Going to Spain

At a certain age - I'll let you do the math - you come to realize that your college friends have known you more than half your life. If you're lucky enough to still be friends with them, then you have a rare privilege. You can pick up the phone and talk to somebody who remembers the 19-year-old you. You can complain to someone who shared your growing pains back then, and shares them now. You have friends your age, who can offer you something more valuable than all the oil in Iraq -- the comforting phrase, "me too."

You are steeped in background information, family histories, inside jokes, indiscretions youthful and otherwise, and most of all, in true and genuine friendship. These are people who have heard all your B.S. before -- they know you'll always be 15 minutes late -- and still have marked you as a keeper. They loved you back then and, even with all the changes and divergence in your lives, they love you now.

I had brunch with some of my college friends today. Our lives really don't resemble each other's much. Some of us have kids, some don't; some are married, some aren't. We live in all different sized homes, spread out across central North Carolina. But for some reason, we just keep seeking each other out. Even when one feels a snub, or someone takes offense, or the other person just doesn't answer the phone for a while, somehow we all end up at the brunch table again. If you asked me how or why, I couldn't explain it. I can't claim that I've been wise or strategic enough to do this on purpose. They are simply my friends, and I am theirs.

We've seen each other through many of life's little pitfalls. Nothing major, mind you, and nothing Hollywood -- there's no literal crying on anyone's literal shoulder, for instance. We try to refrain from giving each other advice, as none of us likes to receive it. We've simply been there for each other, year after year, as jobs go south, parents get sick, bills come due, and other friends drift in and out with the tides.

One of my friends is expecting her second child. She has a little girl who is her entire world. As we sat at the brunch table, we talked about how many people our age are still desperately hoping for a first child, and what a blessing it is to have a healthy baby on the way, for whom God has a plan.

She's having another little girl. She found out last week. And she is grateful. And thankful. And happy. And all the things she is supposed to be. And she is also involved in a tug of war with some emotions that she is afraid to give voice to. You see, this time, my friend really felt and thought -- and yes, somewhere down deep, maybe even hoped -- that she was having a little boy.

These things exist in the deep, dark recesses of a woman's soul. They are things that she shares completely with no one, not even her dearest and oldest friends, her husband, nor her mother. She may not even allow herself the indulgence of thinking about it.

And she has good reason. For as far as we have come (and we've come a long way, baby), society still demands that women be perfect. Mothers, especially, are required to be better human beings than the rest of us. They are to think only of their children -- not just first and last, but at every step in between. Anything less invites whispers behind her back, gossip at the church, veiled criticism over the bridge table. Mothers can never do enough to please everyone; and when a woman becomes a mother, suddenly there appear in her life thousands of people whom she now must please. I don't often hear mothers talk about such things. But put your ear to the ground at the workplace, at the PTA meeting, at the grocery store or the neighborhood party, and you'll hear that everyone else is talking about them.

But a woman's friends -- they should know these things. If they do not know, then maybe they are not truly her friends. And though she won't admit even to us how deep the struggle, how it fights with her in the morning, making her feel guilty, sad, mad, and guilty again, at least when she's among friends, she can speak its name.

"Someone described it to me like this," my friend says. "Say you've spent months planning a trip to England. You've read all the guidebooks, packed the appropriate clothes, planned your sightseeing and made the reservations. You're ready, you're psyched. You board the plane, take your seat, and an announcement comes over the P.A., telling you that plans have changed -- and now, suddenly, you're going on a trip to Spain."

At this point my friend pauses. To a stranger, it would seem as though she never stopped smiling. But to us, who have known her face for over half of her lifetime, the change doesn't go unnoticed. It's over in a nanosecond, as if her baby had just kicked.

"It's still a wonderful trip!" she says. "And exciting, and fantastic, and you're so incredibly lucky to be going, and you know that. But -- you just -- you know, you really thought you were going to England." We all nod and contemplate our coffee mugs. Everyone at the table is still smiling. That's all that's going to be said.

My friend is a teacher, and the friends who gave her that analogy also teach at her school. Last Friday, as she was getting ready to leave school, she noticed a package in her box. It was from the other teachers. Inside the package were several pink, frilly, feminine little baby girl hats and booties. And there was also a note. It said simply, with a smiley face, "WE'RE GOING TO SPAIN."

And that's how I know, without ever having met those women, that they are her friends.

Without exception, every one of my friends who has become a mother has given up who she was before, and has begun living her life for her children. No one had to tell them to do this, and there was no complaint nor debate about it. No one, not even them, asked their husbands to do the same. They simply started doing what was theirs to do: picking the paci's off the floor and cleaning them off, time and time again; wiping the food off the high chair so the waitress wouldn't have to do it; giving kisses and hugs and discipline, all in due measure; manhandling the strollers in and out of the van; buckling the kids in; soothing the tears, even if they feel like breaking down and having a good cry themselves. And all the while, they still make time to remember your birthday, ask how your parents are doing, how the job is going, hug you goodbye and say how good it was to see you.

There are times that I am so proud of them I really don't have one single word I can say. I want to tell them they are wonderful mothers, and wonderful people; that they are doing a fantastic job, and that even if no one else notices, I do; that they are valued, and appreciated, and respected and admired, and loved.

But I don't tell them those things. We really don't talk like that to each other, my friends and I. We don't resemble the weepy, silly, fight-and-make-up sisterhood of Hollywood movies. We just live our lives, ask how the other is doing, have brunch, and say "me too" -- even if it's not true, and we just want to make someone else feel better.

I don't tell my friends how much I love them. I guess that's because I know that, since they've known my face for over half of my lifetime, there's not all that much that escapes their notice.

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