Friends are Good

Three weeks ago, I left on a trip from New York to California. Normally, I wouldn’t ditch my kids less than 48 hours into summer break – but this was different. I needed to go.

As I’ve mentioned before, when I was pregnant with Ella, I joined an online community for mothers with December 2004 babies. A couple dozen of us became fast, genuine friends and have remained in touch for over ten years. These days, we communicate – as a group – mostly through Facebook. We’ve also met in person: whole-family gatherings, moms-only getaways, one or two friends getting together here or there. Plus, we text and email and send cards and talk on the phone and all that jazz.

Simply put, they’re some of the best, truest, most wonderful friends I have, despite rarely being face to face.

Since we have known each other, one of our friends, Sarah, has been uniquely inspiring. She and her husband adopted a medically fragile boy, Angel, when he was three years old; he was five when our December ’04 babies were born, so for the entirety of our friendship, we have followed Angel’s journey. In (very) brief, he was born extremely prematurely and, subsequently, had most of his small intestines removed when he was only weeks old, making him dependent on TPN (a form of IV nutrition). TPN gave him needed nutrients but caused his liver to fail. As a result, Angel had two multi-organ transplants — the first when he was eight and the second (because, like many gut-area transplant recipients, his transplanted organs went into rejection) when he was twelve.11138167_891123404281480_8905777230879185759_n
This photo – of Angel clowning around with his mom and dad – was taken on the day of his second transplant. It is shared with Sarah’s generous and loving permission.
(You can learn more about Angel on his Facebook page. It’s so worth a look – and a ‘like,’ if you’re on Facebook. Sarah posts not-infrequently and her writing is beautiful, insightful, informative, thought-provoking, and generally wonderful — as is Angel’s story. Check it out, for real.)

This would have been wildly difficult enough, but even more crazily, following his second transplant, Angel also battled not one but two bouts of PTLD (Posttransplant Lymphoproliferative Disease), a rare form of cancer that can occur in transplant patients. He faced chemo. He underwent radiation. His family and his remarkable team of doctors — transplant, oncology, neurology, pediatrics, you name it — worked to find a treatment balance that would fight the cancer and protect his organs, all the while preserving the quality of life that Angel wanted.

As for Angel? He wanted to fight. And so he did. He fought. He battled. He persevered, no matter what the obstacles; and always, somehow, incredibly, came through not only stable but smiling. Laughing. Joking, always joking! The word “miracle” is tossed around fairly lightly, but the number of times Angel faced seemingly impossible scenarios and emerged victorious is nothing short of miraculous in the truest sense of the word.

For the past ten-plus years, and especially since the summer of 2008 when Angel underwent his first transplant, we December ’04 mommies tried to rally around Sarah, Angel, and their family. We sent care packages. We made t-shirts and organized fundraisers. We joined the Facebook page that had been created to chronicle Angel’s journey and shared Team Angel status updates often and loudly. We let Sarah know that our private Facebook space was a place where she could come to talk, to vent, to cry, and that we would always be there for her, no matter what.
The girls and me in our Team Angel gear in 2008…306020_338032399590586_696390150_n
… and again in 2012.

But then… the unimaginable happened. This past January, just a month after Angel’s 15th birthday, he went in for a very risky but, to Angel – who so wanted to fight – absolutely necessary surgery to assess the damage to his liver… and did not survive.

Our friend – our dear, beautiful, inspiring, uplifting, funny, kind, intelligent, delightful Sarah – lost her son. Her Angel. Vivacious, impish, silly, strong, determined, courageous, joyful, imaginative, happy Angel. He is gone. It’s been six months now and I’m crying as I write this.

As a parent, there is no greater fear than losing one of my children. I cannot even imagine it, let alone consider how I would manage to go on without them; it is simply unthinkable. But Sarah does not have a choice; the unthinkable has happened and she must go on, must figure out how to navigate this world without her son.

When Angel’s condition began to decline in the last weeks of his life, Nick told me, “If he doesn’t make it, I know you need to be there for Sarah. Don’t even question it – just book the ticket and go.” It was never up for debate. Sarah is one of my dearest friends. She is experiencing the greatest tragedy a parent could incur. I love her; I needed to be there to support there. Because that’s just what love does.

Originally, I’d planned to go to California for Angel’s memorial… but, in a burst of wisdom that could only come from Sarah, we – the December ’04 mommies – were told: Come, if you’d like. If you feel you need to be here for his memorial, by all means, please come. But if you’re coming for me – if you’re coming to be with me – then I would like to ask that you choose another time to visit because I know I’ll be so busy and distracted during his memorial weekend, I’ll hardly have the chance to even give you a hug.

And so, seeing the sensibility of Sarah’s request (plus also, let’s be honest, two tickets to California might be… a lot…), two other friends and I picked a weekend when we would come out — no kids, no husbands, just us — for four days to visit Sarah and simply be. Which is how I found myself leaving my children and flying across the country less than 48 hours after Ella and Annie began their summer break.
Our first California meal… At In and Out, naturally.
Yep, I ordered my fries Animal Style. They were DELICIOUS.

We came from all over the USA – me from New York, Karen from Texas, Jenifer from Tennessee – and landed at LAX, having not seen one another in person in over eight years. At first, we were so stunned to be in one another’s presence, we were almost too giddy to do much of anything but hug each other and stare (Sarah would occasionally reach over and “pet” my arm, saying, “I just can’t believe you’re really here!”). Los Angeles is not kind to those who want to take things slowly, however, so we soon found ourselves grocery shopping (we know how to live it UP, folks), grabbing dinner at In and Out (a novelty for those of us who don’t have the iconic burger joints just around the corner), and heading up the Pacific Coast Highway to a house on the beach.
Who knew it was so dang foggy this close to L.A.?!IMG_1114
I nearly made Jen drive off the road when I saw this rock formation and began yelling at her about how terrific it was.

And after that… we talked. And talked. And talked. We would go to bed around midnight and were awake by 8:00, leaving us 16 hours of time to fill… and I would bet, in all seriousness, that we talked for 15 of those 16 hours for three straight days.

Before the trip, I’d have said that communicating on a near-daily basis with these women for ten years would mean that we might not have a lot of ground to cover, discussion-wise. I would have been dead wrong. We talked about our families. We talked about our daily lives (somehow, after all these years, we’d never simply asked one another what a “typical day” looks like). Given that the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality was released on the Friday of our get-away, we held intense and fantastic discussions on gay marriage and religion.
Sarah had warned us that the beach we’d be visiting – Oxnard – was in a sort of industrial area and, despite being a near-L.A. locale, wasn’t really known for its touristy vistas…IMG_3323
I beg to differ.

As we planned our long weekend, we all said that we’d be perfectly content to simply stay at the beach house, relax, and chat. While we did exactly that for at least half of our time together, we also managed to get ourselves out and about. We had an awesome lunch with another December ’04 friend. We walked around Ventura and sang Taylor Swift songs at a public piano.
That’d be me, Dana – our fabulous and gorgeous friend who joined us for part of Friday – Jen, Karen, and Sarah.
Yes, I left my own sunglasses at the beach house so I borrowed a pair belonging to Sarah’s (very stylish) six year-old daughter.
Well. Alrighty then.
When you’re given a direct order, there really isn’t a choice but to comply.

We visited a favorite doughnut shop and ogled doughnuts the size of dinner plates. We shopped and explored. We attempted to get into the Johnny Cash music festival but turned back when we learned that admission was $35 a head. (True story: while browsing in a Ventura tourist shop, I was asked by the saleswoman if we were local or visiting. When I said that we were visiting, she then asked me if we were in town just for fun or for the Johnny Cash festival. We hadn’t even known about the festival, but this struck me as so absurd, I found myself unable to respond in anything but the affirmative. “We do all love Johnny Cash!” I lied straight to her face. Then I began to panic because I could think of exactly three Johnny Cash songs off the top of my head and basically everything I know about him comes from the movie Walk The Line. Thankfully, Jen, Sarah, and Karen had my back – true friends don’t blow your baldfaced lies – and we got away undiscovered.)
The doughnuts on the left are normal-sized, meaning the glazed in the upper right is on freakin’ steroids.

Sarah and me trying wetsuits on for size in a different touristy shop.

And, of course, we visited the beach.
Obligatory beach selfie, as taken by Jen.

We rented – and watched – a movie  (McFarland, USA — it’s really good; go see it), ate at a Thai restaurant, baked brownies, and made sweet tea (Jen did, anyway; a good Tennessee girl needs to bring the sweet tea, y’all!). The rest of the time? We talked. Sarah and I gabbed while we waited for Jen’s plane to land. Jen and I talked for the entire two hour drive up the PCH. Karen and I talked on the second-story veranda outside our bedrooms the moment we awoke on our first morning together and again, over wine, while Sarah and Jen went to rent the movie.

And the four of us talked – in the living room, in the master bedroom, around the kitchen table, on the beach, in the car, as we strolled around Ventura and contemplated scaling the chain link fence that kept us from attending the Johnny Cash festival (as true fans, we felt we should at least make an effort to be there). We talked about lighthearted things… vaccines, gun control, abortion, gay marriage – again and again – God and heaven and the Bible… Plus also our kids, our husbands, our high school teachers, our boobs, our mistakes and successes, our dreams and fears, our self-sabatoging traits (as a life coach, Karen had some pretty excellent advice on this front), Harry Potter, makeup, tiny hands, and how we dispose of eggshells when we’re done with them.

On Saturday – our final night together – I interrupted Sarah mid-sentence to tell everyone to look outside (having grown accustomed to my ADHD over the course of the previous two days, they were gracious about my blurting-out). From within the living room, I could see that the sky had grown a vibrant shade of pink; it seemed that a gorgeous sunset was just around the corner. Without a word of protest, we all headed outside – I grabbed my camera but neglected to take a sweater or even put on my shoes – to see for ourselves. As we entered the street just beyond the beach house, I audibly gasped as this greeted me:
ca sunset6

Sarah just laughed, however, literally pulling me onward and explaining that if I thought that was something, I really should see what would be happening on the beach.

She was right.
ca sunset2

These pictures don’t begin to do it justice; it was, hands down, the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen, molten gold and melting rainbows. As we stepped onto the sand, I actually began to cry – happily – at its splendor. For twenty minutes or so, all we did was stare and marvel – at the sight before us, at ten years of friendship, at being together.

ca sunset4
Sarah took my camera from me and snapped these while we sunset5
It was actually really chilly – see how my southern friends are all bundled up? – so I regretted my sweater omission pretty quickly.

Eventually, the colors began to fade into the night… and we were all chilled to the bone… so we wandered back to the house, filled with a sense of awe.
ca sunset1IMG_1166
It’s hard to take a properly lit selfie when the lighting is so crazy, yo.

We’d planned to watch another movie but soon found ourselves – wait for it – talking, still having so much to say and hear and so little time to do it. We’d been mentioning Angel all weekend long – he naturally found his way into our conversations – but Saturday night, it was different. Sarah began to really talk about her boy, sharing stories and memories – some we’d heard before and some that were new to us – answering our questions, and telling us about when she and her family had to say goodbye to him.

Even when I already knew a particular story, when I’d read it on the Team Angel Facebook page or when Sarah had shared it on our December ’04 page, it felt entirely new hearing it from Sarah herself. Her inflection, her cadence, her facial expressions… The look – the one that only a mama can get when she talks about her child – that she wore when she told us about him… I thought I knew his story, knew her heart, but hearing it directly from Sarah, sitting beside her on the couch looking at photos of her beloved son, made for some of the most intensely beautiful moments I’ve ever been privileged to witness. That she trusted us enough to share him with us in this way was beyond humbling.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.
Jenifer and Karen and I had wanted – had needed, from our very cores – to be there with Sarah, to hug her, to laugh with her, to cry with her, to just listen and listen and listen. It was, for all of us, as profound an evening as we’ve ever had. It was why we’d come. Love and connection and friendship, pure and simple.

Sarah kept telling us how she just could not believe – even though we were there – that we would come all this way for her. We kept telling her that there was no other possibility; we loved her and she needed us, so we came. What none of us could have anticipated was how profoundly the weekend would change us all – give us hope and fill us up.

… or maybe it doesn’t stay at the beach…

We continued to talk about everything under the sun (or the moon, by that point) well into the night, only going to bed because we were simply exhausted. All too soon, Karen, Jen, and I were winding our way back down the Pacific Coast Highway, hardly pausing for breath for the entirety of the two hour journey.

What we did not do, however, was say goodbye; Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, we said we’d see one another soon. And you know what? We meant it.

Yes, friendships can be cultivated – can blossom and bloom and thrive – from afar. I’ve done it, and will continue to do it, many times over. But there is something magical about physically being with the people you adore – being able to give real hugs instead of virtual ones, being able to rest your head on someone’s shoulder as you double over in hysterics, being able to look into someone’s eyes as they tell you about their precious son.

I probably won’t be seeing these ladies on the sidelines of soccer games or swim meets. I won’t run into them at Wegmans. We can’t get together for coffee. But it is something mighty incredible, indeed, to know that if I needed them, they’d show up. In the meantime, texts and Facebook will have to suffice…

Although there is a Johnny Cash Festival coming up in Arkansas on August 1st. Road trip, anyone?