|Nicole and I at my 35th birthday party in Malibu|
"I like banana bread now, mommy!"
Justin's face is pressed close to mine. He is peering into the back of my open mouth, busily counting each of my molars with his tiny, sugary fingertips. I can feel his small, rapid heartbeat through my tank top. We are laying down on my bed. The SpongeBob Squarepants theme song plays happily on my TV in the background.
"Thurteen, fooorteeen, thurteeeen..."
His breath smells of the animal cookies we'd bought earlier at the zoo. It is so sweet and pure that it makes me close my eyes for moment. I sigh, interlacing my fingers with his and pull him even closer to me.
How I missed this....
"So you like banana bread now?" I smile. "When did you have banana bread?"
"Auntie Nicole brings it everyday that you wasn't here, Miles (he says it like, MY-OHS) likes it too."
My fingers freeze and I pull them gently them away from his. My heart feels as though it has stopped beating and suddenly I can't catch my breath.
Every day when I'm not here?
Waves of shame are crashing over me now. I shift up to my elbow while still cradling him in the crook of my right arm. I smooth his curls absentmindedly with my free hand. Justin sits up and staring at me curiously.
"What's wrong, Mommy?"
Jesus, Laura! Get it together! He's just gotten you back after 30 LONG days. Don't scare him. He needs to know that you are OKAY!!
I try my best smile. I can tell that I have too many teeth showing. I adjust my lips, hoping to look more natural.
"No, baby, I'm good. I was just thinking that I've got to thank Auntie Nicole for her turning you into a banana bread lover! In fact, I'm going to call her and ask her to bring us some tomorrow! What do you think?"
"Hooray!" Says Justin, raising his hands above his head. The sleeves of his faded, army-green, Power Ranger's t-shirt shoot up past his elbows.
A stab of tenderness pierces my heart as a flash of guilt runs through me.
They're both growing so fast! How could I have missed a whole month of their lives?
* * *
My therapist, Marguerita is sitting stiffly in her high-backed, wooden rocking chair. Other than a stern mouth, her face is an expressionless mask. Her short, gray hair tells me that she's in her sixties or early seventies, but her face is as smooth as mine (she tells me it's her "good, Mediterranean skin"). She normally likes to make a lot of jokes, but today I can tell that she's in pain from her recent back surgery. Last time we met she stood most of the time, with the help of a cane.
"Standing is better," she had told me in her thick, Greek accent. "But during sessions, this chair is supposed to offer some support."
"I don't know," I say.
My mouth is so dry.
I take a sip of my Venti iced Americano (with 7 Sugar in the Raws and a generous pour of half and half). The sweetness sends a jet stream of warmth up to my head, before coursing into my veins. I close my eyes briefly and enjoy the sugar/caffeine rush before I bring myself back into the therapy session.
"I guess I'm just so embarrassed."
"What are you embarrassed about, exactly?"
"Well, for starters," I say, my voice dripping with sarcasm. "I got hooked on pills, my marriage fell apart and then I couldn't take care of my kids, so I had to go to treatment."
"And you're EMBARRASSED because you feel as though you could have somehow done something different? Better?"
I ignore her raised eyebrow and continue.
"Who leaves their families for a month? My kids needed me and where was I?"
"Your kids have you now. You did the brave thing, going away to get well. You were very sick. You could not have gotten well at home. I think you know this."
I set my coffee-drink down and return her solemn gaze, nodding my head slowly. Two dime-sized tears make their way down the sides of my face toward my chin. I lick at one that makes a detour into the corner of my mouth. The salt is mildly comforting after all of that syrupy sugar. I lick at another one and involuntarily make an embarrassing suction sound with my tongue. Marguerita pushes a box of Kleenex toward me with a beige, wooden stick that looks like a large Tinker Toy piece.
"I must use this not to bend my back so much," she apologizes.
I smile wanly as I pluck out the tissue sticking up from the freshly opened box.
"So I don't think it's just that you are embarrassed, as you say. I think you are envious of your friend's — uh, freedom. She - what's her name?"
"Nicole," I whisper.
"Nicole doesn't have this disease, right? Nicole didn't have to go to treatment. Nicole could make banana bread in her own kitchen. Nicole," Margarita tips forward again grabbing my eyes with hers. She doesn't speak again until I am looking at her. "Nicole could see YOUR children, eh, when you could not. Perhaps you have some shame about this."
"Shame, envy, I don't know," I am sobbing quietly now. I ball up the soaking wet Kleenex in my hand and grab for another. I sneak a glance at my watch as I do so and note that there's almost 25 minutes left in our session.
I don't know if I can stand any more of this "self examination" today. I wish that I'd never even brought up the fuck@# banana bread...
Her rocker squeaks like a mouse when she moves forward to pick up her glass of water. I dry my face and blow my nose before looking back up at her. My eyes feel raw. My hands are trembling slightly. I decide to sit on them to keep them from shaking.
"But your friend," she continues after a moment. "Your friend, she did what people do when someone they love is in trouble."
"When someone's in trouble you bring banana bread?" I'm smiling a little now. I sit forward on her soft couch. The edge of her large coffee table feels smooth against my bare knees.
"You show up!" Marguerite's face contorts as her voice scales up. Her finger points at me with a ferocity that I've not seen before. I flinch involuntarily as though she's just thrown something towards my face.
"Your friend showed up for you. Because she has shown you this love, you can show up too. You can now also be a friend who shows up."
"Maybe I'm not built that way," I pout. "I'm not great at any of that stuff; baking, cooking, cleaning, shopping..."
"True, maybe you are not built THIS WAY," her eyes are smiling at me now, even though her mouth still looks stern. "Perhaps you will not show up just like this friend does, bringing banana bread that you make yourself. But that does not matter. It does not matter whether you show up with bread or you show up with nothing. All that matters is that you show up."
"What's the room number?"
It is October 14, 2016. Scottie and I are heading over to St. Josephs hospital. Earlier that morning, our friend Lilah gave birth to a beautiful, red-haired, blue-eyed, healthy, baby girl. We have decided to pick up breakfast for everyone at a nearby IHOP, before heading to the hospital. This Tuesday morning is clear and cool. Traffic is lighter than usual on the 134 east. Scottie eases up on the accelerator as we make our exit onto Buena Vista. 30-minutes later we show up in the small hospital suite with 10 or 12 styrofoam containers stuffed into several, long, plastic bags. Lilah's husband, PJ is beaming. He holds newborn baby Esmeé out for us to inspect as though she's a piece of finely spun glass. Lilah looks like she's just stepped off a General Hospital set. She's glowing in her hospital gown, her long chestnut hair is pulled away from her flawless, (annoyingly) beautiful, face.
"Thanks for coming, Girl," she purrs into my ear while we squeeze each other. "I know I can always count on you to show up."
Okay, so it's IHOP blueberry pancakes and not homemade banana bread. And true, my friend Lilah isn't in trouble. As a matter of fact, this may be one of the happiest of occasions for which I've ever shown up. But whether someone is celebrating or struggling, I try to remember and heed Marguerita's words and I do my best to show up -- or at least I do now.
There. Now I've just revealed to you one of my greatest character flaws.
You see, instinctually, I'm really not a great friend.
That is to say that it does not come naturally to me to think of others first. I'm not one of those virtuous people who spends her time wondering about how other people are faring. It rarely occurs to me to check on friends that I haven't talked to in a while. And what's worse, when people I love (or like) are in trouble; when someone dies, or goes to rehab, or loses a baby, or gets sick or hurt or when someone gets divorced -- my first instinct is to get as far away from said tragedy as possible so that I can figure out a way to do the "right thing"( from a safe distance, of course). Most of the time, I feel utterly ill equipped for these types of obligations. Maybe I am.
But something came out of my stint in rehab and my divorce nine year's ago that I hadn't expected -- people showed up for me.
Through, stung, embarrassed, bitter, envious eyeballs, I watched loaves of banana bread arrive (thank you, Nicole), accepted invitations to confidential lunches where deeply inappropriate (and enormously appreciated) trash-talking-sessions took place (thank you all; Shelly, Nicole, Desiree, Teri Lynn and Tracey). I burst into grateful tears when these women showed up at school events and basketball games (thank you, Shelly) and family events (thank you all) during and after my divorce. I had no idea how to show up for myself during those difficult early years, but they did. And it was from them that I finally learned the secret to being a really good friend, a good person -- all I had to do was show up.
It has been told to me that I have a disease of perception. And this disease wants me alone (or dead). It tells me that I am incapable of showing up for myself, let alone for anyone else.
So in recovery, I've adopted a tenet that has changed my life so dramatically for the better, that there is almost no way of comparing this 53-year old woman to that 45-year-old woman (who sobbed through a whole box of Kleenex) in Marguerita's office all those year's ago. This tenet, this creed, this motto, this design for living, which has been so lovingly given to me by all of these loving, generous women, is deceptively simple:
DON'T let my feelings dictate my actions.
This means that it doesn't matter how tired, hungry, irritable, cozy or how busy I am -- I must do what's in front of me. When I KNOW what the next, right, indicated action is, I try to just take it. Otherwise I may overthink it and talk myself in to doing less or doing it "later" or maybe not doing it at all.
So I am forever grateful that I brought up Nicole's banana bread that day in Marguerita's office. Otherwise I might have missed the best parts of these last (amazing!) nine years of my life. My life is so beautiful, just because I've learned to show up. There is so much relief in just doing what I know to be right instead of letting all of my unfounded fears keep my world small.
|At Miles's Bar Mitzvah. From left to right: Shelly, me, Miles, Nicole, Teri Lynn, Desiree|
Do you have stories of how people have shown up for you? Or do you ever struggle with showing up for your friends? Please leave them in the comments for me. Thank you!