Today I’m thinking of a friend.
I remember the first day of ninth grade. I made my way through the crowded hall to homeroom, uneasy because I didn’t know that many people. (Many of the kids I’d been going to school with fed into a different high school.) There were lots of new faces, and somehow they all seemed to know each other. I remember finding a seat and sitting down, and I remember seeing a girl sitting across the room. She was so pretty, with thick dark hair and beautiful eyes (blue, I would later discover). And her smile, that was what I really noticed. I was nervous and unsure, but she had one of those thousand watt smiles that spoke of warmth and inner confidence, that could light up a room and immediately put other people at ease. I was drawn to her from the start. She sparkled. I think she’s always sparkled. I soon learned she’d been wildly popular at her junior high. A cheerleader. Her boyfriend had been the star of the football team. I, on the other hand, was basically a bookworm. A nerd. A straight A-student not exactly known for anything other than my grades. Not only had I never even had a boyfriend, I’d never been kissed. Never even held hands. People like her didn’t usually have much to do with people like me. And yet she did. We became friends with crazy ease.
I think back on all that now, those friendship that dominate the early years of our lives. When we’re little girls, long before we fall in love for the first time, it’s (usually) other girls who form the nucleus of our lives. Sure we’re aware of boys, but for the most part, it’s the girls that we gravitate toward. We hang out at recess and pass notes in class, have slumber parties where we challenge ourselves to stay up as long as we can. In those early days it’s all about fun and games, laughter and being silly. I remember playing music and dancing, singing and braiding each other’s hair.
Somewhere along the line, maybe when hormones set in, things get more serious. We talk about guys, school, our parents—and other friends. We find ourselves sharing dreams and problems, frustrations and fears, and of course, all the intoxicating wonder and anticipation of dating. We get emotional. We get gushy. We share poems.
That’s also when we start talking about kissing—sex. Who’s done what, and what it was like. We giggle about certain boys, and wonder how they kiss. We give nicknames (lizard tongue, anyone?) We talk about drinking, and drugs. We talk about college. Our future. Sometimes we talk about out future weddings and speculate about who we’ll marry and the kids we’ll have, the lives we’ll lead, jobs, how it will all play out. But even with all that sharing, most of what we “see” follows the storybook script. We never talk about what will happen if the first guy we ever loved one day commits suicide, or if a parent walks out the door and never comes back. If our pregnancies don’t reach full term. And we sure never imagine that one day many, many years later we’ll be sitting in an exam room at a pediatrician’s office, waiting for the nurse, when suddenly a text comes in, and while our toddler babbles, we’ll be staring down at the words sick—very sick. We never quite see ourselves on the phone with our friend’s mother, the mother you once felt never approved of you as a friend, grasping for the right words to say as she falls apart. You never see yourself in a grocery store, frozen next to a rack of nail polish as you stare numbly at another text, this one with the words inoperable, no chance, so scared, and don’t know how to tell the kids. You never see yourself at a funeral.
That’s not part of the dream. That’s not the future we see when we’re sixteen and invincible, drunk on innocence and possibility. Maybe it happens to other people, but not us.
Sometimes I watch my daughter and her friends exploring the ropes of early friendship, and feel my heart ache. They’re third graders. Their lives are still blissfully simple. They’re silly. They laugh a lot. They make up cheers and chants. But the inevitable complications are starting to slip in: “Mom, I think Friend A is spending the night at Friend B’s house tonight–why didn’t she invite me?” “Friend A and I were playing at recess, and we saw Friend B by herself and asked her if she wanted to play with us, but she just turned around and walked away.” “Mom, Friend A got upset with me and I’m scared she won’t be my friend anymore.” “Mom, we’re changing tables next week, and since my table won the quiet award, we each get to pick one person we want to sit next to. But I don’t know what to do. If I pick Friend A, Friend B will feel bad, and if I pick Friend B, Friend A will feel bad. What do I do?”
I remember those feelings, the uncertainty and insecurity, the fear that you’re not good enough, that a friend might one day decide they don’t want to be your friend anymore. Freshmen year, I wanted so badly to fit in with the new girls I was meeting, the ones who’d grown up together and shared countless memories and jokes, even fun nicknames, but despite how nice they were to me, I often felt like a third wheel, like I was hovering on the edge of a circle, but not quite part of it. Of course, now I realize that was my own junk, that place inside of me that never felt good enough as a friend, a student, a daughter. In retrospect, it’s obvious why I threw myself into Cross Country running, but at the time, I didn’t see the connection. All I knew was that sometimes friendship was hard. Sometimes it hurt. Sometimes it made you feel every bit as vulnerable as romantic relationships. The highs were really high, but the lows could be really low. But somehow, when that connection is there, you get through it.
You love your friends. You grow together. You laugh. You cry. You learn. They touch your heart, and you theirs. You share secrets and dreams, hopes and fears. You learn how to give and understand, how to trust, and apologize. You learn not to walk away just because things get complicated. You learn you’re stronger together, than apart. There are no vows, at least not the spoken kind. Not usually anyway. But the bonds are there, and they can be as strong as those to our spouses.
That’s why I know that no matter how badly I want to fix things for my daughter, I can’t. I can’t call her friend’s mother and try to smooth things over. I can’t wave some magic wand. All I can do is listen to her and let her know everything she’s feeling is okay. Normal. I can give her advice and coach her about the importance of being authentic and owning her actions/reactions, her emotions. I can give her a shoulder to cry on. But in the end, she is the one who has to walk this road with her friends. They’ve got to work through tough times and hard choices. They’ve got to feel the love, and the hurt. That’s the trick, the key. That’s how they learn, and that’s how they prepare themselves for what lies ahead. Those hard times, the ones that seem devastating and insurmountable at the time, they teach you how to be friends, and make us so much stronger. Planting seeds, laying a foundation, whatever cliché you want to use. I know that, because I know what the road looks like. I know things now that I never imagined when I was a freshman, smiling at the girl with the amazing blue eyes—and crying months later, because she invited someone else to spend the night at her house.
Now I realize we’re each a thread, beautiful and unique and strong, but more beautiful, more unique, and infinitely stronger when woven together. The end result is a tapestry, a safety-net ready to catch us, hold us, support us, when life takes those unexpected curves.
In that small exam room, when I saw those words—sick, very sick—images flashed through my mind like a slide show stuck on fast forward. I saw my friend laughing, being silly. I saw her smiles, her tears. I saw her cheering on the sideline of football games, on the beach, graduating. I saw her in college, and later, five hundred miles from our hometown, as my roommate. I saw her gushing about the guy who lived in our apartment complex, the one she said if I didn’t date, she would. I saw her a year and half later, standing in our wedding. I saw her eyes dancing as she told me about a guy she’d met, and I saw her standing at the altar, taking vows to love and cherish, til death do they part. I saw her pregnant. I saw her holding her first child, and her second. I saw her at our high school reunion, and I saw her sitting across the table from me, sharing a beer as we talked about Days of our Lives. I saw all that in one blinding heartbeat, and everything inside of me hurt.
So much hit me at once, shock and fear, dread and sadness, anger–an intense, soul-searing anger. THIS was not part of the script, dammit. But along with all that, a fierce need filled me. I couldn’t fix what was wrong. I couldn’t stop the disease shattering her life, no matter how badly I wanted to. But I couldn’t shrink back, either. I couldn’t abandon her. I was her friend, and she mine. I wanted to be there for her, to stand beside her, love her. It wasn’t enough, it could never be enough. And yet sometimes life takes that choice from us. Soon I found myself in contact with all those girls from before, the ones with whom and from whom I learned so many valuable life lessons, and as one we came together three years ago today as our friend said goodbye to her amazing husband, the father of her children and the light of her heart. We stood together, the girls we’d been and the women we’d become, and wrapped our friend in the invisible, Teflon bonds of love and friendship, forged all those years before, through the fire of good times and bad. We held her and we held each other. We cried and we prayed. We stood together as our friend, the girl with the beautiful eyes, the woman with the broken heart, turned to face a new chapter of her life, one of grief and fear and uncertainty, but strength and courage, too, and with time, healing. It was a long way from the skinned knees of playgrounds and late night angst sessions, and yet it was those experiences that ultimately created the support system, the sisterhood, that carried us forward. It was friendship in action, the culmination of everything that had come before.
Today I’m thinking of my friend and seeing the girl she once was—with the wild dark hair and laughing blue eyes—and the strong, beautiful, courageous woman she has become.
Today, I’m thinking of my friend, and loving her with all my heart.
Today I’m cheering her on.
Today I’m grateful for the ties that bind.