Life Lesson Essay I submitted to Real Simple

In Memory of My Friend
By: Jennifer Patrick

It’s official. I’m old. Driving down the road in my minivan, running “mom” errands in a suburb of Houston I said it. “You know, kids today just want to grow up too fast.”

I know, right?!

I am, in fact, just 38 years old. According to my primary care physician (PCP), whom I see regularly now for age-appropriate aches and pains as well as hypochondriac-type complaints which usually occur after watching too many House re-runs, I actually have many years ahead of me. If all goes well, I keep my cholesterol level down, look both ways before I cross the street, have routine mammograms and colonoscopies and pap smears and er – drop 20 or so pounds – I could live well into my 80’s.

So here I was complaining to a friend whom I reconnected with earlier in the day via facebook after losing touch with her for over 15 years. (Can you believe, by the way, how far our world has come technologically speaking? I mean we didn’t even have the internet when I went to college. I remember typing hundreds of English theme papers on a Smith Corona type writer and research had to be done in a library. And now we have social networks online where we can find virtually anyone in seconds? I actually found a friend I knew when I was four years old and living in New York.)

I know, I did it again.

“Why is everyone in such a hurry to grow up?” I repeated to my friend from high school. “My seven-year-old wants to play mature-rated video games and my three-year old wants to wear make-up to preschool. I’ll tell ya, if I knew then what I know now and how much worry and angst there is involved with being a grown-up, I wouldn’t have gotten rid of my Barbie and Ken dolls so early.”

“It’s true,” my friend said. “By the way – you sound like my mother.”

My current mantra is “enjoy the journey.” I have to remind myself often because if things don’t go the way I plan…I flip out. I’ll give you a classic example. My husband and I had been on a trip to the west coast before we had kids. We flew into LA and drove up the coast to Carmel where we planned to stay for several days for some much needed R&R. We had a room booked at a beautiful hotel overlooking the ocean, a romantic rustic place with a fireplace in the room…much more expensive then the budget motels we normally stay at when we can afford to go out of town.

Tuesday, as I recall, had been “stroll-through-the-quaint-outdoor-shopping-area” day. As we got dressed and it started to sprinkle on Tuesday morning, my husband told me maybe we should do it another day. Oh, no. Tuesday was definitely “hold-hands-and-go-in-and out-of-cute, over-priced-boutiques-looking-for-that-perfect-souvenir-to-remember-the trip-with-fond-memories-by” day. On the way there when it started to drizzle, my husband suggested we go back to the hotel room and snuggle by the fire. Oh no. I wasn’t going to let mother-nature control my schedule. As we parked the car and the rain was coming down in sheets, my husband just looked over at me. With my eyes twitching and my knuckles gripping my handbag….I told him to wait just a minute and surely it will pass.

You guessed it. It didn’t. And the sad thing is, the weather literally ruined the rest of my day.

Crazy, right?

I also always wanted to be older then I was. Maybe it was due to the fact that I was an entire foot shorter then most of my peers for my entire life. (Although I’ve often fibbed, I’ve truthfully never hit above the 4’10” mark.) I wanted to be taken seriously. I wanted to be beautiful, not cute. I wanted to be sophisticated, not predictable. I wanted to be worldly, not homely. But here I was, not even a mile away from where I went to high school, stopping at the McDonald’s drive-thru getting a quick lunch for my kids before their next dance, camp and taekwondo lessons with “Go dolphins, swim fast” still shoe-polished on my vehicle’s windows from a swim team meet that had taken place two weeks ago. And while my friend and I were laughing as we caught up and reminisced, the sad reason we had reconnected was a posting on facebook we both had received several days ago.

I had skipped my recent 20th high school reunion. I told my high school friends via facebook I was busy and couldn’t make it. You know, work and kids and blah, blah, blah. Truth is, much to my (and my PCP’s) chagrin, I hadn’t shed those 20 or so extra pounds. I didn’t want to be “that” girl.

Silly, right?

Friends from our past had been talking about it with disbelief and sadness…a friend of ours had recently taken his own life. I hadn’t seen him in more than 15 years. I was so bad about keeping up with those that had mattered to me most from my past. But I had often wondered what he had been up to and how he was. Through facebook I found out about how many folks were doing, but this friend hadn’t joined the social network and he had moved to another city. I found out, after his death, that he had a wife and three kids and a good job and was extremely happy. Or at least, so it seemed.

I know through my own struggles with depression, especially my experience with PPD after my first son was born, that how happy you seem on the outside isn’t always a true indicator of how you are doing on the inside. I had been successful, at some low points of my life, of putting on the illusion of togetherness when I was crumbling inside.

I remember when it hit me that I officially earned the rank of mom (as if child birth wasn’t enough, right?!) It was eight months after I had my first child and I was in church on Mother’s Day. All the mothers were asked to stand up and my husband had to hit me in the arm to tell me to join them. As the church applauded, I sobbed. I still didn’t think I was ready for the responsibility and I was sure I wasn’t qualified. I was convinced that someone at the hospital were my son was delivered was going to lose their job by allowing my husband and I to leave with him! I mean, there wasn’t even a grown-up with us when we left. (No matter that I was 30 years old at the time and was a director at a major children’s hospital.)

I don’t know what was going on with my dear friend and how it came to be that ending his life seemed like the best solution to his struggles. Financial troubles, marriage problems, health scares, a million challenges that can come up with raising a family…all issues that I have faced in one way or another and sometimes I feel like I could snap at any moment, too. As I’ve grown up and grown older I have experienced despair and do understand that darkness can creep in and take over. People that love you and see you everyday can have no idea that it’s eating you up inside.

So in memory of my friend, I will try hard to enjoy the journey. I will remember that rain is good and that a night by the fire with someone you love is a blessing.
I will try to ask for help when I’m sad or struggling, especially with parenting. Because it’s a big job and there are lot of people who want to help.
I will stand up at church on Mother’s Day and proudly clap along with the other moms.
I will attend my next reunion – no matter how much I weigh.
I will try to pick up the phone and call someone I haven’t seen or talked to in awhile when I think of them.
I will ask people I care about how they are doing. And after they give the obligatory, “I’m fine,” answer, I won’t walk away. I’ll ask them how they are… really. Then I’ll stop to listen.
And I will drive my mini-van with pride and clap loudly at tournaments and recitals and do my best to embarrass my kids in front of their friends. I’m not sophisticated or worldly but in memory of my friend, I will try to remember – I am blessed.