I grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. We lived in a decent neighborhood and there were lots of kids. It wasn’t an affluent area, but some families were better off than others. The last of eight kids, it’s fair to say I was spoiled and lived a sheltered life.
At the time, I would not have said we were one of the “better off” families. As an adult, there is no doubt in my mind that we were. All eight of us kids attended parochial schools. We always had food on our table and we regularly made room for one more at the last minute. We all had coats and hats and boots in the winter. And even though our mother didn’t work, we were always a two (or more) car family. Christmas always meant presents and Easter always meant candy.
There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood, and tagging along with some of my older siblings made it easy for me to make friends. Left on my own, it was tough for me to make friends. I was (and am) a bit of an introvert and I always felt different from everyone else. No, I didn’t feel I was better or smarter or richer. It was more a feeling of not belonging, that I wasn’t like all the others. I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough to be “one of them.”
Going to private schools didn’t help because most of the kids in the neighborhood went to public schools. And we were the largest family on the block, so we always stood out no matter what. I loved getting attention, when I wanted it. And I loathed being the center of attention any other time.
One morning, when I was twelve, my mother didn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t recall that ever happening before. And I remember now being frightened as I crept into my parents’ room, stepping carefully to her side of the bed, and looking to see how sick she looked. I asked her what was wrong, why she wasn’t getting up, and I don’t remember her exact words but I do recall she said something about needing surgery. I was a sheltered, spoiled kid. What did I care about that? I just wanted to know why there was a different routine that morning.
Well, my mom was sick. In fact, she had been diagnosed with a rare form of uterine cancer and she spent the next two years courageously battling cancer that spread through every pore of her body. When she died, she weighed about 90 pounds. I was only fourteen and I remember thinking my mother looked like a living skeleton. And she scared me. It didn’t help that her funeral was on Halloween. To this day, I really detest celebrating that holiday.
Many of my classmates attended the funeral. And seeing them all there caused me to sob uncontrollably. My father and my siblings (and everyone in the church) thought I was crying hysterically because I was lost without my mom. That wasn’t it at all! I was mortified. Having my mom die only caused greater feelings of inadequacy within me. Moms weren’t supposed to die. Mine did. And so, again, I wasn’t like all the other kids.
A few days later when I went back to school, teachers and classmates expressed their condolences and I politely said thanks while all I wanted to do was slip into the shadows. I didn’t want my mother’s death to be the reason I was in the limelight. And after a few weeks, thankfully, people went back to treating me just as they had before, for the most part.
And then, one year later, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. In my mind, the world stopped spinning and ended. I was scared beyond belief about growing up without any parents, about how people would think of me, about what was to become of me. It was all pretty heavy and depressing. And I was afraid to talk about it. And my friends were afraid to talk to me, as if this cancer thing was contagious. And so now I really had a reason to feel like I didn’t belong. Another year later, my father passed away. I was sixteen.
I don’t know if it was my act of pulling away from friends or my friends being unable to fathom someone losing both parents or a combination of the two. But from that moment on, making new friends was next to impossible. Some of the kids in high school who hadn’t known me when my mother died tried to reach out to me, but they quickly left the scene when they found out I had no parents. Some stuck by me for a while, probably out of curiosity more than anything else. But there were a few who remained in my life, no matter how little I worked at building a friendship with them. (I’m grateful for each one.)
When I graduated from high school, I had big dreams but I still felt inadequate. In fact, I was shocked that a college had actually accepted me! I was excited for a new opportunity to make friends and to start over, where no one knew me or my story. Ah, yes. I may have changed locations, but my story still came with me. In October of my freshman year, I hit a bottom of sorts. I was failing classes, something I’d never done before. I had no “home” to go to, no parents to embrace me and tell me everything would work out. I was terrified. And even though people were trying to reach out in friendship, I pulled back into the shadows. I didn’t want to be the center of attention for the wrong reasons.
That was nearly thirty years ago, and a lot has changed in my life. I have many blessings and have achieved many successes. But the whole friendship thing still plagues me. I have a handful of friends I’ve known since high school and I cherish every one of them in my life. I have two friends from the days when I was raising kids and those women mean the world to me. And a scattering of friends I’ve made as an adult, moving from one job to another, one career to another.
But if someone were to ask me, “Do you feel you have a lot of friends?” I’d answer “No” without even thinking about it. I don’t have a lot of friends. And some days, that really bothers me. And lately, that’s been bothering me a lot as I watch my youngest daughter struggle to find her place in this world. She’s made some bad choices that alienated her from some good friends. She’s missed opportunities to form lasting friendships with others. At nineteen she should be in her first year of college making new friends, but instead she’s attending an online high school out of her bedroom. She doesn’t want to attend a regular school as a “super senior.” And she doesn’t want to take her GED. She wants to earn a diploma! Well, I give her a lot of credit for believing in that and working toward that goal. But I look at the challenges she faces, the obstacles she must overcome to try to make new friends. And I see my past. And it scares me. It’s bad enough that I had trouble making friends. That’s the last thing I want my child to experience. And yet I feel helpless and incapable of helping her learn this skill. It’s no wonder my anxieties about being inadequate are flaring up.
This week Brianna and her boyfriend broke up. I was silently elated, yet outwardly compassionate and consoling. This is a good thing, and I hope it’s a turning moment for Brianna. But without the boyfriend, there is a deep, dark void in her life. And I feel I must act quickly to show her that she does not need a boyfriend to survive. I know from history, that she will rebound and fill that void as quickly as possible. From mother to daughter. Oh how I hate some personality traits!