Unexpected Friendships Find You When You Need Them The Most

This is another memoir post inspired by a writing prompt given over a week ago by Write On Edge. This prompt has made me look at all the friendships in my life and how they have impacted me. I plan on writing a new post about friendship each week for a while.

Cat and I met for the first time in a small, dark community theater. Her husband was doing some percussion pit work, I believe. I knew him. We went to high school together. While he and I were chatting during the intermission, a thin and sharply dressed blonde snuggled up next to him. She was charming. Her cool blue eyes would have been intimidating on another woman, but hers felt familiar, inviting.

“This is my wife,” he said proudly.

We shook hands and exchanged a few more casual words until the flickering lights signaled us to take our seats.

“It was very nice to meet you,” I whispered, slipping back into the darkness.

A few years later, I found myself standing in front of an NICU incubator, eyes shut tight, trying desperately to hold back tears. My sweet baby girl had been born 8 1/2 weeks early. She was resting lightly under the careful watch of nurses and doctors. The low hum and sharp beeps of monitors and machines dulled my anxiety. My eyes fluttered open, absorbing the room. It was filled with rows of incubators, babies of varying sizes and degrees of complications. My daughter was one of the strongest even at just over 4 lbs. Her breathing was consistent, her reflexes responsive. She just wasn’t able to nurse because she had no sucking ability. It was a good hospital. In fact, if my daughter had been born anywhere else, she would have been moved to this neonatal unit anyway.

I started reading the family names posted on the outside of each incubator, sympathizing with parents I didn’t even know, because I understood their fear. Suddenly, my eyes rested on a name I recognized, a name that was not very common. What were the chances it was my high school classmate’s daughter laying next to mine?  I didn’t have to wait long for my answer, because a few minutes later I was standing next to that same charming  blonde I had met at the community theater a few years prior. In spite of the  physical and mental exhaustion, Cat smiled warmly at me in recognition.  It was a relief to know someone – even if we had only met once.

The Tortoise and Cat's oldest daughter

Our daughters were born an hour apart on the same day. We delivered in the rooms next to each other. Cat was rushed to the hospital and delivered immediately, 9 1/2 weeks before her due date. I, on the other hand,went in to labor 9 1/2 weeks early, but lasted another week on bed rest before delivering. For 15 days, Cat and I spent hours together at the hospital. Sometimes talking. Sometimes sitting in silence, listening to the white noise of the NICU. Sometimes we held hands while the other cried in frustration. And sometimes we laughed at our own insecurities about being new moms. It was comforting to have a friend while waiting for our babies to be strong enough to come home. Many people sympathized with us, but few could empathize. We knew each others hearts intimately.

I was a mix of emotion the day my daughter came home. What if she stopped breathing in the middle of the night? What if she still couldn’t nurse properly? What deficiencies would show up months from now because she was a preemie? But most of all, I was sad to leave my new friend. Her daughter was not ready to leave the hospital and I felt like I was abandoning her. We exchanged contact information and promised to stay in touch. It wasn’t long before my friend’s daughter was able to come home. We kept in contact regularly for a while, but then eventually life got complicated and we were absorbed into our new role of motherhood. The phone calls and play dates dwindled.

Two years after the birth of my daughter, I found myself overwhelmed with unexpected changes. My marriage had fallen apart and I needed a safe place to live. I needed to get a job and figure out day care. I was suddenly a single parent moving back in with my own parents. I needed to move my stuff out of the rental home and into storage but I couldn’t really afford anything big enough for furniture, just boxes and seasonal clothes. Many of the people I thought were my friends turned their back on me and I suddenly realized how isolated I had become. And then my path crossed with Cat’s again. I don’t remember how or where we reconnected. I just remember her arms embracing me without judgement, welcoming me into her home. When I wasn’t staying with my parents, I was living at her house. She cooked for me, clothed my child and stored my furniture. On the nights I couldn’t sleep, feeling helpless and overwhelmed, she let me crawl into bed with her like a small child while she just kept telling me, “everything will be okay.” I had nothing to give her in return, and yet she continued to give in abundance with no strings attached until I was strong enough to take care of myself. She was selfless at a time when all I could muster was selfishness.

Eventually life got better. I met and married DW and moved to Michigan. We remained in contact casually for a while but then lost touch again. Then one day, I received an unexpected phone call from her. We realized we had been pregnant at the same time again, only this time delivering just a couple weeks apart. Then she told me she was going through some devastation of her own. The details are irrelevant, but the outcome separated her from her family for the next three years. She was going to miss her daughters’ birthdays, the oldsters’ first day of school and her youngster’s first steps. She would not be there to tuck them in to bed or read them stories. She was going to leave as mom and come back a stranger. We cried together and then said goodbye with the promise of staying in contact.

But I failed her, terribly. It was a year before I finally wrote. I didn’t know what to say that didn’t sound trite or unsympathetic. The more days of silence that piled up, the harder it got to reach out. My first letter was filled with anxiety and apologies. I fully expected her to send it back, unopened, but instead, I received pages and pages of forgiveness in return. For the next two years we wrote monthly, openly and honestly. She was at a turning point in her life, and making some amazing changes that would positively impact not only her future but her family’s future. Our friendship felt like it was at a turning point too. Although I had not heard her voice or seen her face in years, I felt like I carried a part of her around everyday. Even in her weakness, she inspired me to be a better person because she demonstrated so much tenacity and optimism when most people would have succumbed to defeat. She taught me the importance of accepting responsibility without whining and without excuses.

One of my favorite pictures of us

She has been home with her husband and two girls for years now. They are a cohesive unit, proving that anything is possible if you are willing to put in the effort. We don’t talk regularly, but when we do, it is as if no time has passed. I try to see her whenever I visit Texas and we exchange messages on Facebook or through texting. I don’t tell her enough how important she is, but I hope in her heart she knows. There are few people in life that we are able to connect with so deeply even in silence. She is one of them and I am grateful for her.

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