Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Best Gift

“What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?” It was a simple question, posed by a friend as we sat around a fire pit with our husbands next to us and our children playing in the yard beyond. We all agreed that children and spouses were a given, so beyond the gift of offspring and lifetime mates, what would be next on the list? It was a really, really hard question.

I’ve been given many meaningful things that came in boxes. Special jewelry from my sisters. An old coin from my spouse, a gift his own grandfather had given him and he lovingly passed on to me at one point in our dating years. An old pocket watch from a friend of our family, given to me when I was a preteen because I’d been kind to him in his drinking years when few others had shown him the same courtesy.

I have several letters in my storage tubs that hold great meaning. Some from old friends. A few from my father, sent to me in my college years, telling me how proud he was of me. Many from the man who became my spouse. But of all the special things that have been given to me through the years, the one that stood out, once I’d pondered the question for a few days, was a gift of time.

It was the summer of 1996 and we had just welcomed our third child into the family, a son we named Isaac. He came into the world on Father’s Day, which also happened to be my brother’s birthday. His big brother and sister, who were four and five, were thrilled to finally meet this new little playmate. But all was not well with our baby boy.

He was much fussier than his siblings had been but it went beyond that. He seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. He could not seem to get enough to eat and didn’t know how to sleep for more than an hour at a time. His doctor was reassuring (“some babies are just fussier than others…”) but we suspected something bigger was going on. After weeks of trying to figure him out he finally got some medical symptoms that landed us in the hospital. He had odd fevers and started dropping weight. His blood tests came back with peculiar, inconsistent results. We were happy to be getting help but still as confused as ever about what was wrong with our newest son.

Because I was nursing him it was logical that I would stay with him at the hospital. I held him down as he screamed through medical tests and blood draws, hoping one of them would give us some answers. I answered endless questions from doctors, who streamed through our door day and night, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle in order. In the meantime I continued to nurse him around the clock, as I had done from the day he was born. His lack of interest in sleep and desire to constantly eat left me, his food source and caregiver, exhausted. Jeff was great about holding him off when we had been at home, giving me a few hours of sleep at a time, but once we began living at the hospital, he was needed back home, to keep our preschooler’s schedule as normal as possible.

We were released for a week, as Isaac seemed to be improving on his own, then landed back in the hospital, this time a specialty children’s hospital in the next town, when the symptoms returned, worse than before. We were mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.

Then one day the phone on the crib side table rang. I picked it up and heard a familiar voice say, “Judy, get ready. I am going to be at the hospital at 11 o’clock tonight and I am going to rock your son through the night. You are going to sleep tonight.”

The voice belonged to a woman I admired greatly. She was a mentor to me through my teen years and had been a great help emotionally as I waded through the intense grief of losing my mother two years earlier. She was one of the few people I truly trusted enough to hand over my little boy.

And right on time, she indeed showed up that night. At 11 o’clock on the dot. I handed her my boy and gave her his latest updates. Then as I tried to linger, she shooed me out the door. Hooked up to an IV for nourishment, technically I could take a break from my post, and Anita took it upon herself to volunteer for duty.

Just down the hall I found an empty, quiet waiting room. I pulled two small couches together and made a tiny crude nest of upholstery. Pushing all my worries and concerns away, trusting that my boy was in loving arms, I fell asleep. It was a sleep so deep I didn’t come out of it until the early morning light came through the window and landed on my eyelids.

Six hours of uninterrupted sleep. I had not slept that many hours in a row since Isaac had been born, ten weeks earlier. I woke up disoriented, my brain so healed by such rare slumber. It quickly occurred to me that I’d been away from my sick boy for many hours. It was hard to fight off the panic of what ifs. What if he had a medical crisis in the night and they couldn’t find me? What if he’d been hungry and I was not there to feed him? What if I’d missed an important visit by another specialist?

I rushed down the hall, back to the room I knew too well. And as I turned to enter, my racing heart stilled. In the new sun that came through the window, the same healing rays that had so gently roused me in the waiting room down the hall, my baby boy was at peace. Tucked on Anita’s shoulder, he quietly dozed, tiny eyelids fluttering as dreams crossed their path.

“I’m afraid it’s happened.” Anita quietly said to me. My heart skipped a beat. Maybe this tranquil scene was not all it seemed to be. She saw my panicked face and grinned.

“It’s happened, my dear…I’ve officially bonded with your baby boy.”

So how can I not count that as one of the best gifts that I’ve ever been given? So many people asked, during our long hospital stay with Isaac, “What can we do to help?” And so many were willing to do whatever we asked. But one friend, one very insightful friend, saw our need and met it without asking. She announced her plan to a worn out, frightened mommy and insisted we accept her gift.

And we all won in the end. Isaac was finally diagnosed and put on medicines that restored his health. I went forward in that new day, able to think clearly for the first time in months. Anita resumed her spot on my short list of angels who have been sent to earth to minister to me.

And I saw firsthand how the very simple things, things like a makeshift couch bed in an abandoned waiting room, can be as valuable as any diamond ring.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Precious, Painful Time

What an odd turn of events. When I woke up on Thursday morning I never could have guessed that I’d be spending the next two days holed up in a hospital room with my daughter. But that’s how life plays out, I suppose.

She’s struggled with that nasty bug called MRSA for two years now. She gets small sores that look like pimples but grow to be something more like pimples on crack. I will spare you the details but let’s just say they are big, ugly and more painful than you can imagine. I know firsthand. I’ve had one and it nearly kept me home from work. I’ve done my research and know that, although it’s in our daily environment, some people just react badly to it while others fight it off. It can be deadly to people with compromised immune systems so I have tried to be very attentive every time my girl got yet another angry sore.

Over last weekend she got a new one, then a second, so we saw the doctor on Monday. Antibiotics were prescribed and we went home with our fingers crossed. By Wednesday night the sores were still pretty painful and her eye was beginning to hurt. On Thursday morning she woke me up, in intense pain, and immediately I knew that it wasn’t a run of the mill sty in her eye. It was MRSA. By noon we were in the doc’s office again. I assumed we’d change antibiotics and be sent home with hot packs. Instead we were sent directly over to the ER.

MRSA in the eye is not something you can afford to wait out. I have learned, through our experience, that it can lead to big time problems if it takes over the eye socket. So after spending the afternoon being examined by a long stream of docs in the ER, she was given a bed upstairs and we hunkered down to wait out the cure.

As hard core antibiotics flowed through her IV, my girl and I hung out. Because her infection was so contagious and dangerous to other hospital patients, she was placed in a private isolation room. Every person who entered had to don the full wardrobe of gowns and gloves. Even the poor guy who only wanted to empty her trash can.

She relaxed as she finally got some relief from her pain, hospitals are full of good drugs. I relaxed out of sheer gratitude that we were finally on a faster track to recovery than the normal ten day wait and see game. And as much as I hated that my girl was ‘sick’, I loved the personal time we got to share.

This is my girl who has one foot out the door, as she makes her plans to go off to college in the fall. I refuse to let myself dwell on the fact that in just a few months I will suddenly be the only female in this house dominated by males. But the reality is back there, in the recesses of my brain. I know I have loved raising her and I know my heart is going to ache on the day she moves out.

But for almost 30 hours this week, it was just the two of us. Jeff held down the fort at home, coming to the hospital twice so I could leave for a short time to shower and find food. Then there was the constant stream of docs, coming in to ask the same five questions. (We were truly considering making a print-out of the five basic answers and handing each one a copy as they walked through the door). But other than that, it was just the two of us.

She didn’t have any pressing medical needs so the nurses left us alone for the most part, in our quarantined little room. We were on a holding pattern, waiting for time to pass and drugs to do their work. We watched TV, we read celebrity magazines and compared pictures and stories. We talked, and laughed and had a good time. At least during the hours that her pain meds were working. When they started to wear off, everything changed.

I went from being her friend to being her mom. Protective Mama Bear mom. No nurse could move fast enough when the pain started to take over in my baby girl again.

The worse episode transpired just hours before we were to check out. They needed swabs of her sores. Meaning they had to take a big Q-tip and ram it into her two most painful sores. Then roll the thing around for a bit. Not a good thing. And to make it worse, her pain meds had begun to wear off and the nurse thought it would be more efficient to just do the procedure then retrieve the new doses.

So for almost fifteen minutes this nurse tortured my girl. She dug around in my daughter’s eye with her giant Q-tips, came up for air, then decide to get ‘just a bit more’. Then a repeat of the same procedure on the second sore, on her leg. I could only see my girl’s feet, as they thrashed around at the foot of her bed, and she tried so hard to be compliant.

When it was over and the nurse stepped back, I could see the tears streaming down my baby girl’s face. I could see her body shivering in pain. I had to physically stop the sob that tried to escape my body. I knew I needed to be her advocate, not add to her pain with my tears.

As the nurse labeled her vials and did her paperwork I pushed her to get my girl some help with her pain. “I think she could use those lortab before you do her IV change…” Fortunately nurse agreed. Within minutes she was back with the two magic pills. I watched my girl swallow the drugs, then the water, then encouraged her to lay back and relax. Melt into her headphones and let her whole body just relax to wait out the drug’s effects.

Nurse then quickly changed out the IV, which was not comfortable, as the IV site had given my girl trouble since the moment they put it in. But relative to the torture she’d just been through, it was tolerable. Finally nurse left and I was ready to make my girl comfortable again. As I turned off the lights, adjusted the shades and fluffed her pillows suddenly her eyes popped open.

“Mom, it’s happening again….mom….moooom….” Urgency dominated her cries.

Her first dose of this new, stronger antibiotic had caused a reaction in the ER. My girl’s face got blotchy and hot and she felt like she needed to scratch off all of her skin. Fortunately a nurse caught it and the Benadryl they shot into her IV took care of the painful symptoms almost immediately. The next doses of meds were given at a much slower pace and the problem never returned. Until this last dose. Just after the torture session. Just as my girl was hoping to settle into some comfort.

I could see her face begin to redden. She looked at me, wide eyed, and said, “I need to scratch! I need to scratch!” The tears flowed again. She’d had enough. Enough pain. Enough waiting around for drugs to work so she could get back to her real life. Her friends had texted her all day Friday, telling her what she was missing at school, including a cook- off she’d been preparing for all week in foods class. Her team ended up winning. Without her. Instead she was perched in a hard sterile bed, being tortured by random health care workers in scrubs. And it was just too much.

Again I said the most comforting words I could find, acknowledging her pain but reassuring her it would all be over soon. As I felt like sobbing with her I pulled it together and did what I could to get her relief. I pushed the nurse call button and was told the nurse would be there shortly. I waited two minutes. No more, no less. And when no one showed up, I headed for the hallway.

In that instant I had a flashback. I could see with infinite clarity that scene at the end of Terms of Endearment. When Debra Winger is dying of cancer and in pain, and her prim, proper mother, Shirley Maclaine, can’t stand the fact no one is coming to give her relief. Shirley Maclaine runs into the hallway towards the nurses’ station, screaming something like, “She’s in PAIN! My daughter’s in PAIN! It’s time for her drugs and she needs them NOW! You will get them for her, NOW!”

I never fully got that scene until yesterday. My daughter was not dying of cancer. She was actually hours away from going home and days away from being back to perfect health. But in that moment, after enduring a weeks’ worth of agonizing pain in her body and thirty hours worth of random torture in the hospital, she was hurting. And I would have done anything I had to, to get her relief. Even if it meant hunting down a small, sweet faced nurse who was nine months pregnant. (I am not kidding. She could barely reach over her round belly to reach my daughter’s arms during IV changes)

As I suspected, I found her doing paperwork at the nurses’ station. She looked up, surprised, as I came around the corner. It was obvious no one had given her the message about our buzzing for help. Or maybe she didn’t see the urgency in our pleas. Either way, I was not standing around waiting for results.

I was nice. I promise I was. But I was firm. And within a few minutes she was pushing three vials of Benadryl into my girl’s IV. That, of course, was painful too, so the tears began to flow again, down the sides of my daughter’s face.

Eventually it was all over. The Benadryl kicked in and the itching sensations ceased. The pain meds kicked in and the tears dried up. Finally, finally, my girl relaxed and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep. I pulled out a book and read by the slivers of daylight that peeked through the window blinds. Our round bellied nurse came in once to check on her and I whispered to her that all was fine and dad was scheduled to arrive at seven to take us home. She nodded her head politely and said, “Good, good. Let’s just let her sleep until then.”

And that’s exactly what happened. I read and she slept. In our quiet little darkening cave all was finally well. After so many long hours of procedures and questions and monotonous answers and bad hospital food and uncertainty, it was almost over. We could see the end of the tunnel and it was going to finally be okay.

When the clock rolled around to seven daddy bear showed up. Together we packed up our first born cub and we walked out of our cave, back into the world of the healthy. Back to everyday life and every day stresses.

Thankful for the everyday joys of raising healthy kids.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Socks and Underwear

It was a question I heard Oprah ask her guest as I passed through the room - “Once you had money to buy whatever you wanted, what did you buy first?” Her guest described a foundation he had set up for needy kids and she then re-framed her question. “What I meant,” she continued, “was what did you buy for you? When I got my first sizable paycheck the first thing I splurged on was good towels. I had always dreamed of owning huge luxurious bath towels.”

I knew what she meant. I think anyone who has ever struggled in life financially knows what she meant. You get by, day to day, and buy what you really need to survive. You hold your dreams in the back of your mind. The big dreams like owning your dream house or driving a fancy car rarely cross your mind. It’s the simple dreams that roll through your brain when you imagine a day that a paycheck will buy more than groceries and gasoline.

I grew up in a large foster family. We lived off hand me downs from other families at church and ate food we grew in the backyard or bought at the day old bread store. I remember every single time that I came home from college and my mom offered to buy me a new pair of basic Lee jeans, putting it on her credit card so she’d have time to pay it off once I left for school again. It was such a treat to me because I knew it was scarce money for her.

Through loans and grants my siblings and I all graduated from college. We have found our way in the world and no longer worry that we won’t be able to buy the basics of survival. All of us have owned homes in good neighborhoods. The bank accounts might be tight at times but my children have never been without food, clothing or a safe place to live. But the financially tight times never leave your memory. It will always be a part of who you are. Just as Oprah remembers the day she bought her big bath towels, I remember the day I felt a tiny bit of financial freedom for the first time.

Jeff and I had been living on a very tight budget as he worked his way through graduate school. We had one baby, so I was home, then along came the second before we could blink twice. Between nursing, cloth diapers, and hand me downs, our babies didn’t cost a lot. I am amazed now, when I look back, at how little money we lived on. Our diet was very basic and our time was spent doing the fun things in life that are free, like taking walks around the block and making good use of the playground in the park across the street.

Sure, I would have loved to have had more money in those days. But we were both committed to me being home when the kids were little and we were both willing to do what it took to make that happen. So when Jeff got an offer for a real, full time, career type job, we were just a bit excited. A huge bit. Especially when we found out it paid more than twice what we had been living on for two years.

We wrote out mock budgets and were so thrilled that we would have more breathing room when it came to paying the bills. We could afford to rent a much nicer house (with more than 600 square feet this time!) and finally buy things we had put off buying, like new shoes and clothes. But the thing I was looking forward to the most was the trip to the department store when I could finally buy everyone new socks and underwear.

It might not sound like much, but when you live on a very tight budget, you make do with what you have for as long as you can. It never seemed right to buy new socks or underwear when I could save the money and buy more beans and rice when grocery day rolled around. Finally, oh finally, I got to fill my cart with something new.

And I will never forget the comment a friend at church made when I shared my excitement with her. She asked about Jeff’s new job, our upcoming move, and how I was feeling about all of it. I told her I was thrilled and the thing I looked forward to most was being able to buy us all new socks and underwear.

Then she laughed. Not the ‘oh I feel ya, sister’ laugh. The kind of laugh that condescends and makes you feel small. I’ll never forget her snide reaction, this woman my age, who I had thought of until that moment as a friend. “Socks and underwear?” she sneered, “What a silly thing to dream about!”

I brushed off her laugh but obviously it stuck with me. It was twenty years ago and I can still hear her tone and see her face. I just couldn’t believe her rudeness and it told me that she had never been in a place of want in her lifetime. She had never yearned for something simple that was just not practical to buy. She will never know how her words cut me but I worry more that she will never understand how to truly appreciate.

To this day I remember that socks and underwear shopping trip every time I throw a package of new socks or underwear in my cart. I appreciate every package, these few small things that will now be such a small fraction of my total bill. I remember what it felt like when just those few items were the total of the store receipt and how grateful I was to have them.

Some days I still feel poor. There are so many things we need to fix around this old place, things that all seem to take five hundred to a thousand dollars. They will sit, undone for years ,maybe until we get everyone through college. There are fun trips we’d like to take. I’d love to fly our gang back to Utah to see old friends we left behind almost four years ago. But two thousand miles is a long way to drive and six plane tickets don’t fit into my budget.

But just when I start to feel deprived I think of the people I pass almost every day as I go up and down the aisles of the grocery store. Folks who are still living in tight financial times, whether from job loss, divorce, or any other life changing event that can leave a person hard up. Maybe they dream of buying something beyond the beans and rice. I’ve been there. I know how that feels. They don’t wish for big stuff.

Just a few simple pleasures, like maybe a new pair of socks and a new package of underwear.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Our Four Pack

We’re covering new ground these days. We knew it was coming, we just didn’t realize it would happen so gradually and yet so quickly. Our oldest leaves for college this summer. Her brother will start his senior year of high school. He’s still ‘here’ but most of the time, not really. He has track practice and friends to hang out with and movie nights and rock band dates. He’s not around that much anymore.

So it is suddenly down to just Jeff and me and two kids. Isaac will begin high school as a lowly freshman this fall, although fully encouraged and supported in those scary hallways by the many track team friends he’s made through big brother. Our youngest will start fourth grade. Our life has been so much about teenagers for several years now and it seems surreal some days, that we still have one in elementary school.

A few days ago Jeff and I loaded up the bikes and headed to NYC for a ride through Central Park. Our oldest was out of town with friends and we let soon to be senior decide for himself if he wanted to go with us or stay home alone. He chose solitude over family time. He’s not a fan of the chaos of the City and I have to respect that. So it came down to the two old people, the 13 year old and the nine year old.

It was a fun day. Logistics are so much easier when you just have two children. When four people ride together down the sidewalk you look like a family. When there are six in the group you resemble a circus act.

Trust me, we’ve done it in D.C. and we got more than a few second glances. (“there’s one more…oh, and another one… oh, and another one… oh, and another one…”) Lunch is a lot cheaper. Taking two teen appetites out of the picture can really help the bottom line.

I wasn’t the only one feeling the changes. I guess Isaac’s heard us talking about our changing family a lot lately and he’s internalized some of it. I really had no idea he’d even thought about it until he made some random comments to me during our long bike ride.

At one stop, while his little brother and dad scampered over some huge rocks that were just begging to be climbed, Isaac and I were left alone. “I’m trying really hard to have fun,” he suddenly announced.

This surprised me because this is the boy who wears his heart on his sleeve and I was pretty sure that I’d have known it if he was not having fun. He’d been pleasant and agreeable all day, a smile rarely left his face.

“Oh, well, I’m glad,” I answered. “But it seems like you are having fun, right?”

“Yeah,” he said, gazing off in the distance, “But ya know, I’m a teenager now and I don’t necessarily like the stuff that little kids like anymore. I mean this is fun and all, but I might not like it as much as I get older so I’m just doing my best to enjoy it.”

Then a little later, in our quest to sample all the playgrounds Central Park has to offer, we parked our bikes once again and the boys ran off to try out the new equipment. Isaac was back in just minutes.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“Oh yeah!” he said, his face lighting up. “It’s great! And just so ya know, I’m trying my best to be Michael. Since he’s not here I’m going to be the big brother and do the big, exciting things.”

I had never realized that my oldest son played differently on a playground than his younger brothers, so Isaac’s comments confused me again.

“Oh yeah? Like what” I asked him.

“Ya know, like over there I jumped this huge gap between the rocks and it was scary but it was really cool!”

I guess all these years Isaac has been letting Michael try out the big stuff and then following his lead when it all checked out. My second boy was sensing his new place in the family, as big brother makes plans outside our family, and doing his best to fill some pretty big shoes.

I know this trend will continue. We will all twist and turn and try out new muscles, as our family does a seventh inning stretch. Some of the changes I could see coming and some are unveiling themselves as we go. I count myself lucky that my second son is a verbal kid, and shares his thoughts with me. There is shifting going on in the ranks of our children and I love being a spectator as it all plays out.

Don’t get me wrong, I miss my two big kids on the days they are not with us. There is a definite hole in our clan where those two should be. Our whole family dynamic changes. But it’s inevitable and I can’t fight it, so for now I sit back and watch it with curious eyes.

Our ‘new’ family, slowly unfolding and turning into something we’ve never experienced before.

Just the four of us, forging a new path.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Buying Memories

There was an envelope waiting for us when we returned from New Hampshire the other day. It had my dad’s handwriting on the front. It came as a surprise because my dad’s birthday was last week and generally I send him a card on the big day, not the other way around. I ripped it open to find a neatly typed letter, a twenty dollar bill and a fifty dollar bill.

My dad turned seventy this year. I sent out the card before I realized this fact and wished I had done something big for him. I thought about him all day on his actual birthday but didn’t get a chance to call him because after an eight hour shift at the library, we threw our bags in the car and drove to New Hampshire to visit the in-laws for Easter. There just wasn’t time.

I knew my dad would understand. That’s how we roll in my family. We might not talk on the phone every day, or even every month, but there’s always an unspoken rule that we love each other and we’re here if we’re needed. Just a phone call or plane ride away.

So when we finished our Easter visit in that other state and arrived home to find this mystery envelope in the mail it definitely surprised me. What the letter said didn’t surprise me at all.

It was a form letter, meant for me and each of my siblings, instructing us to take this money and find some fun activity to do with our families. Life is short, going by faster as each day passes, he pointed out, and there is such a brief time to make family memories. All he asked in return is that we take pictures of the adventure we found and send him a few copies. It was the only gift he wanted for this big milestone birthday.

Pictures of his kids, having fun with their kids.

My dad has gotten nostalgic in recent years. After being widowed in his early fifties, a hit that came out of the blue one weekend, he had a new perspective of how quickly life can change. He did a lot of soul searching and said more ‘I love yous’ to the people in his life than he had in decades. He read relationship books and by the time he entered into his second marriage, to my wonderful step-mom, he was an evolved man.

Oh, he still manages to drive her crazy on a regular basis, but he understands so much more about relationships after losing one he thought he’d have for a lifetime.

And in his time of life reflection he also pondered the years that included my childhood. My mom and dad were very giving people in the seventies and eighties. They were involved in many church activities, raising their own five children, and still managed to be foster parents to a revolving list of needy kids. They started by taking in teens, an age most people are scared of. But my parents helped many teens find their way and go on to lead productive lives. Of course, it came at a price.

There are only so many hours in a day and so much energy a parent has to give. My siblings and I were never neglected. We had constant food on the table, even if it was from the day old bread store and picked from our backyard garden. We always had clothes to wear, generally from stacks of hand me downs donated by generous friends from church. And we were loved. We all knew we were loved.

But as far as our family unit went, we never had time alone. Every activity we did included foster siblings. Some we knew well, those who stayed for months or years. Others we’d just met the day before and would leave our house before the week was out. But family activities included everyone. Even the newest ones.

I’ve heard my dad make comments about how he had regrets in how we natural kids were raised sometimes. I’m sure he’s like every other parent and feels like he could have done more and done it better if he had a second chance. It’s a common thought, only further complicated by his complicated family. So I understand why making family memories is an important goal to my dad. He understands what it means to kids and what it means to their parents once they’ve all moved away. It is a sacred gift in his mind.

Jeff and I thought it over, talked it over, and finally decided what we’d do with our twenty and our fifty. We added just a bit more to the pile and bought a bike rack for the minivan. We’ve always talked about taking more bike trips with the kids, and a bike rack will make that possible.

Yesterday we strapped the bikes on the back of the car and headed for New York City. In the precious rare spring sunshine we biked in Central Park. From one end to the other we pedaled and explored and made some pretty fun new memories. I took just a few hundred pictures and by the time we got home last night I felt like we’d done my dad proud.

He will love finding out how we spent ‘his’ money and he will cherish the pictures we send. Because as life sweeps you away and you suddenly have a clearer view of the woulda’s and shoulda’s from decades past, the birthday list changes.

And sometimes getting nothing in a wrapped box is exactly what you want.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Fire Pit Friends

I noticed her in the first few weeks we lived in Utah. She seemed younger than me by five years to a decade and from what I could decipher, she had a couple of her own kids and babysat a few extras. They all romped around in her small front yard in the afternoons, while they waited for the parents of the extras to arrive. I wasn’t spying on her, I promise. It’s just that when I was in the kitchen and our garage door was open, I could see their yard just across the street. Every time I opened the back door to throw out trash, check on my kids, or just get some fresh air, her shiny, blonde hair caught my eye.

And then we finally met. I got brave (or maybe tired of unpacking moving boxes) and wandered across our quiet street to introduce myself. Her husband had joined her that day, and they sat side by side enjoying the bright Utah afternoon sun. Kids were crawling up and over both of them as I drew near and it gave them a sense of approachability as I gathered up my courage to say first hellos.

As it turned out, that day I met the two people who became probably the best couples friends we have ever had. Almost instantly Laura and I were swapping kid stories and sharing recipes. Not long after, her Jeff and my Jeff began consulting each other on household projects and commiserating with each other about those annoying honey do lists.

Because they lived across the street, not even a true stone’s throw from us, it was easy to get to know each other. I knew her schedule and often set up my day so I could spare an hour sitting on the grass with her as she waited for the babysitting parents to arrive. In the evenings, after dinners were made and cleaned up, we often met on the patio behind their house, gathering around their small fire pit when the sunset brought along with it the chilly night air.

We laughed and told stories we hadn’t told in years. Tales from teen years and the crazy early twenties, when life seemed so much easier and much less expensive. As darkness settled around us, and children were all mixed up together on their swing set and bouncing together on their trampoline, we opened up and shared more personal things. These two people understood how we ticked, good and bad, and the ease of our friendship made spilling secrets easy.

For three years we grew close to this family across the street. We watched Laura’s belly grow with their third pregnancy and welcomed their new baby girl into our fold like she was our own. That same baby took her first steps after letting go of my daughter’s hands and toddling to Laura down the sidewalk in front of our house.

Their only son and our youngest son were almost exactly the same age. They became a dynamic duo that easily flowed from their house to ours, in the search for their next adventure. Our daughter’s first baby sitting experience came from hanging out across the street while Jeff and Laura enjoyed a rare dinner out alone. We even spent one Thanksgiving holiday together when their extended family situations were complicated and ours were too long distance.

So it was with great sadness that we gathered around their familiar fire pit one night and had to tell them our big news, we were moving to New York. Mostly it was a good move for us but when it came to leaving behind these precious once in a lifetime friends, it was truly heartbreaking. Hanging out with them for the years we’d lived in that gorgeous western state had been a gift we’d never forget. But for many reasons, it was time for us to move on.

We’re still in touch with Jeff and Laura. Facebook has become a wonderful way to still see their children’s smiling (older!) faces as the months and years continue to pass. We just may have a teenager headed back to Utah for college soon and I will seek out the fire pit I came to love when we fly west for college scouting trips. I know it’s still there, just waiting for me to return.

And I’ve learned a lesson. Life gets pretty busy and finding time to get to know neighbors can be a miracle. It is now possible to live in a neighborhood for years and not know who lives in the house just two doors down. But our moving boxes are unpacked once again and it’s time to make the effort again.

I will put lawn chairs out on our driveway and find time to sit in them this spring and summer. Maybe we can catch some neighbors, some I know, some I still need to meet, and convince them to pause on their afternoon walks to sit and chat a bit.

Because I’ve learned that you never know who might be living just a stone’s throw away. It might be the best friend you’ve ever found. And good things can come from making the time to say the first hello.