Wednesday, December 21, 2005

a.f.a. (a friend always)

On Saturday afternoon I drove up to Connecticut for a holiday party being thrown by a high school classmate and her husband. Actually, Patty and I first met in kindergarten at St. Ann's grade school, and she is probably one of my oldest and closest friends that I have. She and Scott have thrown a big Christmas party in each of the eight years that they've been married, but due to family or relationship commitments I had never been able to attend before. In light of the fact that I had recently been laid off, I thought that a change of scenery with a close friend would be a great way to spend the weekend.

Thankfully the traffic was light, so I made the drive up from Philadelphia in just about three and a half hours. I had offered to show up a little early to help with the set-up, and after catching up for a few minutes, Patty asked if I wouldn't mind downloading songs onto their I-Pod while she and Scott finished getting ready, as apparently her previous parties always seemed to break out into dancing as the night (and drinks) continued to flow. I spent the next hour putting together my own DJ "TJ" dance mix, and only gave a moment's notice to an email notification that popped up briefly with the words "re: Bad News..." in the subject line.

They live in a fantastic home overlooking a small lake, and Patty had done a wonderful job decorating the various rooms with a number of distinctive touches. My favorite part was walking around looking at the pictures of their daughter Anna, who was now eight months old. I didn't know it at the time, but Patty and Scott went through an extremely difficult period of about three years before Anna was conceived, with repeated attempts of hormone pills, fertility shots, artificial insemination, and finally in-vitro fertilization. She had only shared their experience with her family and her two closest friends from college while she was going through everything. It turned out that all three women were experiencing various types of fertility issues, and from the emails that flowed back and forth they ultimately wrote a book, The Conception Chronicles, that was just recently published this year. The majority of the writing had been done by Patty, since her experience had been the most challenging and had covered the entire gamut of fertility procedures. I was blown away by the depth of the book, full of honest humor and heartbreaking loss, as she and her husband struggled to cope with the pain that followed from each unsucessful procedure for month after month on end. Happily, all of the physical and emotional setbacks were finally rewarded with the birth of their beautiful daughter Anna in April.

The party soon rose to full-swing as the house filled up with about forty guests, most of them neighbors, coworkers, and other couples that they had met in their birth class. I have spent the past month conducting my job search primarily on my own from home, and I soon relished the chance to once again engage in a face to face conversation with another person that did not simply end with the phrase, "Here's your receipt...have a nice day!" I was like a roving talk-show host: moving from one small circle of partygoers to the next, asking several follow up questions about jobs, children, and most interestingly, about how each couple met. The responses provided all sorts of encouraging stories --from coworkers finally confessing a mutual attraction to each other, to a successful love connection through a response to a profile on J-Date. From time to time Patty would come over and join in the group, telling various funny stories about our growing up together, and laughing at how she had put me to work for the party with the I-Pod assignment as soon as I had walked through the door. She laughed each time that I assured each group that the choice of music had been placed into good hands, and that the dance floor would soon come alive with my featured selections from the Oak Ridge Boys and Weird Al Yankovic.

Several hours into the evening, Patty motioned for me to join her over in a small family room off of the kitchen, away from the main party. We each sat down on the corner of an adjoining couch, and I congratulated her on a great party and thanked her again for inviting me. She thanked me in return, and said that it had meant a lot to her that I was there this year especially. Her smile faded and she looked down at her hands as she shared some bad news that she and her husband had just received. About two months ago they found out that she had gotten pregnant again, and they had been estastic that this pregnancy had happened relatively quickly after the extreme efforts that they had gone through to conceive Anna. But just several days before the holiday party, Patty had gone in for a scheduled check-up and found out that the pregnancy had failed. Her face clouded over and she burst into tears. Through her crying she explained that her doctor had advised her to wait until she miscarried naturally in a few days, so she was still carrying her baby inside of her. They had only told a few people, and I realized that this was the bad news referred to in the email that had popped up while I was downloading songs at the computer to their I-Pod.

I quickly moved over to her couch and put my arms around her, and she buried her head against my shoulder while her body began to wrack with sobs as her sorrow poured out. She wondered aloud why something like this would happen, when she and Scott had already been through so much with Anna's conception. She asked how I had dealt with everything after Elizabeth's death, and then the death of my mother and later, my father. She wondered at how I had been able to keep such a positive outlook following such painful losses. I told her that I believed that sometimes things do happen for a reason, and that sometimes one loss might, in the end, prevent a bigger loss down the road. The way I look at it, my wife's accidental death from a food allergy could have happened at any point in her life--whether we were married or not. Since we had met through a somewhat random sequence of events that brought us both to the same rehearsal on the first night of that particular season, I considered myself lucky to have had the chance to spend even just three years with someone whom I loved so much. I told Patty that maybe this miscarriage might have prevented a greater loss later on, like a complication in childbirth that may have taken both of their lives, or a random fatal accident one day in the future as she drove that child and Anna on some baby-related errand, an errand that she would not be taking as a result of this pregnancy ending now. And I pointed out that my mother had miscarried once before I was born, and if that baby had been carried to term, then I would not be here today.

Her tears began to subside as she considered what I had said. She kept repeating that she knew that my being there at the party this year must have also been for a reason, to help her come to terms with this sudden heartbreak by sharing my own experience in dealing with loss. Her husband Scott wandered into the kitchen, and after doing a slight double take upon seeing his wife sitting there with her head on my shoulder and my arms around her, I quickly motioned for him to come over and explained as he got near that Patty had just shared their bad news. I stood up and Scott took his place beside her, and after a few more moments to catch her breath, she agreed that it was probably best if she called it a night. She thanked me again for being there, and then Scott led her to their bedroom to put her into bed for the evening.

After taking a few minutes, I made my way back downstairs to where the main party had begun to move. I spent the next hour mingling with more of the guests, and then noticed a slight commotion as people started to turn their attention to something behind me. I followed their gazes as the room began to fill with applause, and soon saw Patty standing at the top of the stairs, a smile on her face as she modeled her latest wardrobe change. In place of her sleek black holiday dress and new black boots, she was now wearing her pink flannel pajamas and fluffy white socks. The cheers grew louder as she began to descend the stairs, and Scott went over to their main stereo system to plug in the I-Pod. While most of the credit goes to Will Smith for helping everyone at the party to start "getting jiggy wit' it"--as I watched Patty begin to whirl around the dance floor with a care-free smile on her face, I was glad that I had been there this year to do my part, in some small way, to help a friend get back on her feet. High school yearbooks are filled with empty promises to stay close and keep in touch, but with Patty, I am fortunate to have known one person in my life who can truly be called a friend. Always.
That's our kindergarten class picture at the top of this post, which I recently found while going through some old papers. That's me in the bottom row on the left in the white turtleneck and blue vest, and Patty is in the top row on the right in the white shirt and red dress.