The Buddy System
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The Buddy System

She's the first person you call when something amazing -- or awful -- happens. She never judges you and she knows all your secrets. Why are girlfriends so key to our health and happiness? To find out, we went straight to the source.

Old College Pals

Helena Hummel & Sarah Johnson

Helena, 36, a graphic designer, and Sarah, also 36, a commercial property manager, have been best friends since their freshman year.

Different Stripes: 1993

The two women met in Spanish class at the University of Texas at San Antonio more than 15 years ago. Typically, Helena -- "I'm kind of a free bird, la-la land person" -- had forgotten to bring a pencil. Sarah lent her one. "I'm more of a planner," says Sarah. Different is good: "We balance each other out."

The Bonding Moment: 1995

They initially connected because they had so much fun together. But their bond was cemented during a study session when Sarah confided in Helena about her mom's early death. "It was always easy to open up to her," says Sarah. "We've been there for each other ever since," Helena adds.

Sticking Together: 1996

Sarah and Helena have helped each other through everything from rough relationships to bad-hair days: "Your hair is a little orange," Sarah once said. "You kind of do need to wax your eyebrows," Helena admitted on another occasion. Both love having a friend who'll tell her the unvarnished truth.

For Better and Worse: 2001

When Sarah got married, Helena was a bridesmaid. When Helena had to move, Sarah was there, helping to scrub her bathroom walls. But the real key to the friendship? "We make time for each other," says Sarah. "No matter what is going on in our lives, we get together every Monday night," Helena says.

Up for Anything: 2007

The friends vacation together regularly. "We did a rafting trip, went ziplining in the jungle, and visited volcanoes in Costa Rica," Helena says. "We both like adventure." And it's always just the two of them, says Sarah. "We'll think about inviting other people to join us, but then we wouldn't be able to talk!"

Friendship First: 2009

Married vs. single? Not a problem. "I love her kids," says Helena, "but we talk about lots of other things." That's no accident, says Sarah -- it's important to her to maintain an identity separate from that of mommy and wife. The secret of their friendship success? "I don't know," says Sarah. "We just love each other!'

Breast-Cancer Buddies

Maggie Hesse & Kerry Tobin

Maggie, 37, is a stay-at-home mom. Kerry, 39, is a single business owner with no kids.

Maggie likes romantic movies. Kerry prefers foreign indie films. Maggie's an open book; Kerry's much more private. Maggie's a jeans-and-sweatshirts gal from Cincinnati who says of Kerry, a native New Yorker, "She practically has a purse for every day of the year." But they're both talkers, Maggie says -- and brand-new best friends.

Kerry: We met last spring. I'd just been diagnosed with breast cancer and my boyfriend called the Susan G. Komen for the Cure office. They gave him the name of a young survivor I could speak with: Maggie Hesse.

Maggie: Kerry and I talked for almost two hours; we really hit it off.

Kerry: I was only 37, and my mom had died of breast cancer. But in that phone call I felt so alive. I was laughing and laughing, thinking, Gosh, I have breast cancer; how could I possibly laugh so much?

Maggie: Since I was two and a half years out from my diagnosis, I could help her find the humor. I told her how I always wanted bigger boobs, and because of cancer, I got 'em and insurance paid for it! Or how being bald from chemotherapy cut 10 minutes off my time in the shower. I think she could see that once you get to the other side, it's not all bad.

Kerry: My confidence had been shaken. She gave me the strength to find it again. She literally turned my last chemo session into a party, complete with a bottle of champagne.

Maggie: We didn't actually drink it!

Kerry: When the chemo kicked in, I was so self-conscious about losing my hair. And she'd just say, "Oh, you're such a cute bald person!" I thought the friendship was one-sided, but it turned out to be good for both of us.

Maggie: I so admire Kerry's strength and independence, and I feel that way when we're together, too. She's brought out things in me that I've suppressed or ignored my whole life. I made a card to celebrate Kerry's last chemo, and she was like, "You should sell these! What's keeping you? Do it!" So I've started a greeting-card business called A Survivor's Sentiments.

Kerry: I honestly believe that the mark of true friendship is when someone can see you for yourself.

Maggie: That's the amazing thing about our friendship, considering that we met because of her cancer. She needed me, but I needed her, too.

Long-Distance BFFs

Kris Gonzalez & Yves-Marie Daley

Kris, 35, a reporter for the Fort Jackson Leader, and Yves-Marie, 33, a reservist and public affairs officer for the Army, have been close friends since their boot-camp days.

Kris is a married mom who lives in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Yves-Marie is a single mom who lives in Woodbridge, Virginia. The two have never lived less than three hours away from each other, but they've been best friends for 10 years.

How they met: Boot Camp, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, April 2000. Both were college grads -- older than most recruits -- and wanted to become journalists. That's how they first bonded. "Early on in training, Kris and I had to stand guard together at night," says Yves-Marie. "You stand there for three hours with someone, you're going to talk to them. Your relationship intensifies just like you're a kid at summer camp." Kris adds: "Yves-Marie kept me sane and motivated."

Most hilarious moment: Christmas in Germany, 2002. "I was stationed there and Yves-Marie was the only friend who came to visit," says Kris. "Since we'd both recently ended long-term relationships, we had a contest to see how many cute guys we could kiss in one night. When we're together, we're always laughing."

Most intense moments: "Being in her wedding," says Yves-Marie. "It was the smallest and sweetest ceremony." And the birth of Yves-Marie's son, Nicholas. "I was in the hospital room with her. What an honor!" says Kris. "How many women can say they saw their best friend give birth?"

How they're different: Kris is a total girly girl, says Yves-Marie: "During advanced training, I'd come to her room before class and she'd never be ready -- she'd still be putting makeup on." Yves-Marie is more tomboyish: "She's the kind of person who assembles her own furniture," says Kris. "She actually likes doing that kind of stuff."

It's all about give-and-take: When Yves-Marie was pregnant and her marriage was going south, she called Kris every day, crying. "She'd always apologize to me," says Kris. "But my husband was deployed, I was in Georgia by myself with a colicky baby, I'd given up my career and I had no one. I needed her to need me!"

Yves-Marie on Kris: "She's very real about things. Ask some moms how things are going and they'll say, 'Life's great; my kids are perfect.' But I know when I hit a tough spot, Kris will have been there and she'll tell it like it is."

Kris on Yves-Marie: "I know if I needed her all I'd have to do is call. She's a mirror for me, since we're so alike. When she's telling me about her problems, it makes me reflect on my own. And when she's telling me about her triumphs, it makes me believe I can achieve my own."

Friends in Need

Nancy Sharp & Julie Malek

Nancy, 44, a freelance writer, moved to Denver in part to be closer to Julie, also 44, a high school teacher.

Nancy and Julie were freshman roommates at Northwestern University in 1984 and have been best friends ever since. Nancy ended up in New York City and Julie settled in Denver with her college sweetheart and their two kids. For years it was mostly a phone friendship, but with frequent visits back and forth. Then, after a seven-year illness, Nancy's husband, Brett, died of a brain tumor, leaving her alone with twin toddlers. "Julie was an anchor for me," Nancy says. Two years later Nancy moved to Denver -- in part to be closer to her friend. She was there for Julie when her parents died in quick succession -- and Julie was there to pick out the "date-worthy outfit" Nancy wore the first time she met the man who's now her second husband. The old friends still talk just as much as ever but can only see each other once a week.

The big move: "I was a little nervous when Nancy decided to move to Denver," Julie admits. "It felt like a lot of responsibility for me, and a major transition for a family that had been through so much trauma. But Nancy built a new life for herself here so quickly. We went to an event after she'd only been out here a couple of months, and she was saying hello to more people than I was!"

Dealing with loss: "When her husband was sick and when he passed away, Nancy needed to be able to call somebody up and cry," says Julie. "But when my parents died, I needed to grieve in private. Nancy helped me in more practical ways. Right after my mom died, she brought over Epsom salts and aromatherapy oils. That was exactly what I needed -- to take a bath and relax."

Funniest moment: "At one point when Brett was sick, Nancy came out here and I said, 'That's it, we're going to a sex store,'?" remembers Julie. "We walked in the door and I said to the clerk, 'this woman needs a vibrator!'"

"I just remember giggling," says Nancy. "I had never been in a sex shop. Julie helped remind me that I was more than just a grieving caregiver. That shopping trip wasn't so much about sex, it was about embracing life."

What Nancy's learned from Julie: "She really stays involved with the world outside of her husband and family," Nancy says. "She helped me to realize early on the importance of living a full life, staying engaged with the things you're interested in, and maintaining your identity."

What Julie's learned from Nancy: "I'm an introvert," says Julie, "and Nancy's a real connector. I have to push myself to reach out -- my tendency would be not to -- and I'm not that good at it. Nancy has really shown me how, and what connecting with friends can do in your life."

Bonding Over Babies

Jane Bove, Jill Levine & Noreen Wenjen

Group dynamics: Jane, 46, a business executive, comes up with the fun ideas. Jill, 44, a singer, keeps them connected. And Noreen, 41, a pianist, keeps everyone grounded.

Jane, Jill, and Noreen -- and their infant sons -- met six years ago at a Mommy and Me class in Los Angeles. They've been tight ever since. As sleep-deprived, adult-time-deprived new moms, they'd go running on the boardwalk every Friday, pushing strollers, then they'd all grab lunch and chat. Noreen and Jill still have a weekly exercise date, and the last time Jane came to town -- she moved to Seattle in 2007 -- they all ran a 5K. "We're all outdoors people," says Noreen. "The running thing sets us free."

At first the three bonded over being working women who chose to stay home with their babies. "None of us knew quite what to do with ourselves," says Jill. The friendship was mostly about playdates. But then Jill, five months pregnant with her second child, miscarried. "It's through difficult times that you really know who your friends are," says Jane. When Jane had a miscarriage -- her fifth -- Noreen was her shoulder to cry on, then babysat her son while she went for the D&C. When Jill became pregnant with twins and was on bed rest, the gang pitched in. "Jane and Noreen would come over and have a picnic on my bedroom floor and bring arts and crafts for the kids," says Jill. "The hard times that we've gone through have just made our friendship tighter," says Jane.

Their secret? In a word, dedication. "Our friendship doesn't take a lot of work, just a lot of care," says Noreen. "Jane and Jill are two friends who always make the extra effort to follow through."