Last week I had coffee with my oldest friend, in town to attend to her ailing father. As we communed at the coffee shop, sharing war stories, the years fell away.
I met Sue Ann on the first day of third grade. My family was in the process of moving from Olympia to Centralia, and my sister and I were commuting with our father for a few weeks so we could start school at the beginning of the school year. Though I didn’t know it yet, it was a 30-mile move down I-5 that would divide my life into before and after.
They were halcyon days at the house by the bay, when I thought childhood would last forever. Before I knew the world could be evil and frightening and disappointing. Before I left behind the playmates with whom I made mud pies and played restaurant, before the Columbus Day storm when we sought refuge in the basement while the wind raged, before John Kennedy was assassinated, before the school bus slid down the embankment, before my sister left home, before a classmate was killed in a car accident, before headlines screamed the daily death toll in Viet Nam, before John didn’t ask me to the junior prom. Before divorce. Before my father died. Before my mother got old.
Life after that move all runs together, the 57 years after separated from the eight years before by a grey slash of unyielding pavement. But back then, at the beginning of the after, there was Sue Ann.
We had dropped my sister off at the junior high first, then crossed town to Washington School, at the foot of the hill on which construction of our new home would soon begin. My father walked me into the office where the principal, Mr. Bogen, stood behind the counter. “This is Gretchen,” my father said. The slender woman with tightly permed hair standing with her back to us at the mimeograph machine, turned around with a smile lighting her face. “Oh!” she said, “she’s mine.”
She came around the counter, her hand outstretched to take my small one and led me down the hall. Maybe it was that moment I knew it would be okay. I belonged. To her. It’s her name I use for “your favorite teacher” security questions.
In the classroom, she called Sue Ann to her. She had hair the blackest black I had ever seen, and cats-eye glasses. She wore a plaid cotton jumper and a white blouse with puff sleeves and a Peter Pan collar.
“This is Gretchen,” Mrs. Rucker said. “Look after her.” And she did. Our friendship continued through our school years. Our mothers leadered our Girl Scout troop together. I stayed at her house on the rare occasion my mother joined my father on business trips. Though her nine-foot-tall father intimidated me, I adored her four-foot-nine silver-haired mother; and I loved staying at their house in the other twin bed in Sue Ann’s bedroom, whispering in the dark.
We went sledding together on the golf course behind her house halfway down the hill from mine, and bunked together at Camp Kennydell. We were candy stripers on the geriatric floor of the St. Helens hospital—our squeamish introduction to old-old people—cowering together in the stern presence of Sister Perpetua as we learned to make hospital corners and feed pureed spoonfuls to wizened old men and women, wiping the drool from their withered lips.
We carpooled together to high school, when seniors were allowed to drive to class, my turn in the green ’57 Chevy station wagon, hers in the sedan with a manual transmission shift on the wheel that I was in awe of her ability to operate. She sang in the glee clubs, choirs, and ensembles for which I was accompanist. We were all in love with her handsome football, baseball, basketball star boyfriend who sat on the piano bench with me, turning pages at nonette practice before school.
We were in each other’s weddings before we went our separate ways both physically and theologically. We each celebrated the birth of our first child a few weeks apart on opposite sides of the country.
Since those days, we have had little contact; but now here we are again, caring for an old-old parent. Like my father, her mother died many years ago and our other parent forged on, seeming like they would always be here. My mother has seen gradual decline over the past few years, dragging me slowly with her; her father has fallen off the cliff without warning and she has had to jump after him.
As we sat across the table from each other with our lattes last week, the years and the differences dropped away as we talked about our common struggle to navigate the current crisis of our baby boomer generation: how to care for a parent who has lived too long, who wants to die, who can’t let go. And how not to allow ourselves to be swallowed by frustration and grief as we try to be present to the people who gave us life and protected us through our childhoods.
We want them to go, we want them to stay, we want them to be vibrant and whole again. What we have is a long friendship with someone who knew the other’s parents when they were vibrant; and who understands the struggle to care for them now. In spite of differences that have separated us for the past decades, we have this. It is enough. It is everything.