Clara pulls her shirt up and prods her side. Dark bruises bleed across her swelling stomach, taut with the growing baby inside. “I think here,” she says, pinching an as yet unmarked place on her hip.
The sharp, familiar scent of the alcohol pad greets my nose as I rip open the package. I haven’t worked as a nurse for three years, but every time I smell rubbing alcohol, I’m right back in the hospital. I wait for her skin to dry, then push the needle, flicking the safety cover on once I pull it out. I pull off my gloves and throw them away.
“I don’t know how you do that,” Clara says. “It always hurts when my husband does it.”
We move to the couch with cups of tea, the turmeric ginger flavor from Trader Joe’s we both like. I look around at the colorful throw pillows, the bright-hued canvases, the Eastern Orthodox icons. I once read that a true home mirrors the interior of your soul—I think Clara’s probably comes pretty close.
“How’s the situation with Cal’s teacher?” she asks me, and my stresses and worries pour forth. We talk for nearly two hours, going from my concerns about my oldest son’s school to her hopes that her son’s Montessori preschool will be worth the expense. She tells me how mindfulness and yoga have helped her parent; I tell her why writing saves my sanity when I feel erased by motherhood.
We’ve known each other for the better part of a year, but I was surprised when Clara messaged me to ask if I could help with her blood thinner meds while her husband was away on a temporary assignment. What started as a quick favor shifts into a breath of peace bookending my days. Those moments each morning and evening grant me space to be more than my quotidian self—I minister with love to a sister, and in return I am seen and appreciated.
When I was in my twenties, getting over a drawn-out breakup, I went to my bishop in tears. I’d spent the last year focusing on a boy at the expense of my girlfriends. Now it was over, and I had nobody.
“I think you should come to every church activity,” he told me. I stopped myself from rolling my eyes at what seemed like an obvious answer. “Come early, and help the activities committee set up,” he finished. “Or help with clean up. Or both. Notice who needs help, and step in.”
For most of my life, insecurity and self-consciousness dictated my behavior in social situations. I didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes or plant myself in a situation where I didn’t belong. But despite the fear zinging through me, I began stepping forward, offering my hands and finding my words along the way. To my surprise, my interactions felt easier and more natural when I wasn’t focused on judgment or acceptance but on working side by side. My fragile confidence blossomed as I began making connections, offering to play the piano for vocalists at church, giving a ride on the way to activities, and stopping by people’s apartments who seemed lonely like me.
My memories of that summer are sun-drenched and idyllic—jumping in the pool after dark with my clothes on, dance parties at the white house near my apartment complex, lying under the stars discussing life and love with people I could hardly believe I’d known for only weeks (one of them would eventually become my husband). There was pain that summer, too--a lot of literal teardrops on my guitar, as I laid on the ground in my room and played out my heartache. But joy and connection is the strongest thread in my memories, solidifying service as the surest entrance into friendship.
I’m seven weeks postpartum, finally back on our couch after a week in the hospital, where my baby learned to smile at his care team with oxygen tubes in his nose. Now I’m flicking his feet, wiping a wet washcloth across his sweet, upturned face, trying to get him to keep nursing. He’s okay without the oxygen now, the skin between his ribs no longer sucking in with every breath, but his every exhale still whines in faint wheeze, and every time he wheezes, my own chest tightens. I feel like I can’t stop watching him, afraid to lie him down now that the hospital monitors aren’t a safeguard. As a result, our tiny apartment is thick with grime, the counters unwiped, the ground unswept. We’re living on frozen Trader Joe’s and the meals dropped off by church friends, and I’m brittle with anxiety.
In the midst of this tearstained blur of broken nights and fractured days, my friend Lizzie knocks at the door unexpectedly. She holds a red bucket full of rags and chemicals. “I’m here to clean your kitchen,” she says.
I’m tempted to shut the door, thinking of the ancient spills on the oven, the mass of crumbs on the floor. Instead I croak out, “Are you sure?”
“Of course! I worked as a janitor in college, so I’m pretty good at it,” she says, and gets to work.
I try to be properly horrified about the neglect of my home, but I can’t muster the effort. I am simply relieved to be cared for, to have the physical burden lifted from my shoulders for a few minutes. I wander around the kitchen as she scrubs, talking past my discomfort. Letting Lizzie serve me feels like a trust fall, the first show of vulnerability in a friendship that until this point functioned at the surface. For what seems like the first time since my son was born, I exhale.
In motherhood more than any other phase of my life, friendship is a physical ministry. As mothers, our conversations are fragmented by lisping, urgent voices, and our fantasies lean towards the simple—uninterrupted sleep, a day where nobody asks us for anything. But as we have learned to serve our children with physical efforts and presence, so also we have learned to care for each other, sometimes when nobody else will. I’ve seen the acts of love, rarely convenient, almost always given by someone with her own heavy burdens to carry. That giving of not only conversation and companionship but service and care transforms a fleeting connection into a bond.
Friendship is the lemon pound cake carried up the hill on your due date because your best friend heard that lemons can put you into labor. It is the boxes and boxes of baby clothes, sorted by size and washed to faded softness. It’s the extra pair of hands buckling a child into his carseat, the voice asking, “Why don’t you drop your kids off for an hour or two?” The meals, so many meals that it becomes a cliche—”Can I bring you dinner?”—but our bodies and our families must be fed, and the chance to rest, to eat lasagna made in someone else’s tomato sauce-splattered kitchen, always feels like a gift. Friendship sees the need and fills it, sometimes out of the giver’s own depleted cup, for the sake of love and sisterhood.
My husband has been out of town for a week, and I wake in the middle of the night to the sound and smell of my son puking on my bed. I leave my bedroom to get him clean clothes and see a vomit trail marking his journey down the stairs, across the living room, and to my room. As I blearily try to clean the mess, the baby cries out from her bedroom. Shortly after getting the baby back into bed, I begin throwing up, too, and my son and I take turns running to the bathroom all night.
By morning, we’re all exhausted and dehydrated. I’ve stopped throwing up, but I have a fever of 103. The kids are lined up on the couch watching Harry Potter movies with barf bowls between them, and every time I have to get up to change a diaper or break up a fight I think I’ll be sick again.
We’ve only lived in this place for five weeks, and I don’t have any solid friendships yet. Everyone has been friendly and kind, and I feel welcome, but I don’t have that person on speed dial I know I can ask for help. So, feeling a little self-conscious, I post a prayer request on our church Facebook group.
A few hours later, I answer the door to see Whitney, someone I’ve chatted with a few times. Her husband is a first year in the same residency program my husband just began, and she has a little boy about my middle son’s age. She holds out a bag of Pedialyte and a bouquet of flowers. “I grabbed a couple of flavors,” she says, as I take the grocery bags. “I’m sorry you’ve all been sick. It’s the worst.” I bite back tears as she heads back to her car. I feel seen and comforted, just as I would if my friends from home were close by. The Pedialyte is what we needed, what I asked for, but it’s the flowers that soothe the ragged, isolated spot in my soul.
They’re small things, simple things, but in a place of loneliness, they’re a beginning.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mother of three, a military spouse, a pediatric nurse, and a lover of words. She lives in Georgia with her family. Her work has previously been featured on Coffee + Crumbs and other websites, including Military Moms Blog, where she is a regular contributor. You can connect with Lorren on her website or Instagram.
Lorren’s essay was the first-place winner of our friendship essay content in our Exhale creative community. For more information about Exhale, visit www.exhalecreativity.com.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode on Motherhood + Loneliness