I’m not a great friend. I know this about me. I should come with a warning label to all the new people in my life. Befriend me at your own risk!
I often can’t go out to dinner, to the movies, or the concert that everyone else has tickets to. On those rare occasions I can go, it requires planning – there is no spontaneity on my part. And then, a lot of those times, I actually cancel the plans. Cancel the plans that just took weeks to put together! I wasn’t kidding. I’m a terrible friend.
The issue, as you know, is that my daughter has chronic medical needs and a physical disability. If my daughter is having a bad day, I am having a bad day. If she had a bad night, I had a bad night. Or, sometimes, she’s just showing signs that she might have a bad day or night coming up and I’m on edge. Waiting. She may end up in the hospital for one night or ten. I just never know. And that underlying stress of the unknown makes it difficult to leave her, to relax, to unwind.
And it is precisely why I so desperately need good friends in my life.
Despite my child with ridiculous needs fueling my undercurrent of constant stress, I’d like to think I’m a normal, everyday kind of gal. There isn’t much I like more than sitting down with a beer, a bowl of chips and salsa, and friends. I want to gossip about my neighbors, complain about how fat I think I am, and talk about the latest decorating trends. I want to tell you about the book I just read and debate the last bill that made it through Congress.
I desperately want to laugh. I can’t wait to tell you how I stupidly sent my boss an inappropriate email meant for my colleague. Or how my lovely daughter told everyone she came across that day that I make her do all the housework while I sit on the couch and watch TV.
And in between the moments of laughter and gossip, I want to be able to tell you about my life. My actual life. I want to tell you about everything else that is going on, without having to comfort you because it’s hard to hear about. I don’t want to have to act like I do with strangers or acquaintances. I want to be authentic. It’s good for my soul.
If you can get past all my nuances and limitations in my life, I will try to be a good friend to you. After all, I know the value of a good friend. I know firsthand how a friend can impact your day, your mood, your outlook. I know that having a good friend can be the difference between sobbing uncontrollably because you just can’t handle life anymore and wiping away tears because someone is there helping you get through your heartache.
I want to hear your stories that will make me laugh. I want you to tell me how you are doing. Genuinely. I would love to learn about what’s going on in your life. I want to hear about your kid’s accomplishments, even though I know mine will probably not reach the same goals. I’ll still be happy for you. Seriously, I would. I want you to feel okay telling me how horrible it was to get the call that your son fell and broke his wrist without you worrying that I may not think it’s a big deal. You could tell me because it was a big deal and I want to be there for you.
I would still feel bad for you when you have a bad day because of something you may deem trivial compared to my bad day. We can commiserate together – it makes the hard times a bit easier when you have a friend by your side. A good friend taught me that lesson.
My daughter goes through an incredible number of medical issues that are tough to hear about. Thank you, in advance, for listening when I tell you about my day, which includes a retelling of the latest appointment, and you gulp back your tears and just listen. Thank you, in advance, for knowing I’m not looking for pity, just someone to hear me. To tell me the situation is awful and that it will get better. Thank you, in advance, for believing in my daughter’s strength and telling me so. And, thank you for making me that gin and tonic because you know I need it that day (and that I should cut back on all those beer carbs). And thank you for letting me crack a joke about this horrible situation nobody should be laughing at, but it’s all I can do because I’m done crying. You, my future friend, are a true friend for putting up with such a terrible friend like me.
Amy Daniels is a mom of two, one who had physical and cognitive disabilities due to a brain tumor. Her memoir, Reaching for Normal, was recently published by Toplight Books. She also contributes to various parenting publications and lives in Holly Springs, North Carolina. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram and, Facebook.
My mom didn’t do book club. She didn’t work outside the home. She didn’t volunteer. She didn’t play tennis or golf. She talked on the phone. All day, every day. The long cord wrapped around her legs, head tilted towards her shoulder to hold the phone in place while she peeled carrots and ironed my dad’s shirts. Chatting with friends was her life’s work. Never did the phone go unanswered. It was the other person living with us. Live conversation was consistently interrupted by the shrill ring that vibrated through the house. Inevitably, once the receiver was lifted, she performed a two hour disappearing act.
My mom thought call waiting was rude. Instead, she installed another phone line so I could talk to my friends and she would not be interrupted for hours on end. My teenage pastime became the phone as well. It’s what the women in our house did. As an only child, my mom referred to her friends as her sisters. So my friends became my sisters, too. My mom and I dropped everything for our friends. Simultaneously, we lost sight of who we were apart from them.
Parting, even briefly, was made easier with the invention of the answering machine as we could leave the house while keeping tabs on incoming inquiries. The pilgrimage to the second floor office (aka the voicemail room) was immediate upon arrival back home. Press play, take notes. Response time was prompt. Never keep a friend waiting.
The landline telephones were plugged into just about every room of the house to alleviate any risk of the call being literally out of reach. Every phone had a display screen with handwritten first names and a button next to each one so my mom’s friends were always just one touch away. Jeanie, Jane, Joyce, Janie – the list of J names was rather uncanny. Helen, Gracie, and Sheri provided some diversity. Almost all of these women dated back decades in my mother’s life. If you got your name on my mom’s speed dial, your inner circle status granted you immediate around the clock access, extravagant gifts, party invitations, and all the gossip.
Hosting a dinner party at our house meant a definitive three week lockdown. Two weeks prior to plan, prepare, and clean, and one week for postmortem sessions on the phone to rehash said event. Getting anywhere near my mom’s orbit in the days leading up to the soiree would set off an invisible, yet intricate radar system stemming from her core. I was chased out of the powder room. I don’t recall eating much as the kitchen was for party prep only. Crumbs were a serious trigger. A glass on the counter without a coaster was the death of us. So my father and I stopped hydrating, too.
Once the evening kicked off, the energy sparked like wildfire. Drinks flowed freely, the food was impeccable, the house looked immaculate, and laughter boomed deep into the night. Everyone who walked through that front door practically posed for the paparazzi as they were made to feel like rock stars on the red carpet.
Yet a layer of formalization draped over these relationships like a heavy blanket. I learned that you always catered to your friends’ needs first, at whatever cost. She would say her friends were her sisters, but that always nagged me. Putting friendships on pedestals isn’t how real sisters – those tied by blood – actually treated each other. But what did I know?
As an only child, my mother’s mini-me as she always liked to believe, my high school, college, and grad school groups became big familial units to me. Just like siblings, some friends ruffled my feathers, others totally got me. I embraced it all as we were members of these crazy, chaotic families I so desperately craved to be a part of. Yet for as much as I believed my friends were my sisters, I had no ability to actually deal with normal sibling conflict. I was quick to apologize, no matter where the fault lay. I shrank in the presence of anger, asynchronicity, or acidity with a friend. I made myself small and just disappeared for a bit, only to reemerge once the waters had calmed and my feelings were pushed down until no longer visible.
Now in the depths of middle age, I tread water in the turbulence of everyday life – aging and ailing parents, multiple growing kids, deeper career commitments and ambitions. I crave authentic friendships that hold a mutual understanding, ones that give each other the benefit of the doubt – a deep belief that we are all just trying our best and loving each other through the messiness of life. I look to friends to help carry me through the heaviness, not to be the heaviness.
My most recent friendship heartache took me by surprise. Through a text. She wrote, “I don’t know how to be your friend if I can’t be your best friend.” It all goes back to the phone. While no longer tethered to the visible cords, we are more glued to our phones than ever. Moving from the flip phone to the smartphone, from email to texting, from speakerphone to FaceTime, communication lines are constantly open, but does that mean we have to be, too?
My texting response times weren’t as speedy as in the past which led to hurt feelings. Messages sent were misread in the speed of life and false narratives were created. The phone literally lost its voice. Typing versus talking led to gross misinterpretations. From there, it all unraveled. Looking back, it’s because I quietly put down the phone to focus on my family and the major crises that were erupting within it.
I shared this recent turmoil with a dear friend who has known me since I was twelve. Her response – “This happens to you more than most people. You have a unique ability to make people feel special but when you have other things going on in your life that reshift your focus, I think your friends get hurt by that.”
Then it struck me. I have carried my mother’s torch of putting my friends above all else and created expectations I can’t live up to. The times that I tended to my family’s needs or my own desires are the times that my major friendship breakups occurred. They can practically be charted on a timeline simultaneous with any personal upheaval. What I’ve ultimately realized is that I don’t have the capability to be anyone’s best friend if I don’t give myself the same attention and grace I give to others.
So now I drift, just a bit, not tied to any one friendship or pseudo-sibling as I unearth my own aspirations. Releasing myself from the tight expectations I created has sent me into a tailspin at times. But unwinding has anchored me to a more authentic sense of self than ever expected. Funny enough, beautiful, balanced friendships have bubbled to the top. The truth is, real friendships can be put on hold when needed. And a true receiver will always pick up.
A former public relations professional, Lindsay now focuses on writing personal stories with her beloved Modernwell Writing Studio members. Cooking, community volunteering, travel and nature continue to feed her soul. She lives in Minneapolis with her three teens and husband of 22 years.
After the thunderstorm, Colleen and I sat on her porch on her 41st birthday, nursing warm beers. Cool air cut through what had been a streak of cloying days. Trees shot skyward, leaves jeweled in water and sunlight, reminding me in June 2021 of those I’d stared at for hours nearly 26 years earlier while sitting beside her on her front stoop the day after her dad died.
This time, she was helping me mourn a pregnancy I’d just lost.
Colleen pulled out a high school yearbook, had me read what I’d written at 16 years old: That years from then I wouldn’t remember the kids I’d eaten lunch with, but I’d remember her; that although we were on different paths in high school, I thought we’d always be a part of each other’s lives.
“How did I know?” I asked about my 16-year-old self, wiping tears from my eyes as I closed the book.
“How did you know?” she asked.
I said I felt like I knew more then, than I know now.
In November 2021, for my 41st birthday, I met Kristin in Atlanta. We drove to Tennessee and hiked up the side of Lookout Mountain, traversing the same steep, leaf-matted trail that Union troops ascended nearly 158 years to the day earlier.
At Sunset Rock, swarms of flies clouded our sightline and a sweet, sickly scent baked: someone smoking dope. The naked arms of a tree cut through our view of the river valley below. We stood, mostly silent, catching our breath, then, beginning our descent, continued the conversation we’d started over 22 years earlier and had picked up again that weekend.
Earlier that year, in April, at the trailhead of the Narrows at Zion National Park where the slot canyon began to hem in hikers and hedge out the sky, Nikki and I found an unclaimed rock in the sun. We dropped our bags, sat down, sipped from water bottles and talked about things past and present, things sometimes silly, sometimes traumatic, mostly mundane.
The sun’s warmth, the background noise of the creek and fellow sojourners, and the presence of a friend who’d known me for 26 years rolled over and comforted me, coming off 13 months of relative isolation.
This is how it went with friends in midlife. In a world where nothing made sense anymore, we covered as much ground as we could together. We searched for sure footing. We picked up the conversation wherever we’d last left off, no matter how far we’d come, how long it’d been. We helped each other keep moving forward.
I could lean my head against theirs. I could hug them, or wear a mask and keep my distance. Find a stoop to sit on across from them, or a mountaintop to climb, or a slot canyon to converge on a rock in the sun. We could say all the things that ever hurt us or scared us. We could say nothing at all.
We could unfold a Scrabble board, pick up a telephone. We could walk for miles or we could be still. We could dance.
When nothing made sense, when the world was falling apart, life as we knew it discontinued, when nothing held including my center, I could step out of my center and into theirs, find the orbit where our circles became concentric, feel my way to where we overlapped.
We could pitch a tent there and lay down our heads on the hard earth. We could ask all the questions and stare up through the branches and remember all the losses and pay homage to all the heartbreaks and humiliations. We could vent our frustration and cop to our shame, bare our ugliness or expose the tender apertures of chronic wounds. We could admit all the things about our aging bodies: how unfamiliar they were to us, how foreign they felt and how discomfiting the loss of control as we learned to navigate injuries and illnesses for the first time, like learning to walk, but in reverse and with no parent there to steady us.
We could point out to each other the cracks in the armor that only we knew about.
We could be the girls we were born to be: playing in dirt, spinning in dizzy circles, dancing and throwing back our heads, catching snowflakes on our tongues, opening our faces to the sun, kicking our legs to swing higher and higher, closer and closer, still reaching for that untouchable sky.
By 41 years old, I could stop expecting friends to understand everything about me. I could let go of wanting them to intuitively know what I needed and how I felt. I just had to know myself and be willing to tell them the truth. And I needed them to tell me the truth, too: what they needed, how they felt, when they needed me.
I could say no, if I needed to; I could say yes when I wanted to. I would know that they’d respect me, no matter what I said. They wouldn’t judge, although they might tell me what they thought I needed to hear, even if it was hard to hear. I might do the same for them, too, if it was important enough. I would always be honest.
With my friends, I didn’t have to pretend that I knew the answers to the big questions anymore. But I knew I could dare to keep asking the questions. They might not understand but they’d always listen. They’d laugh about them with me, or help me laugh about them when I couldn’t. They’d throw their questions on top of my pile and we’d strike a match and let it all burn until it blazed. A bonfire of laughter. A bonfire of tears.
That day on Colleen’s birthday, bonfires of laughter and of tears both behind us and before us, I told her I thought I’d been a hard 16-year-old to be friends with. I had high expectations of people, held them to unreasonable standards.
She said I was emotionally mature. I was honest. I cut through the crap.
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Do you?”
She said she’d heard that one reason people hold others to high standards in this life is when they’ve come back with a specific purpose. They’ve been through it all before in some past life. They don’t need to impress anyone now. They know what they’re there for and want to get started.
“What’s your purpose?” she asked me.
At 41 years old, I don’t know my purpose.
I know, at least, though, that I don’t need an answer as long as I have a friend like Colleen or Nikki or Kristin to fill the space beside me under the trees, in the sun, on the rocks or the sidewalk or the phone. A friend who dares to keep throwing question after question onto the pile with me while we both look up, our eyes crinkling with laughter or maybe with tears, the smoke rising, the flames touching the sky.
Emily Dagostino is a writer, wife and mother who lives in Oak Park, Illinois, and works as a communications leader in not-for-profit healthcare philanthropy. More of her creative writing can be read at EmilyDagostino.com.
It slipped out of my vocabulary for a couple of hours, as if to go get a coffee or take a nap. I was on a hike with a friend, marching through the woods, talking about the gifts and betrayals of aging, catching glimpses of grouse and bunnies and garter snakes, and I wanted to say something about palindromes, but I couldn’t.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I could say many things about palindromes; I could define them and give examples of them. I just couldn’t remember the word for them.
This particular phenomenon is not new to me; it started a good 10 years ago, if not more. Usually, though, the words that go missing are proper nouns—names of people, cities, book titles, movies and the actors in them. I will call for a word, and it will not come, or at least not immediately. Long ago, I started imagining my body as a multi-storey research library of sorts, with me as its sole patron. I request a word, a name, a title, from my brain, situated at the top floor of the library. And, sometimes, my brain needs to send a page down several levels—to around my heart, say, or my gallbladder—in order to retrieve my order. In these situations, there’s nothing to do but wait, moments or hours or weeks, smiling politely and awkwardly at the head librarian and making small talk—“It has an A and a P, I think but I’m not sure in what order ha ha”—until the page returns.
“Palindrome,” I said, only apparently apropos of nothing, in the middle of our hike, and my friend nodded.
* * *
I am mildly obsessed with palindromes. I have been ever since I learned about them in sixth grade, when our art teacher introduced our class to them, some project that must have folded back on itself, mirror image. Step on no pets, we learned; Madam, I’m Adam. I came up with a Toyota on my own and have since searched, unsuccessfully, for a longer, palindromic, sentence in which to embed it. I remember that it seemed portentous when, later that year, a new girl named Anna transferred to our school.
When I journal, I am happier than should reasonably be expected when the date at the top of the page reads the same way back and forth (November 11, 2011—11.11.11—was a particularly good day, as was November 2 of that year: 11 02 2011; I haven’t had as many good days since 2013 ended). In my car, I watch the odometer, perhaps more than might strictly be considered safe, for palindromes—89,598 kilometres, 86,268. I have been known to plan driving routes around significant palindromic events, like 99,999. I habitually scan the world for texts and patterns that read the same back and forth, beginning and ending in apparently the same place.
In university I took precisely one science class: biology for arts majors. I remember being astonished to learn that palindromes—those quirky little plays on words from my elementary school days—signalled the beginnings and ends of genetic code, buried amidst the sea of random nucleotides: ACCTAGGT / TGGATCCA at either end, bracketing the instructions that dictate our inner workings, our very selves.
Palindromes, it dawned on me, weren’t simply fun patterns; they were in our DNA. They were, quite literally, the stuff of life.
* * *
The stuff of life was, as usual, the guiding principle of our conversation that day in the woods. This particular friend and I aren’t capable of, or at least don’t seem particularly interested in, small talk. We met—more than a decade ago now—through a mutual, public disclosure of secrets: I heard her, a radio producer, being interviewed on public radio about a documentary she had made, chronicling the process of taking her father to court for sexually assaulting her as a child (he was convicted). Inspired, I pitched my own story to the broadcaster: I wanted to document the process of interrogating my own DNA. My mother had died a few years earlier from metastasized breast cancer. She, and I, had been part of the scientific studies that had identified the genetic mutations—BRCA1 and 2—that had caused her disease, as well as the ovarian cancer she had ostensibly “beaten” 20 years earlier. Ovarian cancer, we were learning, never really goes away, at least not permanently; it gives you a break for a decade or so, and then resurfaces as something else—a lump in a breast, “spots” on lungs, liver, bones, brain. I had a 50% chance of inheriting the mutation from my mother, and I had been looking for a way into the process of finding out whether, in fact, I had. What secrets lurked in my DNA? Telling the story—in real time, on national radio—seemed, paradoxically, like the safest route, at least emotionally: I wouldn’t be going for blood draws and meeting with genetic counsellors; I wouldn’t be facing down decisions about prophylactic mastectomy and oopherectomy, or whether it was safe to have another baby—I’d be making art.
The radio station assigned my friend (not yet my friend, although I think I had some inkling) to be my producer. I took that as a good omen, relieved to be paired with someone whom—I assumed—understood the vulnerabilities of revealing intimate details to the public. “What if the news is bad?” I asked her early on in the process. “What if I find out that I have the mutation and I don’t want to tell the whole country?”
“Then we can stop,” she said. “We can shelve it. It’s your call.”
* * *
We had wanted to go on this particular hike for a while, now. The trail ran along the Pigeon River, which acts as part of the international border between Northwestern Ontario, where we live, and Minnesota. We had hiked the Canadian side of the river several times together, usually once a season, making our way up to the top of the waterfall and marvelling at its power and the way it changed throughout the year. In the winter, the mist froze over itself in layer upon thin layer, creating a protective ice cover for the water rushing underneath. In the spring, that cover began to crack and melt, creating windows through which we could see the water underneath, always moving, pouring over the precipice. If it wasn’t too icy, we’d climb onto the rocks at the top of the falls, amazed at our own daring and the lack of protective barriers; on the US side of the border, hikers were prevented from such risks by fences and guardrails. We would make our way to the shore of the river and look across to the other side, imagine how easy, or not, it would be to smuggle ourselves across, but then wonder out loud why we would bother: even before the pandemic, the United States, so close, so seemingly similar to us in Canada, felt increasingly dangerous, frightening, unfamiliar.
But we had crossed the border by legitimate channels that morning, showing our passports to the armed US Customs and Border Security guard. Somewhere along the drive, my odometer did something interesting, and I noticed it.
And now we were here, walking, and I couldn’t remember the word for that phenomenon when things fold back on themselves, repeat in mirror image.
* * *
Ever the intrepid reporter, I carried a voice recorder into my final appointment with the genetic counsellor, the one where she would tell me whether I carried the mutation. In the recording, she has barely launched into her prepared speech about the process of testing, the odds and the disclaimers, before I interrupt her, my voice catching and slightly exasperated:
“Do we have to go through all this?”
“Yes,” she replies, almost playfully, “I always do. Not just for you, for everyone.”
“Okay,” I say, doubtful.
“I just want to know.”
“You want to know.”
“Okay.” She pauses. “We didn’t find it.”
And the tape dissolves into pure sound, no words: a long gasp; a sharp, sucking, intake of air; and then sobbing. “You didn’t find it. You didn’t find it.”
That moment, obviously, is the apex, the very top of the story arc, in the radio documentary that my friend and I ultimately created, the one released on national public radio, the one that cemented our friendship. They’d run my blood and cells through a scanner, isolating the chromosome, the allele. They had searched for a certain subsection of DNA, signalled at either end with palindromic tags, and they hadn’t found anything. As an Ashkenazi Jewish woman, my odds of carrying the mutation had been about one in 40, as opposed to the one in 400 of the general population. As the biological daughter of a known mutation carrier, my odds had shrunk to one in two, yes or no.
And now, we knew: no.
A collective exhale. I would die, yes, one day. But now the spectre of dying like my mother, like my grandmother, wasted and hollowed out in a hospital bed in my 40s, faded. Not entirely gone, but now not the only possible narrative.
* * *
And now let’s cut to 10 years after that moment in the geneticist’s office, 10 years after the documentary played on national radio, to, say, a restaurant where two women, fast friends, meet every few months. They are firmly in their 40s now, middle-aged and midcareer; one is recently separated, kids in middle school; one has a daughter just graduating university. They have perfected their dining routine: they arrive at 5:30 PM, right when the restaurant opens, and secure a prime table. They drink wine, but only one glass, because tomorrow and middle age. They meander over good food and good conversation, and they can be home and reading in bed by 9 PM, because tomorrow and middle age.
Except that this dinner, the radio producer says to her writer friend, her voice threatening to spill over: “I have some medical news for you.”
And the present moment folds back over into the past, to our first meeting, and we are both, once again, waiting to find out.
* * *
We walk through the woods on the other side of the border. The trail here is steeper, more rugged than on the Canadian side, and I watch my friend for signs of flagging energy. It’s been a year, more, since that early-bird dinner, since she drove herself to the emergency room, puking from the pain, since the surgeries and the chemo, since the disastrous, depressing “Look Good Feel Better” workshop where we felt so bad for being so ungrateful and yet so snarky. (Drag queens, we thought: drag queens are really the only people who should teach this workshop.) Her hair has grown back. We have been out for dinner, although wine now tastes like metal to her. She seems okay. And so I follow her lead.
We are talking, as I said, about the stuff of life: the Codex of tiny moments that add up to our happiness, the way they shift and morph. Whether and how and when she should go back to work; our children and how they simultaneously break us apart and heal us, how we have learned to weather the breaking; the stories we want to tell and how best to tell them in the limited time we have left. Because ovarian cancer, the science tells us, never really goes away, at least not permanently; it gives you a break for a decade or so, and then resurfaces as something else. This is especially true when you are, as my friend is, one of the one in 400 members of the general population who carry the BRCA mutation.
And this is the dénouement, the surprise ending that neither of us expected, even considered, when we made that radio documentary together all those years ago: that she, the producer, the woman behind the microphone, was always actually the one in danger. Look at our family trees and they are nearly identical, mirror images of each other: a grandmother, a mother, a cousin with breast or ovarian cancer—it’s just that the pattern stopped with me and continued with her. It’s just that someone noticed on my side and not on hers. It’s a story so stupidly overwhelming, a coincidence so unlikely, that we are barely able to talk about it. We shake our heads; the words don’t come.
Except, sometimes, in the woods, walking.
Why not go back to work for 10 more years, I ask, spitballing at least one possible future, and collect your full pension?
“There’s no point,” she says, as the falls come into view: “I’ll be dead by then.”
Around us, we can see only trees and more trees, and the falls, roaring with spring runoff, no ice to shield them. Maybe it’s the landscape, just expansive enough for me to hear those words and not argue, not point out, say, that my mother lived 23 years post diagnosis, or suggest the possibilities of medical advances, prophylactic mastectomy. I want so many possible futures for her, want to control the narrative, to speed through the unknown in the same way I could make the genetic counsellor get to the point already.
But the woods are big enough, right now, to hold space for the words we can’t remember, the narratives we can’t control, the things we can’t know, the stories we can’t stop telling and just shelve when they turn out to be tragedies rather than comedies.
Are the woods big enough, though, for how angry I am? At how nature tricked both of us, but betrayed her while sparing me? At myself, for continually inserting myself into a story that is no longer mine, never was? At her father for his crimes, at the president and the administration of this country we have crossed into, at every single predator who has targeted someone smaller, weaker, less powerful, more in need? At the ways in which those predators take up so much space, eating into our bedrooms, our narratives, our very cells, and how it feels like the only defence too much of the time is to cut off and poison the parts of ourselves they’ve touched, hope we live to tell the tale, hope that the cycle isn’t repeated, mirror image, in our daughters’ and our granddaughters’ lives?
Is it any wonder I don’t have words for so much of it? That my aging body—and I am so, so grateful for the privilege of aging—has manufactured a stopgap between impulse and word, forcing me to sit in the wordless essence of unknowing, to accept at least temporarily how little I know or can control?
We have seen the falls, mirror image, on either side of the border now. We retrace our steps back along the path. Gasoline is cheaper here, and I fill the car, reset the trip odometer to zero. We’ll be back to see the falls, most likely, in a season or two. Until we aren’t.
We begin the drive home, my eyes scanning the road for deer, glancing regularly at the dash for significant palindromic events.
Susan Goldberg’s work has appeared in, among other places, the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Catapult, Full Grown People, Lilith, Stealing Time, and The Manifest Station, as well as on the CBC and in several anthologies, including HerStories’ Mothering through Darkness: Women Open up about the Postpartum Experience. She is coeditor of the anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. She lives with her sons in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can’t/won’t stop collecting and refinishing midcentury modern furniture. Find more at susanlgoldberg.com, and @susan_l_goldberg, and @milk.n.bread on Instagram.
I’m thinking of my friend. I see her every so often when I scroll through Instagram and the algorithms put her on the map again. It’s been decades since we’ve lived in the same city and shared secrets, and yet there is still something between us. I’m thinking of this friend. The one who saved me once. When I was at my lowest low. The one who reminded me that I would be okay. But also, the one who let me cry and didn’t tell me to stop. Not once.
Back then I would wish for time to speed up. For us to be twenty years on, the heartbreak of my early adulthood a thing of the past. Middle age sounded so much more stable and secure.
I’m thinking of her now because I see her family pictures. They are on holiday in France, on an empty beach, laughing and jumping over sand dunes, chasing and taunting the waves.
She’s across the world. With a life, and three boys. Six if you count the three she lost. There could have been more, I don’t know. And a partner she never married (at least that I’m aware of) because she never believed in it. He was the guy who looked like he was 16 when he was 26. A scrawny, scrappy kid with the little boy face. Now he’s in his forties and he almost looks grown up.
They seem mostly happy, at least that I can gather from what she chooses to share. Apart from the positive covid test that upended their holiday season. She posted a picture of the white plastic test, not unlike the way we used to post positive pregnancy tests, until it hurt too much to share the sad news that would inevitably follow for both of us.
But I’m thinking of her now because I see her pictures and her hair is short. Like she’s taken a razor to her head. And I have no idea why. Don’t get me wrong, she looks beautiful. But it’s the kind of cut that makes you wonder. Is it a cancer cut? A gender fluid cut? A I’ve-moved-to-the-countryside-and-don’t-give-a-fuck-anymore cut? I heard through the grapevine that one of her sons might have learning difficulties, so perhaps a year of homeschooling was all just too much and she lopped it off.
I don’t know any of these answers because we’ve lost connection.
I try every so often. I send her a message on WhatsApp.
“We should catch up,” I say.
“I’d love that,” she replies.
But neither of us set a date. The last time I texted I even added, We don’t have to catch up on all the years we missed, we could just start with where we’re at today.” But even that feels hard to know where to begin.
If someone asks me who my best friend is, she will still appear in my mind. But no one asks that question anymore. It seems our later years are for partners, and children, and soul-searching in solitude. Friends, yes, even good friends, yes. But best friends?
If you had asked me twenty years ago whether we would still be friends, I would have gently scoffed at you for even asking. Of course we will. But if you would have told either of us the tragedies and joys that would befall us in the decades ahead, it’s likely we’d have also laughed. But mostly out of a naive innocence that presumed neither of us would have been able to survive such devastating blows in one lifetime.
And yet, here we are.
I’m thinking of my friend and her short hair. Are you okay? I want to ask her. And I wonder if she knows that I would fly to her in a heartbeat if she still needed me. Of course, she doesn’t. But if she did. And I wonder if that means the connection is not lost.
I’m thinking of my friend and wondering if it’s like we are still on the phone (and in my head it’s the old school landline, and we’re twiddling the cord around our fingers while we each sit on the floor, our backs against the wall. Like if it were a movie, they’d split the screen and show us back-to-back. That’s how I’m picturing it). And I’m wondering if one of us said,
“Hold on, I’ll be right back.”
Only there might just be thirty years before either of us comes “right back.”
And maybe that’s okay. Maybe this is what happens. It’s not a lost connection, but a connection on hold. I just can’t hang up the receiver, and neither can she.
Meagan Schultz is a writer, podcaster, e-course creator, retreat facilitator, soon-to-be-hospice volunteer, and mother of three. When she’s not asleep by 7:30, she can be found writing at http://www.meaganschultz.com. Her work has been published on Brain, Child, Literary Mama, HerStories Project, Sunlight Press, WUWM NPR’s Lake Effect, and in several anthologies. She can be found at http://www.meaganschultz.com and @MeaganSchultzWrites on Instagram.
I’m a doctor in the same way that Jill Biden is a doctor.
In other words, yes, I am actually a real doctor.
Like Dr. Biden, I have a doctorate in education. Also, like Dr. Biden, I earned my degree after years of teaching experience and years of doctoral study, as a married, midlife woman with children. (I was in my late thirties; she was in her mid-fifties.)
No, I’m not going to link to Joseph Epstein’s sexist rant in the Wall Street Journal asking Dr. Jill Biden to stop calling herself a doctor even when she is by any definition, in fact, a doctor. (Epstein — who is, by the way, a guy with a BA — does not deserve the click and if you’re reading this, you’ve probably read it anyway.)
If you do need a tiny bit of a refresh, here’s the first paragraph of the op-ed, in all its misogynistic glory:
I am going to explain why this very specific form of sexist diatribe against Biden is unsurprising and resonates with so many.
At first, when I read the op-ed, I wasn’t sure that many other people would be as outraged as I was. It’s obvious why I’d be appalled (as a woman with the same degree). Yet judging by the reaction on social media and, well, everywhere, lots and lots of people have lots and lots of feelings about that piece, not just me.
Academics, teachers, feminists all shared their disgust with the op-ed. Lots of men spoke up as well.
And predictably a whole bunch of conservatives made clear that the WSJ op-ed reflected exactly how they felt about women like Dr. Biden.
There’s already been a lot written about the blatant misogyny of the op-ed. I mean, really, any article that calls a 69-year-old year old woman “kiddo” in the first paragraph doesn’t need much from me in the way of explaining its general sexism.
What I do want to point out is the gendered attack on education and educators in this piece.
It’s a cliche to state that our society devalues education and teaching. Teachers earn considerably less than their similarly educated peers. They’re blamed for any number of societal ills, from poverty to unemployment and decline in traditional values.
For many, teachers aren’t “real” professionals. Instead, teaching is viewed as a feminized “semi-profession, like nursing or library science. Teachers aren’t “real” experts. And they, even once they enter academia, certainly aren’t real scholars. Here’s conservative radio host Jesse Kelly proving this point:
Teaching in the United States is devalued for whole host of cultural and economic reasons, and one of primary ones is that teaching is viewed as a “feminized” profession. While historically this wasn’t always the case, today most teachers are women (76%), and this gender imbalance shows no signs of changing. As the president of Teachers College at Columbia University stated,
“I do think it’s a vicious cycle. Women went into it without other options and it was a low-status profession that was associated with women, and the fact that it’s now dominated by women inhibits the status from increasing.”
The gender gap persists in higher education. Women make up about 69% of students awarded doctorates in education.
If teaching itself is viewed as a lower-status profession, it should not be surprising then that the education doctorate is perceived as a lower-status doctorate. (I’m not going to get into the precise ways in which an Ed.D. may differ from a PhD in terms of requirements, exams, dissertation expectations, etc. For the most part, these differences vary by institution and by concentration.)
I have first-hand experience in all of this. You see, after college, I had no plans to become a teacher. I had won a fellowship to a PhD program in sociology and had vague notions (at 22) of becoming a professor or a scholar or a researcher… or something. I excelled and earned straight As, but I wasn’t feeling it. I was too young to commit to a program that might take seven or eight years or more.
I decided to use my master’s degree to become a secondary school teacher. Not as a permanent career choice but just as a way of earning money while I figured out what I really wanted to do.
I had grown quite close to my PhD program adviser and wrote to her, after leaving the program, about my next plans. She was aghast, as if I had confessed to her that I was running off to join a cult.
“You cannot enter the female ghetto of teaching,” she told me. “You’ll never get out.”
The attack on Dr. Biden was sexist, yes. But it was also a brand of sexism that devalues education as a profession because women make up most of that profession.
On social media, in the flush of excitement after (finally) receiving a doctorate, I changed my profiles to “Dr. Jessica Smock.” I learned quickly about that special form of misogyny reserved for women with education doctorates in twitter threads in which my degree was mocked. I am ashamed to confess that I eventually took off the Dr. title.
Today, like thousands of other women with doctorates, in honor of Dr. Biden and because we are proud of our accomplishments, I changed back my Twitter profile.