83. Friends of the Friendless

83. Friends of the Friendless

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Friends of the Friendless

Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend.

~Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

In her spare time, my grandmother sews onesies for the babies turned over to her local hospital. She refers to them as the “friendless children.” I’m not sure whether she uses this term because she doesn’t want to say “orphans” or “abandoned,” but every time she talks about her onesies, the phrase is always the same.

She says this, and I wonder if she views me the same way. I had an unusual upbringing. It began with a loving two-parent home where only family was allowed to babysit. By age eleven, it had turned into a very strange circus.

My father was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. There were doctors’ appointments, tours of wheelchair vans and lots of lying on the couch by the man who had previously refused to ever take a sick day.

No one really explained anything to me until one day I’d had enough and asked if whatever was going on was going to kill him. He said yes, though in my then-twelve-year-old brain, I figured that meant when he was eighty. Not forty-three.

It was a shock when he passed a few weeks before my fifteenth birthday. My mom and I did our best to forge a new bond. This couldn’t have been easy for her, a sudden single mother of a teenaged girl.

We managed to find our synergy, however, and soon accepted that our family was a twosome. It was us against the world for quite a while.

Then came college. I purposely picked a university that was less than an hour’s drive from home. My mother took a second job to stay busy, but an empty, dark house is still an empty, dark house, no matter what time you enter it or how tired you are.

I made sure to visit often, but I could tell Mom was struggling. She didn’t like to socialize, and while she loved her large family and co-workers, she felt she had too much time on her hands. Especially on the weekends. My mother was always a larger woman, but fifty extra pounds soon became 100, which soon became much more.

She couldn’t walk very far anymore. She didn’t want to be seen in public. The stares and innocent comments kids can sometimes make hurt her feelings.

She expressed how lonely she was during one of my visits. “I don’t have anyone to talk to,” she said, bursting into tears. My heart broke for her. She was friendless — not because she didn’t have people who loved her — but because she’d gotten herself into such a poor physical and mental state that she was now removed from the functional, social world.

I did what I could to include her in my life. In a weird way, she traded in hers for mine. Suddenly, she wanted to know every detail of every day. Questions like “What did you say? Then what did she say?” and “What did she order?” filled our conversations. It got old quick. I didn’t mind her rooting for my school’s football team or taking an interest in my writing, but reliving every banal detail of my day was not the way I wanted to spend my nights.

It got worse when I married. She was thrilled to see me take this life step, but the idea of sharing someone she had had sole possession of for twenty-six years scared her. “Things will never be the same,” she said one night as we clinked cosmopolitans at a divey chicken-wing joint, waiting for the premiere of the first Sex and the City movie during a rare outing.

There was soon talk of babies, and you could see her excitement in becoming a grandmother. “I could watch them, you know,” she’d say, though by this point that was impossible. She could barely make it off the couch. A trip to the bathroom was laborious. She took to using a walker. She was fifty-two.

Apparently it was those talks about the future that made her want to change. During one of our more honest conversations I said I knew she loved food more than she loved me. That was okay, I told her, because it’s the truth. She denied it, like any addict does. And though she didn’t cry, I could tell I had wounded her. I had meant to.

She enrolled in a weight-loss program, with the ultimate goal being gastric bypass surgery. She lost some weight, and she felt hopeful. I began fantasizing about a second family. Maybe she’d remarry. Maybe I’d have step-siblings. Maybe we’d finally get to do the mother-daughter things that other people got to do.

And then she died.

Despite her size, it was extremely unexpected. Things were looking up. She was going to get better. My mom wasn’t the only thing that died that day. The marriage soon unraveled, thoughts of babies disappearing right alongside it.

By twenty-nine, I definitely felt friendless. Like my mom, I had plenty of people in my life who loved me, but at night, in those unguarded, silent moments, it’s hard to argue you’re not alone in this world.

Ironically, I’ve combatted my loneliness by diving into a very solitary profession: writing. It was there that I built my community. In being other people’s voices, I’m able to find my own. The process of writing is extremely intimate. You get to know a person’s thoughts and feelings, and you take a piece of them with you. You keep it tucked away in your brain or perhaps in your heart, until you’re able to share it through the written word.

You hope you do them justice. Most of the time you do, and you witness them beam with excitement, pride and accomplishment that their story — however beautiful or tragic — was worth telling to the world. It is a wonderful feeling. One I don’t believe will ever get old.

I still want that family one day. To maybe right some wrongs I’ve held onto for too long. To show another human being absolute, unconditional love. I really hope this happens for me, but until then, I enjoy reaching out to those with a story to tell. Naturally, I am drawn to the underdogs. To the ones who didn’t feel like they had a prayer in the world before things turned around, resulting in a redemption story.

As much as I sometimes want to look back on my career and say I made it here myself, I didn’t. That childhood was odd, but there were also bedtime stories, sacrifices made for private education and every piece of USC Trojan memorabilia a person could own sitting in a lonely woman’s bedroom. Next to a stack of magazines her daughter had appeared in.

I’m not a really emotional person, but the Johnson’s Baby commercial with the tagline “You’re doing okay, Mom” gets me every time. When I look back on a career I couldn’t be more lucky or thankful to have, I realize I’m not a one-man show. I never have been. My redemption story is not just mine, it’s also hers. And I think to myself, “You did okay, Mom.”

~Nellie Day

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