but gone were the discussions of books and the clink of Rummikub tiles. In a way, we were now strangers to each other. If you search the word Alzheimer’s on YouTube, you’ll find numerous videos of people who are wakened by a familiar experience or presence – a ballerina hearing music and dancing again, the faces come into focus, there are smiles of unearthly beauty and love as recognition returns. Watching such scenes, I think back to Ellen’s favorite passage from Dostoevsky, where he points out the destructiveness of human isolation and how it is only by living together and supporting each other that we can draw men’s souls out of their solitude and keep the great banner flying. 

Even though Alzheimer’s had isolated Ellen and taken from her the original expressions of our friendship, our shared commitment to a life of faith kept us connected to the end. So on that beautiful June morning when I brought my baby to her bedside five days before she died, Ellen gave us such a moment of wakening. Her eyes opened. A smile filled her face. “You’re here!” She was not gone. She had been there all along. And even after her dying, she is still there at home in the great idea. From one of Ellen’s last letters –

“So you, dear vile wretch, you try hard to make it through the day, and I’ll do the same here. Some days are harder than others. It can only get better. The day when I can give you another bear hug will be a better day. I can’t wait. But until then, here’s a big hug by overseas mail. Ellen. I can’t write in cursive anymore.”


JESSE EUBANKS: Thank you to our interviewee Andy Gullahorn, and special thanks to Lisa Beth Sutton for sharing her story from Plough Quarterly magazine. Senior producer and host is me, Jesse Eubanks. This episode was written, produced, and edited by Anna Tran. Music is from Lee Rosevere, Poddington Bear, and Blue Dot Sessions. This show is brought to you by Love Thy Neighborhood. If you want a hands-on experience of missions in our modern times, come serve with Love Thy Neighborhood. Love Thy Neighborhood offers summer and year long missions internships for young adults ages 18 to 30. Bring social change with the gospel by working with an innovative nonprofit and serving your urban neighbors. Experience community like never before as you live and do ministry with other Christian young adults. Grow in your faith by walking in the life and lifestyle of Jesus and being part of a vibrant, healthy church. Apply now at Which of these was a neighbor to the man in need? The one who showed mercy. Jesus tells us, “Go, and do likewise.”


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Thank you to our interviewee Andy Gullahorn. Special thanks to Lisabeth Button for her essay in Plough Quarterly.

Senior producer and host is Jesse Eubanks.

This episode was written, produced, and edited by Anna Tran.

Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions, Lee Rosevere, and Podington Bear.