Friends, Lost and Found
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Friends, Lost and Found

Once they were my closest confidantes, my perfect playmates, witness to every important (and unimportant) event of my life. Now kids and work have crowded them out. Is there a way to find my way back?

Soccer Mom

It's another Saturday here at Field Four, a vast landscape dotted by girls with swishy ponytails, shin guards, and cleats. Like any soccer mom worth her sun visor, I have come prepared. I've got my diet soda, bag of baby carrots, cell phone, romance novel, knitting project and, perhaps most admirably, one of those collapsible chairs with spindly legs that look like spastic spiders as they unfold. My chair is deluxe -- replete with cup holder and a tiny umbrella that pops up in case of rain.

I am, that is, advanced. I've got an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old, so when it comes to soccer mom-hood, I know my stuff. I used to complain about how much time I spent here at Field Four. Now I just think of it as opportunity to pursue portable hobbies -- like knitting.

Today I've got a new plan to pass the time, really the best idea I've come up with in months. In addition to my regular arsenal of time killers, today I've also brought a clipboard with a yellow pad and a list of names. I'm going to go down my list and call these people. Friends.

Remember friends?

Real friends. Not the people of convenience you run into as a working mom. Not your coworkers, not your kids' friends' moms, not teachers or coaches, not any of the people you spend your days being polite to. Friends. The connections you made way back when you were just a forming adult, before you gave your life over to diapers, and sippy cups, and mortgage payments. Friends.

We called ourselves "The Babes." We did everything together. We knew everything about one another. Beth, BK, Nancy, Wendy. We used to be central to one another's days. We went to movies, all the new restaurants, shoe stores. There was a time we had no problem organizing not one but two Caribbean vacations together over a three-year period -- now we can scarcely manage to organize a shared cup of coffee once a month. The situation has gotten so out of hand it's keeping me up at night. Friends. I miss my friends.

"Mom, did you see that!?" My daughter Anna runs up to me and says. Um, yes, I did. She kicked the ball high into the air, which frankly looked a lot more kickball to me than soccer. "That was so cool!" she says. I congratulate her. She asks for water. She wants to know what I'm doing with the clipboard and I try to explain. "You forgot who your friends are?" she says.

"Huh?"

"You had to write their names down?"

"No, honey" -- I tell her to get back into the game, realizing how sad this is. I had to make a list of The Babes, the very people who once were like sisters.

I call Nancy first. I get her voice mail. In the background of her greeting I can hear her 6-year-old son laughing, and then the sound of a puppy yapping. A puppy? Whose puppy? I leave a message, then try Beth, who is also not home. Finally, BK answers. "Hey, babe," I say, not needing to further identify myself. "Did Nancy get a new dog?"

It takes her a moment to catch up. "A new dog?" she says. "Don't you think we would have heard?"

"I'm just thinking that it would be kind of soon after Buster," I say.

"Buster?" she says. "Did something happen to Buster?"

"Oh, babe," I say. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you." Buster was the golden retriever puppy we surprised Nancy with on her 30th birthday. More than 10 years have passed and Buster, having moved into old dog-hood, succumbed to cancer. I can't believe BK didn't know he died. How could such an important event have bypassed even one of us?

"I've been kind of busy with my mom," BK says, filling me in with the news that her mother will be moving to a nursing home. "I've been shopping for places for her," she says. "Some of them are pretty nice."

As I listen to BK describe her adventures into the world of nursing homes, I think: She's going through all of this without The Babes? Shouldn't we be there for her? But how can you be there for an old friend when all the new acquaintances are filling up your time? We're all having the same problem: complicated lives filled with people who need immediate attention, all those coaches and coworkers and teachers and bus drivers and school-lunch-money takers. You spend your day responding, because you have to. Because this is who you are now. The person you used to be, the person with deep connections worthy of tender care, is simply put on hold.

"Hang on," I say to BK, "I have to talk to this woman." A team mom with a blond bob is approaching. She always looks so serious and so put together -- coordinated exercise clothes, clean cross-trainers, a melon-colored tote bag. She is the sort of person who makes me feel inferior as a soccer mom, even though I'm the one with the more deluxe chair. (I actually checked hers out the other day to see if it had the umbrella feature, which it did not. What is happening to me?)

"Hi!" she says, all perky. "I just wanted to make sure you know you're on the concession stand tomorrow night!"

The concession stand? Oh, dear. "Yes, I know!" I lie, in my perkiest voice. "I've got that on my calendar!"

"Great!" she says, adding, "and may I just say your little Anna sure is improving!"

Okay, first of all, are we going to keep talking in exclamation points? And second, I really want to get back to my conversation with BK. And third, let's be honest: Anna's improvement is definitely not what you'd call exponential.

"Frankly, I think soccer is better for Anna than Anna is for soccer," I quip. As the words come out of my mouth I think: Well, that's a deep thought. It's so true! My little girl is learning so much about sportsmanship, the difference between aggression and assertion, and team unity from her time here on Field Four. She is, however, clearly destined to do nothing for the advancement of America's standing in the World Cup.

It would be nice to have this conversation with this woman, soccer mom to soccer mom. It would be nice to sit her down and have a meaningful discussion. I'm looking at her, hoping. But she has no interest, or no time. Or maybe I'm the one projecting that problem. Maybe I'm pushing her away? "Okay, I've got to find Elaina's mom and tell her she's on scoreboard tomorrow!" she says. And she is gone. I go back to BK. "Did you hear that conversation?" I ask.

"Wow," BK says, "that was a deep thought you had about Anna."

"See, this is why I love you," I tell her. We talk about girls, and sports, and confidence, and sisterhood. These are the kinds of conversations we used to have, as easy and yet essential as breathing. "God, I miss you," I say.

Just then, my call-waiting clicks in. I look to see that it's Beth calling me back, and put BK on hold.

"Babe!" Beth says. "So great to hear your voice! I'm just getting back from Joe's."

Joe's? Is this a new man I don't know about? Or perhaps some sort of hamburger place? I'm ashamed of my ignorance and figure I'll ask BK later. "Hey, did Nancy get a new dog?" I ask.

"You didn't hear about the puppy?" she says.

"Did you hear BK's moving her mom to a nursing home?"

"What? I didn't even know she was sick."

"You didn't know about the operation?"

"What? "

"This is ridiculous," I say. "How can we all be so behind on Babe news?" She agrees. She says let's get out our calendars. I tell her I already know how this conversation is going to end. This is exactly how it has gone for years now: "We have to plan a Girls' Night Out!" one of us will say. We'll e-mail open dates, find one in common, but then one of us will have to go out of town on business, or get called into a parent-teacher conference at the last minute, or have to suddenly make the Jell-O treats for a kid sports banquet for 24 players. Sooner or later we give up. "Let's talk next month when things settle down," one of us will say. Months will go by and the cycle repeats.

We are slipping away from each other. That's the truth of it. With sweet sadness and longing, I realize I used to live a life of unfolding narratives with my single girlfriends -- each day a new boyfriend or career or hair emergency -- instead of unfolding chairs in front of kids running soccer drills.

My call-waiting clicks. It's BK again. I tell Beth to hang on.

"Nancy got a new dog!" BK says. "I have her on the other line!" I ask her if Beth is seeing someone named Joe.

"Joe?" she says.

I click back over to Beth. This clicking goes on and on, a sharing of news coming in bursts of excited blips and bleeps. "Where is Wendy?" Beth asks. "If we had Wendy on the line we could do a Girls' Night Out via conference call."

A conference call. A Girls' Night Out conference call. We click back and forth entertaining this truly pathetic truth: It might be our only hope. But Nancy has to go pick up her son from a birthday party. And we need to locate Wendy. We decide to schedule our Girls' Night Out conference call for tomorrow night.

"Wait," I say. "I'm on concession stand tomorrow night."

I am getting an official headache.

Just then the perfect perky soccer mom approaches once again. This time, she's carrying her chair. Huh? She walks up, unfolds her chair right beside mine. "I'm sorry -- I know you're on the phone," she says softly. "I'll wait."

Well, now don't I feel rude? The person talking on the cell phone is always the rude one. At times like this you have no choice but to hang up, to leave the cellular world and come back to the place that your actual body is inhabiting: the soccer field.

"I have to go," I say to Beth and hang up. The Babes are gone. I'm back here in the real world, a decidedly lonely place.

"The Babes"

The perky one has pictures for me. She took them last week, at the big soccer match. Some are of my daughter and she thought I'd like to have them. It is a kind gesture. It occurs to me that this woman probably has a name, and I should learn it. Why have I closed myself off to her -- and to so many others? I wonder if I wear a shield that says: No New Friends, as a way of protecting my connection to The Babes. Friends for life! Nothing will come between us!

But of course something will come between us, and something has. Does that necessarily threaten the truth of our connection? We are friends for life, and as our lives change, maybe it's okay for us to make room for new kinds of friendships, too.

"Thank you for the pictures," I say to the perky one, wishing I knew her name and wondering how I might quietly find out. "That was really kind of you."

My phone rings. It's BK. "Excuse me one second," I say, and take the call.

"I'm sorry to bother you," BK says. "But I've got Nancy and Beth on the line -- "

"You're doing a conference call without me?"

"Not really," she says. "We all just decided that since I'm researching nursing homes for my mom, I should try to find a place where we can all end up. Don't you think that's a great idea?" She gives me the image of all us Babes in our rocking chairs, finally having time to really catch up. "And you can teach us all how to knit."

"That sounds glorious," I say. "You think it's pathetic for us to be looking forward to being old ladies in nursing homes?"

She laughs, hangs up. I see that the perky one is looking at me, having overheard bits of this odd conversation.

"A dear old friend," I say. "A bunch of us have been trying to figure out how to find time to get together."

"Oh, I have the same problem," the perky one says.

"You do?"

"It's terrible," she says. "I miss them all so much it keeps me up at night."

We sit in silence a while, watching our girls kick and spin and laugh in the afternoon sun.

"I'm sorry," I say. "What is your name?"

"Jennifer," she says. "It's nice to finally meet you. Would you like to take the kids for ice cream after this?"

I tell her I'd be delighted to.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2007.

shim