When I’m dealing with mom’s changes I sometimes find myself looking back at how my life and hers have unfolded. I’m pretty much alone in my memories of her; there’s no one left that knew her like I did. If you’re lucky, you have a friend who has seen you grow from a child to an adult. Someone who knew your parents - and siblings if you have them - and knows your backstory; all the things that makes you you. Someone who knew you “when”.
When I was eleven years old and living in Germany where my dad was stationed, I made a friend whose dad was stationed there as well. We happened to live in the same village; she was just one block over from me and I could see her window on the fourth floor of her apartment building from mine on the third floor. I remember the moment I met her - my friend, Kerri, introduced us on the school bus by saying that Dana had just moved to Germany and needed a friend. We were both the same age but she was my opposite - she looked like a teenager already and I looked like my nickname, which was (and still is, for some people) Missy. I still wore my hair long and in ponytails or braids and she was already adept at blow drying and the use of curling irons. I was tall but looked like a little girl and she was petite and perfect and looked like someone I wanted to be. I happily put myself in her shadow from minute one.
We became best friends in no time. We spent just about every spare moment outside of school together - we rode our bikes all over the village, played tennis up against a huge warehouse wall, roamed through the woods, and sang our little hearts out to the Eagles and Elton John. We’d gather up loose change from our parents and buy flowers at the local florist or candy from the corner store. We weren’t in the same class but we sat together on the long bus ride to and from school. She went on vacation with us and I learned to ski with her. She taught me how to shave my legs and put on mascara.
When I had to move back to the states and leave her behind it was wrenching; my parents got us a room at the hotel we stayed at before our flight out just so we could have one more sleep over and say goodbye. I can still see her waving to me as her dad drove her home. I don’t think I had ever cried so hard as I did that day, I felt like I had lost a sister.
We kept in touch for a few years through letter writing and the occasional long distance phone call. The letter writing fell off after a while and we went on about the business of becoming adults. We kept in touch enough to know where each of us was living and I talked to her occasionally after I left home at nineteen to live in Memphis. Memphis wasn’t that far from where she lived in Arkansas so she visited me there once with her boyfriend whom she would go on to marry.
I was working out of St. Louis when I got married at twenty-two; when we had Leah I was twenty-six. When Leah was two months old Bill got a temporary sixteen-week reassignment to Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma so we packed up our things, put them in storage, and headed to a furnished apartment far away from my parents and everything I knew. I’m sure Altus has changed since we were there but I hated it; we only had one car and even if I did drive Bill to work, where in the hell was I going to go? There was a Walmart but that was about it. However, it turned out that Dana and her husband (who was also in the Air Force) were stationed near Dallas which was just a little more than 3 hours away so we made plans to meet up with them before they left for their new assignment in Germany and we left for ours in Delaware.
She and I had some interesting parallels. Both of our husbands were in the Air Force and the same rank and 8 years older than us. We both had little girls on September 3rd - she just did it three years before I did. What were the chances of that, especially since we didn’t live anywhere near each other and we had chosen very different paths? Yet here we were, all grown up with children of our own.
I was still less mature than she was by a long shot - she is naturally maternal and disciplined, while I was looking at motherhood as something that was exciting and joyful - not necessarily taking a parental role but more like, “I just made the sibling I never had! I can’t wait to show you ALL the things! Do you like zoos? Me, too!!”. I know I was a good mom - good lord, I stared at that child for the first two years of her life and spent my time almost exclusively with her but, we had FUN! We discovered flowers and bugs and Disney movies together and I shared with her what I loved; the first songs she knew were by Queen and Whitney Houston. My baby, my music.
Anyhow, Dana and I rekindled the closeness we had once had and we talked regularly. It was so nice to be able to share with her once again, whether it was the perils of potty-training, the loneliness of being a military wife, or just laughing over memories and everyday experiences. Dana had a little boy who was a year younger than Leah and I had Logan two years after that. When my dad died in 1995, she was the first person I called; she had known the dad I had loved so much and she cried right along with me.
After three years in Germany and three years in England Dana and her husband were assigned to Tinker AFB in Oklahoma. After more than twenty years apart we were finally going to be within a quick driving distance from each other. We shared Christmases and Thanksgivings together, the weirdness of raising teenagers, and the even bigger weirdness of aging parents.
We talked many times about how exasperating our moms could be. She talked me through my frustrations with my mom and I was with her through her parents’ divorce. I remember her telling me that no matter how hard we tried, we were going to turn out just like our moms. Like hell I was. My mom was a good person but her mothering instincts had limits; I’ll spare you the details but it took a few counseling sessions to get control of my anger and resentment towards her. I tried to tell Dana that no, we didn’t have to become our moms. Sure we looked like them and had some of the same mannerisms but we didn’t have to equal the sum of their parts. But she stuck with her belief and whenever she would allude to her premise it irritated me a little bit. I tried to use some of the things my mom did as an instruction manual of what not to do - I believe we have control over how we think, behave, and interact, no matter how long we marinated in dysfunction.
As time went on we seemed to grow apart. Our political views were vastly different and not even worth discussion. She still seemed to still view me as “Missy” and at times I felt she had taken on the role of the big sister who knew better but I let it go because she was the closest thing to a sister I’d ever have. During this time, I had gone back to college and was going to take the summer off from classes. She told me to keep going, that I would probably lose my momentum if I took a break and not ever go back - hell, even if I didn’t want to go back that statement was enough to keep me on track even if it was out of spite.
We had a few disagreements but nothing earth shattering until the election of 2012. She was all about pigs and lipstick and the very thought turned my stomach. She went to rallies and I doubted her sanity. I kept my opinions to myself while she peppered me with her views and I just let it happen. It was clear there was a widening chasm between us and it was getting bigger no matter how hard we tried to patch over it.
The night before the 2012 election she and I were watching “The Voice” together which meant we were texting back and forth about the show. Everything was normal as far as I could tell but that would be the last interaction I ever had with her. As soon as the results of the election were in she left my life. She simply disappeared.
I didn’t understand how she could just leave me. We weren’t necessarily best friends anymore, I had a friend who fit that role; however, we were more than friends, we knew each other. No matter what, I was there for her and she was there for me. Until we weren’t. I still feel my throat tighten whenever I think of her. I know for a fact that if we had met in our thirties we would not have been friends but we had history and that shared history created a bond - at least for me it did.
Ever since mom’s diagnosis and move here I have wished that Dana and I could still be friends because, in the same way she knew my dad, she knew my mom. She knew my mom from a little girl’s perspective and no one else I know knew her like that. I need to be able to laugh and reminisce with her about who mom was. I know that I’ll never see her again but there are times that I long for the one person who knew me “when”. I miss her. I miss who I thought she was, not the person she eventually became - not a bad person, just not what I would want in a friend. It was time to let her go but to lose part of your past like that is painful. Incredibly so.
While looking through one of my favorite “get up and dust yourself off” books, this passage made me think of how we take so many of the things that are closest to us for granted. Safe and secure in their permanence - until they’re not. But it’s not hopeless, it’s just different.
*“In your life, you have a very small, tight bundle of certainties. These are the things that are truly there for you. They may be people, the place you live, your partner, your abilities, maybe even your sobriety. These core certainties are sheltered from your scrutiny. Because you know you can depend on them, you never question them.
That needs to change. You must at least examine them to make sure they’re still intact.
One day you may find yourself in an unhappy place where you feel trapped and without options. You may feel you have looked at your situation and realized it’s hopeless.
I can promise you that it’s not. I can promise you that there is an option and possibly several.
You just might have to move something out of the way first to get a clearer view.
It can be a bit of a puzzle, locating the single aspect of your life that isn’t what it appears to be, the belief you assume you hold dear but that, in fact, you’ve never even questioned.
It’s hard to find what you don’t know you’re searching for.
You have to examine everything up close and look for signs of forgery or those deep scratches that come from forcing something into place that shouldn’t be there.
Like a marriage that doesn’t contain any sex.
Before you can even begin to heal a sexless marriage, you must know why it’s sexless.
I don’t need to tell you how dangerous that can be.
Childbirth is dangerous as well.
Heating something to a temperature of eleven thousand degrees is, of course, so dangerous that it perhaps crosses the border into madness.
Which is why we wear sunglasses when we go outside in the summer. Because that’s the temperature of the sun.
Dangerous things need to happen sometimes.
Just be careful.
Then make direct eye contact and face them.”
*“How to See the Truth Behind the Truth.” This Is How: Surviving What You Think You Can’t, by Augusten Burroughs, Picador USA, 2013.