It was winter when I first met Erin, cold and soggy and dark so early. We met at a short-lived evening MOPS meeting. She had a haircut that I envied, short and sassy, and man, she had all the sass of that haircut, too. She cussed, which I liked (it’s so hard to find someone who can cuss like a sailor, but who also still knows when and how to do it appropriately. It’s a rare skill and it’s life giving when you can find someone who speaks your language). Her husband worked similar hours to my husband (read: all the time), which I loved because it meant she felt my pain and frustration and exhaustion. She seemed like my kind of people and I wanted to get to know her more – I mean as much as you can ascertain about someone you’ve known for 12 minutes.
Sometimes you meet someone and you just know that this person is going to play an integral role in your life. I’ve only had that happen a few times in my life and I know now to embrace it because I learn something big each time it happens.
That winter, Erin was freshly pregnant and had just decided to stay at home mostly full-time with her two small humans – both of whom were not in school; we’d walked that transition in our house and it is full of potholes and learning curves and it would have been nice to have someone on the other side to help me navigate my love of staying home and my annoyance that my job was now staying home. Anyway, El was still a babe and my Finn was in Kindergarten and Abigail still lived at home with a closet full of teenage-angst. What should have been an impossible friendship bloomed slowly into one of the weirdest, most life-affirming friendship I’ve experienced.
Erin’s a total extrovert and people are drawn to her because she’s so open and honest. I’m exactly the opposite, I like to stay in my house and never leave, I think deep thoughts and if I’m around people for too long, I have to recover quietly in a dark room, preferably with a bathtub and a glass of wine, for days. I’m usually so careful about who I let into my bubble, but Erin just barged right in and I sat back and let her because I recognized that I needed someone like that in my life; someone who would call me up and tell me that I’m being a hermit and I need to leave my house, even if it was just to go over to her house for coffee. And I feel like my job is to balance her big adventures, because there are 5 small kids between us and that can make for a parade of crazy anywhere we go. I offer her a quiet place to sit and work through life when she needs to. We share dinner duties during the week when our husbands are working crazy hours. We throw our kids out on her deck into the kiddie pool and we watch them from the comfort of her air-conditioned living room. I took her kids when she had to take one for stitches, and when she birthed her daughter, her boys slept at my house until her mom came to get them. She sat with mine when my husband sprained his ankle and needed to go the emergency room on a late Saturday night.
She’s who I call when I need to be talked off the ledge of raising a crazy teenager or a spicy 2 year old; I’m who she calls when she feels like the walls are caving in around her and she needs to get out of her house – even if it’s just to my house while all of our kids play and fight in equal measure with every single noisy toy they can find.
I also share my 7 year old with her. Because here’s the thing: her 7 year old, Ray, lives in heaven and he has since he was 4 months old – long before we knew each other. And this has been the best and hardest part of our friendship.
True story: before Erin, I didn’t know anyone who had a child who died. I’d heard plenty of miscarriage stories (and even those, my own included, are not stories shared openly or often) but I’d never known someone with an actual breathing human one morning and by the end of that very same day was living a mama’s worst nightmare.
I’ve learned a few things, walking this friendship road with a Loss Mama (which, by the way, is an actual thing; it’s a club that nobody wants to be a part of, but those ladies love each other hard; some haven’t even met face to face but they are bonded by a really crappy life experience). Here’s what I’ve taken, bit by bit, over the nearly two years of our friendship (I did the math, it’ll be 2 years this winter; I feel like we have been friends forever, though, and that’s the testament of a great friendship.) Keep in mind that each mama is different, and what works for one grieving mama, might not actually be the best advice for the next. It’s a delicate balance, finding out how to embrace a friendship with someone who has such deep wounds, but this is what I’ve found to be true for our friendship:
- We say Ray’s name. We say it out loud; toss it into conversation naturally, we say it happy and we say it sad. I’ve asked about his birth story and his death story. I’ve listened to both with a lump in my throat and tears that leaked. I feel like I really do know that baby, even though I never held him. I try to share that sweet boy whenever I can, because the burden of remembering and carrying a few precious months of memories is exhausting and if I’m here to help keep the memory alive for his mama, then I feel like I’ve done something worthwhile. My kids know about Ray. We talk about Ray; he’s like the 6th kid that’s not actually in the van when we go adventuring. At the request of my son, we planned a birthday party for Ray this fall. He is very much a part of our dynamic.
- I have accepted that there will be days that the stories are happy memories; that something will trigger a memory and we will be able to laugh about “those crazy first babies.” And there will be days that are dark; that everything is unfair and regardless of all the words that I may have that seem positive and uplifting, there are times I just have to be quiet and let her grieve in her own way. Sometimes that means curling up on my kitchen floor while I rock her living baby because she’s sad. Sometimes it means putting a movie on to distract the bigger kids from the angry words and the ugly cry at the absolute unfairness of how this story is playing out. Sometimes that means showing up when it’s inconvenient because I know she’s struggling. Friendship, I’ve learned, is not always convenient; it’s not always fun and it can be hard. It is about showing up, anyway. It’s about lifting each other in the low times, because truthfully, the good times are great, and we have plenty of those, but it’s the lowest of the low points and how we react to them that build the bones of a lasting friendship.
- I have learned to understand that I don’t understand. I will, God willing, never understand. And that’s okay. I don’t have to know exactly what she’s feeling to feel sad with her. I don’t have to have a broken heart to ache for her broken heart. Inappropriate texts threads go a long way, as do text conversations that only use memes, usually sent back and forth during nap time or bedtime (arguably the hardest time in any mamas day). A bottle of wine or a girl’s night out can help. Chocolate cake soothes a multitude of wounds. And I know to pick up my phone when she calls because although I do not like to talk on the phone, I make an exception for Erin. I know she’s calling about something important that needs my spoken words – otherwise she’d just text, because obviously she knows me, too.
- There is a certain amount of love and longing that goes into Erin’s relationship with my Finn. She loves him and the feeling is so mutual and I’m not even a little bit jealous of how easy their relationship is, how he wants to tell her all the things and how she can listen to him without getting bored or rolling her eyes or tuning out the things that make no sense (have you ever talked to an elementary school boy about Minecraft? Snore.) We let him boss her boys like an older brother would and I understand when she stares at him that she’s really not staring at him, she’s mostly trying to work out in her mind what Ray would be like; would he like Legos and Captain Underpants and potty talk indicative of a 7 year old boy? Would he be good at soccer or football or would he rather ski and ride horses? Would he be tall for his age? Would he love school and still reach to hold her hand when crossing the street? The best part, though, is that Finn loves her back, not because he’s a fill-in – he’s not – but because he really is kind and gentle and whether he knows it or not, he soothes her soul just a little bit.
- Being Erin’s friend means that I accept that we are one kid short of our happy meals when we go out. It means that even though I never held Ray, I love Ray because he was – he still is – Erin’s son. He belonged to her and he has a huge chunk of her heart in heaven. I celebrate his life in September and I grieve with his mama in January. Being Erin’s friend means that sometimes I find myself looking at my own 7 year old and understanding on a very deep level just how truly blessed I am that his feet are on Earth.
Our combined families are crazy and loud and we draw looks and attention wherever we happen to go, and when we add our third girlfriend and her two kids, it hits an absolute epic levels of nutso. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. We truly are sister-wives, sharing life together even when it’s messy or uncomfortable or heartbreaking; I love her kids like my own and I know she feels the same about mine. In a town where neither of us has any family close by, we have become each other’s family and that is, by far, the biggest blessing of this weird, wonderful friendship.