Two summers before my dad died I was at the pool with my seven-year-old daughter.
We’d paid the small college tuition to join in the hopes that our kids would do swim team thus solving perennial “our kids need more exercise” and “what are they going to do all summer” problem.
No one was more excited than Lucy. At her age she was profoundly into the swirly crisscross bathing suit we drove forty minutes to a fancy sporty store to buy. She loved the pink googles with the rhinestones displayed prominently on the counter next to the credit card machine.
Of course, I bought them. What am I, an animal?
We may have run a little late to the first practice (oh, stop judging).
Around sixty kids stood at the edge of the pool listening intently to their no-nonsense college-aged coach (is this the moment to wonder where bathing suit bottoms have gone? Are all women’s suits imported from Rio? I wanted to love this young woman, and I eventually did, but it’s a jarring sight to see a grown woman with half her backside exposed standing amongst a bunch of kids. I digress…)
The moment she saw the crowd, Lucy played statue, pressed herself up against my thigh hiding her face.
And then I knew — this was going to be a thing.
I knelt down and looked her square in the eye. We had been here before.
“Give me a hug, “ I told her. I wrapped her in my best showy-offy mom squeeze while congratulating myself on being so appropriately motherly.
“I don’t want to go.” She pulled back to show me her quiveringly lower lip, her eyes brimming with the fear of a child being sent to boarding school in Switzerland.
“Oh I know, honey.” Again, using developmentally appropriate mirroring of her emotional experience, because I am that good.
She clutched my hand and pulled.
I should mention, her brothers were already in the pool.
Lucy started an audible sort of sobbing.
“Lucy.” My tone was firm (as suggested on page 126 of the book. Wait, you don’t know what book? Sheesh. You are worse off than I am).
At a nod from the half-ass college coach, and a teen helper approached Lucy.
“Hey, kiddo. Are you coming to join the team? I’m Aaron. Can I help you get in the water?”
We were already soaked from the dozens of kids doing competitive thrash laps to our left.
Lucy looked up at Aaron and shook her head.
I smiled hard. “Oh yes. She is here for swim team! And she is so excited! Aren’t you Lucy? Her younger brother is already in there!” I pointed and winced as I saw Daniel literally elbow himself across a smaller child so he could tag the wall.
“Are you afraid?” Lucy nodded.
Aaron flashed me a face full of perfect teeth. “Its okay mom. She’s just afraid. I’ve got this.”
It was the perfect amount of condescension and shaming that only a sixteen-year-old can pull off.
He took Lucy’s hand and walked her a hundred yards away from me to the edge of the pool. Obviously, I plopped on the nearest bench.
Through my sunglasses, I pretended not to watch as Aaron worked to cajole Lucy into the water. Her little shoulders slumped, clearly starting to cry. Smug Aaron was now joined by two other coaches, all smiling and encouraging Lucy.
Feeling vindicated, I clock the college coach running lanes of children on her own while three swim team staff help my daughter who is clutching the side of pool sobbing, faking she can’t swim.
I march through a cluster or moms, and in a voice louder than I intend I say:
“Stop it Lucy. You better start swimming or I am taking away your IPAD.”
And there it is.
I have not only yelled at my child who went from crying to sobbing, I have also announced to the clutch of near-by, perfect mommies that despite all the science warning of early brain melt, and propensity to breed sociopaths, my child has an IPAD.
I put myself in my own time out back on the bench.
And through the silence and the shunning, comes a voice.
“Ugh. Isn’t that the worst?”
I look up and realize there is another woman dressed in work clothes sitting at the opposite end of the bench.
“She can swim. She can do laps. She is acting like she is going to die in there and she swims for hours every day.” I’m surprised to find a lump in my throat.
“Of course she can. Kids are just idiots. Do you want me to send my kid over? Sometimes kids are better with kids.” She pointed to a beautiful redhead, swimming and laughing.
I sat still in the kindness of the words. Afraid of shatterIng if I moved, grateful she kept talking.
“We just moved here. It’s so hard. I never know the rules. I keep trying to do the right thing, but every day I screw something up.”
She introduced herself and proceeded to give me at least five examples of delightfully suspect parenting. Not the kind that will garner you a child protection call, but might feature in your kid’s therapy sessions at age twenty.
Finally, she said, “So you want me to make a suggestion, or keep my mouth shut? I’m good either way.”
In the midst of dozens of women I’d stop to help change a tire, this complete stranger was the first to offer emotional and concrete help.
“Definitely yes. I want all suggestions. But before you say anything, I feel like I should tell you — I am a trauma therapist. And I have a Master’s Degree in Child Development. I should definitely already know what to do here.”
She threw her head back and laughed in the way you do with old friends.
Lucy survived and more importantly perhaps, so I did. My new mom-friend and I parted ways with a “see you soon.”
Only I didn’t see her soon. In fact, it was over a year and a half until I saw her again.
Fast forward to Lucy’s 9th birthday party. She’s invited a group of ten girls, most of whom I’ve never met, for a manicure-karaoke party. We were just waiting on a few stragglers when the doorbell rang.
And there they are. The stunning red-headed daughter, whom Lucy had been talking about for weeks and my pool-side salvation.
And because I am nothing if not cool at all times I screamed:
“THERE YOU ARE! I’VE BEEN LOOKING ALL OVER FOR YOU!”
To which she responded with appropriately stunned bugged out eyes,
“Oh my God, please tell me I didn’t offer to bring the cake.”
With ten pre-teens singing Katy Perry in the background I tried to explain myself as she reasonably attempted to back her way back down the stairs to her car.
Party over, migraine medicated, I sent my long lost poolside friend an e-mail relating our previous meet-cute and how much her kindness meant to me. She replied graciously, and we agreed to meet for dinner in a week.
I dressed as if I was going on a date, hoping platform sandals telegraph mental stability, and we walked to dinner.
Just to make the night more memorable, I sweet-talked us into an invite-only cold open for a hot new local restaurant — a free meal in exchange for filling out a comment card about the food and service (if heaven exists, it will look like this).
I’d mentioned the unusual dining arrangement as we were seated, but somehow my date missed that plot development. Unphased at my ordering two appetizers, two entrees, and two desserts, I got to hear that great laugh again when the check never came.
Before we returned to our delightfully close in proximity homes, we attempted to plan a second get together. My weekend plans usually included flying to sit at my father’s bedside while he slowly died of cancer.
I didn’t realize she was a modern day date — a professional TEXTER.
Over the next week, funny would pop into my DM’s in the form of social commentary, personal reflections, and reposts of idiotic instagrams.
Though I’d been back and forth to my parents’ many times, this visit had been the worst yet. I’d dragged myself from his hospital bed, fearing there would soon be nothing left to visit and I managed to get myself to gate 9B in Logan Airport, un-showered and unhinged. I was contemplating if anyone ever just went TO the airport, but never left when my phone pinged with a text
“It’s bad. I’m at the airport. I’m not sure I can get myself on the plane. I’m that crazy lady, weeping in the waiting area.”
A pretty woman with clean, flat ironed hair in a crisp Vineyard Vines dress slid further down the fake leather bench as tears flooded my face. I deliberately wiped with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. It was always going to happen.
I reported the whole exchange to my texting friend who replied:
“Lean over and tell her you are crying because you just broke up with your boyfriend…..
And now you have to go back to your husband.”
I stifled a laugh. No way Becky with the good hair could handle the humor.
My grown woman crying attracted the same avoidant attention a child’s does. People trying not to look. The last few rows of the plane boarded. My phone pinged.
A continued long list of phrases popped up. Essentially the best list of adult knock knock jokes ever seen. My heart swelled. I was still so alone, but maybe just a little less so.
The list culminated with:
“And if all that doesn’t work, tell her you’re crying because you can’t get your llamas to mate.”
Which was the actually tipping point. My sorrow and hysterics live in same emotional zip-code and I went from a sob to a full body laugh.
Looking no less insane, staff and patrons gave me a wide berth, which, let’s face it, was really what I needed.
It’s the kindness that kills. In the best way.
When all else is lost, kindness will always lead us home.
Happy big birthday to my friend Laurie, who has been there for me since the minute we met. I’m not sure I deserve your friendship, but I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.
Probably Logan airport.
Meghan Riordan Jarvis is a psychotherapist, author, wife, and mother of three. After losing both her parents within two years of each other she began Grief Is My Side Hustle. (www.griefismysidehustle.com).