A few weeks ago, our daughter hosted her first-ever sleepover, welcoming a friend outside the parameters of the playground, beyond the clearly defined bounds of the school gate, and into our home.
‘I’m nervous,’ E said as we prepared her bedroom, sweeping toys into piles, trying to lay a cozy foundation for her friend to step into.
Like me, my daughter naturally leans to messiness (let’s call it creative chaos). Like me, she is deeply, indelibly sensitive. But this has been a year of trying new things, for all of us. The other day E attended her school’s inaugural surf-lifesaving event. Under a blazing Queensland sun she balanced on a board in the ocean. Now here she was balancing her secure world of home with the lesser-known sphere of her social world. Balancing takes boldness, of course, and there is always the possibility of falling.
Which, I suppose, is what both of us were more than a little afraid of.
As I shouldered a spare mattress clumsily up the stairs from the garage, I tried to practice what I had been reading about recently, what I so often preached. It wasn’t bad to have emotions, the key was to accept and ride them (like the waves) not to pummel them down before they had a chance to rise. Easier said than done. But I knew that what I needed to right then was to allow E space for all her feelings, even the big ones, before rushing in to reassure her like some emotion-salvaging superhero. What had we all been telling each other in our house lately: It’s okay to be nervous, it’s normal, but that doesn’t mean X is a bad thing to do. ( We come up with a lot of X’s in our house).
But as I tucked the light pink spotted guest sheets around the mattress on the floor, like a swaddle around a baby, I still couldn’t help worrying quietly about how it would go. What if the girls didn’t get along? What if they couldn’t sleep? What if?…. That never-ending, continually spawning question of the anxious was much harder to hold in place than a bedsheet.
As the day progressed, I sent E’s friend’s mum messages, polite, tip-toe ones (parents need to warm up in relationships too). I asked for little crumbs of information on her child, food preferences, and bedtimes, and movie taste. Was there anything, in particular, A was scared of? I enquired. Children’s fears, I have learned, are unique and particular. You can’t always predict them. Amongst our tribe of three, there is hardly a crossover. One child can watch scary scenes on the screen and loves playing at war, but squeals at even the mention of an insect. For another, it’s the thought of going on a bus without us, that beckons floods of tears. And another hates public toilets.
No intel on fears came back from the other mother, at least not to me. I took that as a promising sign. Several hours before the allotted sleepover start time a final message beeped in: ‘A can’t wait!’ her mum told us, in writing.
E liked this one. I did too. There’s something about positive anticipation, like the Christmas Eve effect, that throws everything into a brighter light. And sometimes it takes someone outside of us to help us see it.
When A arrived, our whole family came out to greet her. She was full of smiles and already in her swimmers. I watched as E took her confidently in hand like a junior hospitality coordinator, and immediately started filing through the list of the day’s possible activities. There was the pool, the trampoline, ice-blocks, snacks and even the option of a movie.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes before they became co-party planners, passing ideas confidently back and forth like balloons. I must confess, I got a little teary at this point. I’d wanted this for E for so long, for all our kids. We’d moved so much in her nine years, going through houses and cities like pairs of socks. This was the first time in a long time we’d settled in, tried on some shoes. And sometimes, contrary perhaps as it sounds, it takes stability to find abandonment.
I remember it with my own childhood best friend. I’d told E about it as we prepared earlier. Emma and I lived only streets away from one another for most of our first eighteen years. I knew the imprints in her carpet as I knew my own. Her toys were in part mine too, and our imaginations, our hearts, well, they grew together across the seasons like two intertwined plants. And now here E was, planting seeds. I couldn’t wait to see how, and where, they would grow.
Watching my daughter and her friend, I felt a little like I was watching history being made. I wondered what memories would stand out, in years to come, for them both, or would it just be the electric thread of joy, of childhood, of laughter and light, that would find its way into them, like breath for when they needed it most.
The Test of Time
Truth is, even with it all going so well, I still didn’t sleep much the night of the sleepover. The girls got a bit wild just before the actual big event of bed, requesting a midnight snack (true it was really only 9pm and a Saturday night). But then A woke early, an unfamiliar voice at my bedroom door.
‘Nikki, I’m hungry,’ she said. Moments later, E emerged next to her, hair tussled and eyes barely awake, but surprisingly gentle and attentive. ‘It’s not light yet,’ she said soothingly to her friend. ‘See.’ Like a wise old grandmother she drew back the blinds and pointed out the window. ‘Look at the sky.’
The two went back to bed, watching for the light. Two fellow journeyers waiting for new dawn. And I lay awake, preparing for daylight.
After A left, everyone was a little tired and under the weather, while the weather itself was barely habitable, so I attended church alone. I sat at the back of the building, where the fans whirred busily in constant competition with the hot, still air. Outside, though the sun had indeed risen, the sky was a heavy, dark mass, like a brooding forehead.
The service ended and I wiped scratchy eyes as I looked around for someone to talk to. Without the distraction of my kids, I realised I felt a little bereft, awkward, like I’d left home without my handbag.
Thankfully, within a few minutes of indecision, I met the eyes of M, a kind, fellow mum, also metaphorically handbag-less, her own children happily playing elsewhere in the building. M was a long-time member of this particular congregation. She fit neatly amongst the pews. She emanated patient, attentive listening. As she asked me simple questions, I babbled words out at her (when I’m tired, I am either very quiet or very talkative, rarely in between). On this day it appeared talkative was leading. We exchanged stories of our kids starting the new school year, and then in a moment of pause, I looked down the front of the church, and my words suddenly and abruptly ceased.
The face was instantly familiar, bobbing amongst a tide of regulars. Medium length brown hair, black striped dress. From what I could make out, a soft smile.
‘That’s so strange,’ I said to M, finding my voice again. ‘Do you know her?’ I pointed forward, while trying not to look like I was pointing. Perhaps I was wrong? I didn’t trust my perception, let alone my vision in that moment. I’d forgotten my glasses and everything was more than a little foggy.
Unfortunately, M had no clear answers either. ‘No,’ she said.
‘I think I do. I think she might be someone I know from Sydney. I’m sorry, I need to go and see.’
I made my way down the centre church aisle, swerving between and around people. She who I thought I knew came towards me in a cluster of others, with an unfamiliar man by her side. I was almost certain now. But how could it be? I thought. This was a relatively out-of-the-way place. We barely knew a soul from Sydney here. It wasn’t like the bustle of the city from where we had moved a couple of years ago. People moved slowly and almost invisibly here. Locals walked out onto the mudflats at sunset to stand like floating, illuminated ghosts. What could have brought her here, of all places?
I tried to look closer up without looking, wondering what to do next, when her face lit up in sudden, affirming recognition. A smile stretched to form a sure bridge of familiarity between us.
‘Nikki!” she exclaimed, stepping forward a little out of the group and toward me. ‘What are you doing here?’
I did my best to answer the question I was desperate to ask. ‘And you?’ I got out at last, after my brief recap of our interstate move.
‘I’m visiting my friend’s family,’ she gestured to the man next to her.
I could do little now to hide my excitement. I’m sure my smile was palpably lit. The positive social energy we were exuding drew attention. Another lady joined our little conversational huddle. ‘How do you two know each other?’ she asked, curious.
We looked at one another, perhaps waiting for the other to answer.‘We go way back,’ my old friend said. ‘But we haven’t seen each other for a while.’
The other woman looked a little perplexed. Perhaps trying to pinpoint the exact nature of this relationship. ‘You should exchange details,’ she said kindly.
‘We don’t need to,’ my old friend answered again.
I could see I needed to help ease this strange interaction. But I struggled to find words for what I couldn’t quite describe. ‘We are sort of like family,’ I finally said at last. ‘A big extended family.’ I gestured wide with my arms.
Yes, that was the truth, and the exact reason I felt so happy, thrilled to see my old friend there. This friend (who it happens also has a name that begins with A) felt like a piece of home, dropped into this newer place. Perhaps this is why I broke with all convention and caution and reached out across time and space, to hug her, for several moments not letting go.
Of all the games E and A planned and played on the occasion of the inaugural, historic sleepover it was the spontaneous moments of free-form play that I enjoyed witnessing most of all. The times when their imaginations found one another in time and space and started wildly spinning looms of story and threads of fantasy.
‘We’re explorers,’ E announced, nature book in hand, face flushed. ‘Come on A,’ she shouted behind her, ‘Let’s go!’
They ran outside, arms hooked together like their elbows were the locks that kept everything else in the world intact.
I tried to unpack the family analogy some more for our listener.‘We grew up together,’ I told her. ‘In Youth group.’ I did some quick maths. ‘Over twenty-five years ago.’
She looked at me as if waiting for more information. Only I wasn’t sure quite what to say next. My old friend nodded in understanding. ‘The twenty-fifth is coming up soon, isn’t it’ she said, just to me this time.
I sent her a quiet, appreciative smile, like a secret letter, for which only we knew the code. This time I made no effort to translate. To be known and understood in the deep, hidden places gives even casual sounding words more weight.
The Golden Threads of Friendship
I rang my mum later that evening to tell her about the successful sleepover and also about the meeting. ‘You’ll never guess who I saw, today,’ I said.
She was quiet for a few moments after I told her. I wondered and worried, as I often do if I had upset her. ‘Do you know,’ she said slowly at last, ‘I still have the letters she sent us, all those years ago. I kept them, because, well, because they were so beautiful.’
A few days later my mum and dad came over to visit, carefully carrying the letters that my old friend wrote after my brother Greg died. My old friend who was, first of all, a close friend of my brother’s, and who understood that though her words couldn’t replace him, they could help to hold us up as we walked through the world in his absence.
‘She remembered to ask about the twenty-fifth,’ I told mum.
Mum nodded, tearing up at the mention of my brother’s anniversary date.
‘Will she be back up here to visit again?’ Mum asked hopefully, perhaps imagining seeing her herself.
‘I hope so,’ I said.
But I knew either way, if we saw each other again in person, or not, that it was okay. Her story was still intertwined with ours. Her thread just the stitch we had needed at this time to remind us – no matter how fragile we felt – of just how held together we were.
We are all, in one way or another, characters in each other’s stories. Try thinking about a relationship that has helped you over the years, or bring to mind the way you may have been used to touch on someone else’s story. Write about it.
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