Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Friendsday #9

In 2003, I spent a semester at sea, working with Mercy Ships.  I’d dreamed of going to Africa for years, and volunteering in the hospitality department on the M/V Anastasis, a traveling hospital ship off the coast of West Africa, was my ticket.  I had just graduated from college and was engaged to be married, and I was every bit idealistic and passionate and ambitious as anyone should be at twenty-two.

In the five-month period that would become the basis for the story of my masters thesis in grad school, I met three girls—Sarah, Jessica, and Maro—who became my family away from family as we navigated the cathartic joy and bumbling pain of international travel.  
I know a picture exists of all four of us leaning over the reception desk on the ship,
but this is the only picture I could find that I had saved digitally--
Sarah and I at a dance party/lunch in Sierra Leone.
One of the best days of my entire life.
In the past eleven years, we’ve seen each other in spurts.  This one was able to go to that one’s wedding.  These three gathered because the timing was right.  When our family found out we’d be stationed in WA, we were overjoyed because it would mean being within an hour and a half of both Jessica’s and Sarah’s families.  Maro was still waaaaaaay over in FL (which was nice when we lived in Charleston, SC), but the other three of us could gather semi-regularly.

Sarah and her husband, Kris, took assignments doing international relief work in Kenya and then South Sudan for a good portion of our time in WA, but we saw them on their trips home and happily stored all their belongings in our garage.  Last month, when Kris and Sarah were officially home for good, we got a message from Maro's husband, Rich, that their family was thinking about trekking out west for a vacation.

Within two days, Jessica, and her husband, Andrew, had organized a long weekend in Leavenworth, WA—a Bavarian “Christmastown” known for its charming downtown and snow-related activities.  The plan was to pitch in food and go where the wind took us.

And we’d all be together.  For the first time in eleven years.

Maybe you’ve got friends like these—you first met at camp and saw each other every summer for seven summers and then not again for ten years, when you ended up living in the same city.  Or maybe you were roommates during the one year of college you spent away from home, and you meet up every time she’s in town for business.  Maybe you shared a short assignment to a remote Air Force base with very little to do for entertainment and haven't lived in the same place since.

These kinds of friendships are different than the ones you create with your mom’s best friend’s daughter, who was your best friend before you were born or the girl who sat next to you in first grade who still calls you once a week.  Those friendships have had time to simmer slowly and are obviously delicious.  But these other kinds of friends—the kind of people who have lived through intense moments of life together—they make for instantly deep friendships with a level of love and commitment that defies reason.

As I packed our bags for Leavenworth, I thought about the fact that I didn’t really know what to expect from the weekend.  If I travel with the people I hang out with on a regular basis, I know what to expect—who likes to stay up late or be the first one up, who’s messy and who cleans up after everyone.  But this group of people—we don’t share life daily together.  In fact, the last time we did, none of us was even married.  Now, we’d be heading to a house in the mountains with eight adults and eight (and a half) children.  And you know what? I wasn’t worried one bit about any of it.

I know this to be true about humans: good people are good people.  When you’re “picking up where you left off” after eleven years with good people, it just works.
The four of us squished on a love seat
Throughout the weekend, I watched as one mom fixed a plate for all the kids, not just her own, while a dad wiped the face of a kid who didn’t belong to him.  We shared food and mittens, played games and went sledding, stoked the fire and shuffled around a giant house in slippers.  And it felt like we’d been doing it forever.

The night before we all headed back to real life, the kids (who had been getting along freakishly well all weekend) were tucked into bed, and the adults were snacking on all the things we’d hidden from the kids during the day.  We asked questions of each other about all the things that needed “catching up”—how is your brother?  How has your pregnancy been?  What’s this new business venture?  What’s the next step in your career?  How’s the adoption process going?  Big questions with big answers that kept us talking late into the night.
The Fruits of our Labor
And one with Sarah's growing Fruit included
The weekend was peppered with reminiscing about moments on the Mercy Ship—that time when we were young and goofy and just stepping into the skin of adulthood, when we were thrown together for a few months on the other side of the globe.  As I watched each of us handing off an upset child to her spouse or nursing a baby or baking good morning rolls or organizing the mountain of snow boots and coats, I couldn’t help but be supremely happyThere is no greater joy in this kind of friendship than realizing that reality is infinitely more beautiful than the picture you had created through nostalgia.

Jessica still has perfect timing with her smart, quiet jokes, and Sarah’s and Maro’s laughter is still the perfect response.  I like to think we are more comfortable in our adult skin now, but if you peel back the layers of years of living on opposite coasts and navigating marriage and family life without daily interaction, we are still very much the four girls who met on a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone.  We planted the seeds of friendship in the soil of intense adventure and watered each other with our love for justice and mercy and laughter and grace in such a way that our roots have inextricably intertwined.  Our family tree is broad and beautiful and still growing.

Thanks to all three of you for this weekend.  And for everything.
Sixteen and a half people all looking at the camera
at the same time while the camera is on automatic.
Nothing short of miraculous.

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