Remembrance of Things Past

A few weeks ago, my friend Sandra stopped by for a visit. I’ve known Sandra for almost twenty years. We met eighteen years ago, at a college summer study program in Florence.  We bonded instantly, being probably the only two women in the program who actually came to Italy to study Italian and Renaissance history and not just to hook up with smooth talking Italian men.  We reconnected a few years later, post college, when we ran into each other at a party in NYC. Sandra was working as a trader for a major Wall Street investment bank and I had just started a job as a feature writer for the New York Post. We shared a love of little black dresses, Kate Spade bags, and the impressive ability to stay out all night and make it to work by 8 am. Sandra was practical and even keeled and always had a steady boyfriend; I, on the other hand, was impulsive and emotional and constantly involved in one romantic melodrama after another.

Still, we made a good team, and over the years we counseled each other through bad breakups, job stresses, and even major life crises. On  September 11th, Sandra showed up at my doorstep sweaty and exhausted, her feet a bloody blistery mess. She had walked all the way from Queens, where she’d been volunteering in a local elementary school, to my apartment. She lived on my couch for almost two weeks because her apartment in Battery Park was uninhabitable. I was relieved she was there; I had nightmares at night about the collapse of the World Trade Center and didn’t think I could handle staying alone.

One summer we decided to do a share in the Hamptons together. We were lying on the beach in Amagansett when Sandra turned to me and said, ‘in ten years, we’ll both live in the same town in Connecticut with our families.”

“Connecticut?” I said, wrinkling my nose. “Yuck. It’s too preppy and suburban. I want to stay in Manhattan.”

“Manhattan’s expensive to raise children,” Sandra logically pointed out. “In Connecticut we can have big houses, and lawns for our kids and dogs to run around in. Maybe Darien. Or New Canaan.”

“I only want one kid,” I said, unconvinced.

Flash forward a few years. Sandra moved to London for business school and stayed there permanently, moving up the ranks at an investment bank . I remained in NYC and met Jamie. Gradually, Sandra and I lost touch. I got married, got a dog, got pregnant, and moved to Connecticut, all within a matter of months. I hadn’t heard from her in years when randomly, a couple days after Geoffrey was born, I got an email from her. She was flying into NYC for her 15 year college reunion and wanted to stop by and see me on the way. Was I around?

I emailed her back immediately. Yes, I was around, and yes, I’d love to see her.

The morning I was supposed to pick her up was total bedlam. Jamie had come down with some sort of food poisoning and had actually fainted the night before. He was stumbling around the house mumbling to himself.  Teddy was having a major meltdown because I wouldn’t let him eat cookies for his breakfast—he kept screaming and falling to the floor melodramatically, much to the chagrin of Jo Jo, who kept trying to reprimand him by whacking him in the head with one of her toy kitchen pans. Thankfully we had a sitter, who was unsuccessfully trying to placate Teddy and distract Jo Jo from killing her brother. I couldn’t wait to escape.

 As I drove to the train station, I wondered what Sandra would make of my life now. Sandra was still single, and seemed to live a fairly jet setting life, always flying to Paris or Hong Kong or some other exotic locale. I wasn’t sure what she’d make of her former best friend showing up about thirty pounds heavier, unshowered with a newborn squawking in the backseat, especially when I took her back to something that resembled a loony bin.

When I pulled up to the station and saw Sandra I was tempted to keep driving. She looked fabulous: dark hair perfectly styled, impeccable makeup, and darling black espadrilles, while I was wearing one of Jamie’s old T-shirts (which I’d managed to leak breast milk all over) and sweats.  But then she saw me and broke out into a huge smile and waved, and the next thing I knew I had gotten out of the car and we were hugging and she was exclaiming over Geoffrey and his mass of white blonde hair and although it had been years since we’d really spent time together, she was the same Sandra I’d always known.  (Although she did blanch for a moment when we pulled into the driveway and saw the minivan.)

My children were very taken with their Auntie Sandra. Jo Jo immediately picked up a set of scarves and twirled around, showing off all her dance moves while singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Teddy shoved a bunch of books in her face and demanded she read to him. Geoffrey did what he always does:  nurse, squawk and poop.

Wow,” Sandra said after I had brought Teddy and Jo Jo upstairs for their nap. She had watched in amazement as I navigated up the stairs with a shrieking toddler attached to each of my legs. “Do you realize that you have three little people in this house who are dependent on you for everything?”                

“Yeah,” I said. “It’ll be like this for the next twenty something years.”

But once my kids were in bed, we were able to sit down and really talk. I wanted to know all about Sandra’s life in London and she wanted to know how I was handling full time mommy hood. She asked a lot of questions about Jo Jo, about what type of school she was in, what type of therapies she got, and how I felt about everything. “Do you worry?” she asked, in typical direct Sandra fashion.

When I talk to other moms about Jo Jo, I feel pressure to put the most positive spin on everything, even if it means sugarcoating things a bit. But it was Sandra asking, one of my oldest and dearest friends, so I exhaled and nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “I wake up every morning worrying.” And with that, the floodgates were opened, and I told her everything. How I constantly obsess about whether we’re doing enough, or whether we’re doing too much. How sometimes I scour the Internet reading about all the horrible things that can happen to kids with Down Syndrome, like leukemia or seizures. Or how late at night when I can’t sleep I go into Jo Jo’s room and sit in her rocker, watching her chest move up and down as she breathes and wondering what her life will be like in fifty years, after Jamie and I are gone.

It felt so good to talk I just kept going. I told her how two weeks earlier, the day after Geoffrey was born, I sat in my hospital bed nursing my son and watching CNN. Two reporters were on TV, talking about the Arnold Schwarzenegger scandal. I went to college with both of them. One is a prominent CNN anchor, the other, a journalist who wrote a book about the former governor.  I couldn’t help but envy them their career success. For the last three years, since Jo Jo’s birth, my work has really taken a backseat, and now, with three children under the age of four, that won’t change for a while.  As much as I love Jo Jo, taking care of her and being her advocate is itself a full time job.

Sandra listened to me silently. “Don’t second guess yourself,” she said quietly when I finished. “You are doing everything you possibly can for Jo Jo, and don’t ever beat yourself up for putting your career on hold. If I were you, I would be doing the exact same thing.”

“Really?” I asked. I hadn’t expected her to say that. Sandra has one of the strongest work ethics of anyone I know—for as long as I can remember, she’s routinely worked 14-16 hour days.

“Absolutely,” she said. “There’s no way right now you could do both. Listen,” she said. “I don’t have kids right now, but if I ever do, I will be taking some years off to be with them. Besides, Jo Jo has unique needs and you really need to be around right now to deal with them.”

It amazed me that even after all these years, Sandra knew exactly what to say to make me feel better—and that she still seemed to get me.

I drove her back to the train station, Geoffrey still squawking in the backseat. “Do you remember when we were lying on the beach in Amagansett that summer and you told me we would raise our families in Connecticut?” I asked.

“No,” she started to say, and then she smiled. “I do remember. That was so long ago.”

I watched her as she entered the train station. Part of me wished I could get on that train with her, back to that time in our lives when the big decisions were what bar we were going to go to that night or where to go on vacation. I envied Sandra at that moment, for her independence, her freedom to go anywhere she wanted whenever she wanted, and quite frankly for the fact that she can sit down and enjoy a meal and a few glasses of wine without small children constantly being in her face.

Don’t get me wrong. I would never change my life for an instant. But sometimes the realization that I am responsible for the care and maintenance of three children for the next two decades gives me pause. And Jo Jo…well, Jo Jo may never grow up and leave us. She may be with us for life.

A few days later, I got an email from Sandra saying how great it was to reconnect and informing me that a little present was coming just for me. The next day, a fed ex with a gift certificate to a local spa arrived at my door. 

Every woman needs a Sandra in her life, that true friend who instinctively knows the right things to say and unwaveringly gives support.  I can’t help wishing she were here with me in Connecticut, just a few houses away so we could meet up for play dates and cookouts with our kids.

But then part of me is glad for her and the fabulous life she’s created for herself in London. And I also know now that if I really need her, she’s only an email away. That’s the true meaning of friendship.