My husband and I aren’t exactly speaking right now. We’re not mad at each other -- we’re just not really talking. And I’m not even sure why. I guess it’s just been a week full of stress and responsibility sifted through an evening’s worth of careless exchanges; we strung together each hurt and annoyance (and maybe a little resentment) like beads onto a necklace we chose to wear for a few days.
So, we’re currently communicating on a need-to-know basis: the text he sends before he leaves work giving me an ETA so I know whether to feed the kids dinner or wait till he gets home, the call to see if he can go in late on the 29th so I can get my teeth cleaned sans kids, a quick “we’re almost out of milk” to the one going to the grocery store next.
I don’t like it when we’re like this, but it happens. I know we need to talk, but I realize we retreat into ourselves every once in awhile.
Based on past experience, it won’t last long. He’ll probably call later today to check in and give me a kiss when he gets home from work. There will be an overdue conversation tonight after the kids are in bed, then apologies, and then … well, we all know what comes after that.
But for today, for right now, when my life and my kids don’t stop just because I wish my spouse and I weren’t annoyed with each other, for reasons I can’t exactly put my finger on, I text a friend.
You free this morning?
Yeah, thought about heading to the tot lot. You?
Want to go for a hike around the lake instead?
Sure. See you there.
Fourteen years ago this October, my husband started having increasingly intense headaches while studying for his thesis defense. With each passing day, he became more and more distant and quiet. We planned to travel from our new home outside DC to upstate New York, where he went to grad school, for the exam in the middle of the month.
His behavior was explainable and brush-off-able—up to a certain point, given the weight of defending the research he spent the last six years of his life collecting and analyzing. Though never once in his life had he struggled with anxiety or a lack of complete confidence in himself or his abilities, I chalked it up to extreme nerves and assumed he’d snap out of it after passing. But the scales tipped to alarm when he couldn’t complete a thought or respond coherently to questions during his oral presentation.
Not knowing what else to do, his parents and I took him to the hospital, where he was evaluated by psychiatry for what we thought was a nervous breakdown.
But the psychiatrists couldn’t put their finger on a diagnosis. After hours of interviews, they ordered a CT scan to see if anything physiological could be to blame. The test showed a mass, the size of a lemon, pressing into the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and language. After an evaluation by a grey-haired chief of neurosurgery, the medical team scheduled my husband of five years for brain surgery.
My entire world stopped.
“What do you need?” my friend Stacey asked over the phone. She was in medical school at the time; we’d known each other since we were 10.
Being away from home and without access to a smartphone or an advanced Internet search (this was 2003) I replied, “I need to know everything. What part of the brain is this in? What does it affect? What’s the prognosis? What do I need to prepare for?”
She called me back within hours. With honesty and gentleness, gave me every piece of information I asked for—even the ones that made my knees go weak in fear.
“I’m so scared,” I cried in a whisper, sitting in a corner booth of the hospital cafeteria.
“I know. We’ll get through this.”
Another friend who lived a short drive from the hospital called to give me her house code. “You have an open invitation. Whenever you feel okay to leave—come over and take a shower, a nap, eat my food. Whatever.” Mi casa es su casa in practical form.
Chris had brain surgery, recovered, and is my forever-love. God is my hope. My family is my home base. But it’s my friends who are the everyday arms I’ve leaned against when I couldn’t stand on my own.
Today, under a blue sky next to calm water, my friend and I strapped out youngests into strollers. Armed with 45lbs of snacks, we set out for a five-mile hike.
Her father is sick and as we coaxed our kids to keep sitting just a little bit longer she asked me about lab values and medical terms and what does hospice care really mean? Step after step, we let what is be with us, as if it sat in a stroller of it’s own, and we pushed the weight of her dad’s illness together for a few miles.
She asked what was going on in my life, and I waved her off. My issues are petty and insignificant compared to hers. But she insisted. So, I told her about Chris and me, about a bunch of little things that added up to three days of barely speaking, and I felt awful—in light her situation, in light of what I know from my own experience—because we aren’t always granted more time.
But life is complicated. And she allowed what is for me, to walk with us also.
We talked and ended up laughing, because husbands, and even though they are our constants and our most importants, it’s only with a girlfriend that I can say what needs to be said, to just get it out and over with, knowing she holds my marriage in the same sacred space I do.
It’s with my girlfriends where the insignificant so often stands next to the heavy. The funny can walk in stride with the sad. Hurt can pull a chair right up next to joy. In our different spaces, each of us with unique situations, true friendship accepts, helps, and allows what is to grab a cup of coffee and simply be.
Friends move and change through these years of raising kids, but it’s been them who’ve laughed me through blowouts requiring all of my and her wipes, playdates gone south, and awkward interactions with the grumpy lady at the park tsk-tsking me for letting my kids use sidewalk chalk -- on the sidewalk. Girlfriends are the ones who’ve seen overwhelmed tears fall from my eyes at Costco, of all places, and drink coffee with me at kitchen tables, long after the kids who first brought us together are old enough to be away at school.
It’s not my husband who really gets what I mean when I say “I’m in a funk” or when I confess that I’m questioning every major life decision we’ve ever made. It’s my friends who ground me, make me laugh, speak truth into me. Their presence is so life-giving and life-sustaining. Often, they are the ones who remember what I’ve been through—and remind me who I really am.
Girlfriends keep each other sane during seasons of monotony, crisis, and transition. They’re the ones who love in practical, simple, everyday ways.
“What do you need?”
Mi casa es su casa.
Toward the end of the hike, we let the kids out of the strollers to play on the playground next to the trail. Blue slides and yellow stairs. Our conversation changed from easy-flowing to staccato as we darted to protectively raise our arms at the open spaces so our children, who are still learning to climb and explore, didn’t fall.
My friend has her husband and kids, but she, like me, lives away from family. And it will be us, her friends, who will rally around her—long after her dad’s struggle is over.
We will call. Bring meals. Collectively, we’ll protect gaps, hold up arms, offer what we can in support.
We will do it through tears. And we will do it gladly.
Because we need each other.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode on Motherhood + Loneliness