As children, we use friendships as boats. We sail along, exploring the world that crashes against our bow. Some days we are pirates — pillaging and lying and singing rowdy songs. Some days we are sailors together, our boats with sails a pristine white against soft blue skies. Our shipmates are our comrades of discovery. We are in this together. Until our boat hits an ice-burg in frigid waters. Or our ship runs out of ocean and we run aground.
Most friendships don’t last through childhood, teenhood, and into adulthood. The ocean ever-expanding as we age, and our boats shrinking in comparison.
Last weekend I drove to Illinois to visit a friend that built a boat with me when we were both twelve — barely old enough to realize how fragile these ships were. Within a year and a half she was gone and our friendship was tested with the distance between Virginia and Florida, and with the naïvety of the strength of a telephone cord wound around our hull.
We lost touch. We found each other. We got lost and found again. Years washed by. There were marriages and divorce, while illness threatened to toss each of us overboard and we hung on over the phone. Meanwhile, she had created three sweet girls that trail behind her like baby ducklings, as I wonder how I haven’t had children yet. Our twelve-year-old selves would not have predicted this outcome.
In Illinois, the middle point between our two homes, I sat drinking tea (which the children tried and declared was just “okay”) and nibbling on dark chocolate (which the children also tried, but decided was pretty much inedible, “like coffee”). I sat and watched and listened and wondered aloud, “How did you figure out all this Mom stuff?” The other half of this story, the half that belongs to the other captain of this boat, is filled with tragic details and heart-wrenching dilemmas that would have dismantled any person, much less any friendship. And yet, I sat there observing what I had only been hearing over the phone for years: She is amazing.
As a twelve-year-old I was shocked by her brazen disregard of social norms. She would plow, headlong, into any situation that she wanted to be a part of. While I, the timid one who didn’t question bedtime, covered my mouth with wide eyes and yelped.
As a thirty-something, I am amazed at her brazen disregard of social norms. She has defied the abusers in her life, the ignorers, the nay-sayers. She has a 3.95 GPA in pre-law and economics. She will be a lawyer.
I have a picture of our bright, preteen faces. One of those thumbnail-sized images captured in a mall photo booth. We’re grinning, squeezed into the frame. The picture brings back memories of silver hoop earrings and seeing how high we can build a ponytail on the top of our head. It brings back tearful conversations about very adult concepts. It brings back a handful of lyrics from a Toni Braxton song. It reconnects me to the rickety frame of a ship, built by two brokenhearted little girls who had no tools between the two of them. All they had was love and complete acceptance. The pockets of their baggy jeans filled with mistaken ideas of what love should be, yet somehow offering each other love unconditional. Vowing to not abandon ship, even if it meant risking tender hearts dashed against the rocks.
I showed the picture to her three girls and they giggled. Her oldest is now on the cusp of twelve. They listened as we laughed and tried to explain the beginnings of us. “Who is that?” one pointed to my tiny face in her hand. “That’s me,” I smiled, looking at each of the faces that I hadn’t met before, seeing small pieces of a face I’ve known for more than half my life. A face I’ve only seen once in the last eighteen years.
They looked back at the picture and giggled again. They all recognized their mother.
So did I.