We went to an 80th birthday party today. I first met Carl when I was in 10th grade. His daughter and I had lockers side-by-side at school and we became fast friends. She invited me to their house, which is when I met Carl and his fabulous wife.
This was not a fun time in my life. My mother had died the year before and my father would die a year later. I was grieving. I was confused. And I was lost. And I also felt like I was a walking billboard, an ad for “strange and weird people.”
Carl and Jean welcomed me into their home and accepted me just as I was. It was my first experience with that kind of acceptance. I didn’t have to be strong for them. I didn’t have to be a perfect teen. I was free to be me. How liberating!
I stayed friends with their daughter (still am!) and every once in a while I passed through their lives or they through mine. When I celebrated my 18th birthday, they took me out for a very special dinner. When I graduated from college, they came to the celebration. When I announced my engagement, they sat down with me and asked some very tough questions about what my future would look like with this person. (They were so wise, and I was so naïve.) Even so, they helped me find a wedding photographer. When each of my daughters was born, they sent a gift or called with congratulations and set up plans to get together. We didn’t see each other often, but we stayed in touch. My friendship with their daughter likely kept them up to date on all things happening in my life.
When I got divorced, they offered understanding and compassion and bit back the words, “We told you so.” A couple of years later, they heard I was in a new relationship and invited us over to a gathering of friends. They accepted the new man in my life. And gave me warm and loving hugs of encouragement. They have mostly remained in the shadows of my life, but always on the periphery, ready to step in if I asked. Funny how I never thought I could ask. They weren’t my parents. But I desperately wanted them to be.
Okay, so today my husband and I went to Carl’s birthday party. Each person was asked to stand up and tell the story of how we met Carl. And so I gave the condensed version of my story. And I thanked Carl (and Jean) for allowing me to step into their lives.
At the end of the speeches, Carl got his chance for a rebuttal. He only spoke for a few minutes. He thanked everyone for coming. Offered thanks for the kind words we had all offered. And then he said he needed to call out two of the hundred or so people in the room. The first person he called out was a woman whose career he helped start, who later went on to do some fantastic things in regard to human rights. And the second person he called out, was me. He talked about my strength and courage and how I was the glue that kept my family united through those torturous years. “What a remarkable woman,” he called me.
All these years, I had no idea those were his feelings. And tonight I am absolutely overwhelmed. I don’t feel worthy of those accolades, but I’ve always looked to Carl as someone with wisdom, someone I could trust. I have a feeling, that someday I will look back on this day and be able to say, Carl’s words altered my life.