Tenley and me at the cherry blossoms last year - 4 years into a lifelong friendship.
Why is Kathy holding that baby? I think to myself as I see my slight, blonde friend swaying back and forth with a baby I’ve never before seen.
“What’s with the baby?” I prod as I come up beside her.
“Oh, hi,” Kathy shrugs, “Tenley is giving a talk today and she asked me to hold Troy.” She nods down at the baby boy in her arms. He looks to be about 3 or 4 months old.
Who is this poser Tenley? Why would she ask my friend Kathy for help? I’m the one with a baby, not Kathy. I feel a prick of jealousy, but I don’t want to let on that I have no idea who Kathy’s talking about. She obviously thinks I know this Tenley.
A few weeks later, at a church gathering, I see Tenley sitting at one of the concrete picnic tables with her husband and baby boy. People are milling around but no one has snagged the seat next to Tenley and her family. I whisper to Dustin, “We should go say hi to that new couple.” We are quick to welcome new comers, so Dustin doesn’t think this is out-of-the-ordinary. I am, however, partly fueled by the desire to know whomever Kathy knows. I don’t want to be left out in case she’s moving on to new friendships. After a slightly awkward introduction, we move away politely.
Months later, it seems that I haven’t seen Tenley at church, or elsewhere for that matter, so when she calls me, I am surprised.
“Hi Sally. This is Tenley.”
I haven’t forgotten her unusual name, so at least I don’t embarrass myself by asking, “Who?” Instead I talk with her like we’re friends. After we exchange the normal niceties, she asks if I know anyone who would like to do a babysitting exchange with her. She’s an apartment manager, as am I, and needs a babysitter for a couple of hours a week to complete her management tasks.
Why does this girl even care? The job is lame. It’s not like it has to be done well, I think. Then I surprise myself when I hear something else coming out of my mouth: “I would love to do a babysitting exchange with you! I could use a few hours a week to take care of our apartment building as well.”
I can feel the look on my face questioning my words. After all, my face knows better. I don’t like babysitting. The only child I love is my own.
The babysitting exchange is born. Tenley drops 6-month-old Troy at my apartment on Tuesday mornings for 2 hours, and I pick and choose between various mornings, afternoons, and sometimes I opt for a date night babysitting trade instead. Usually it’s pretty easy besides the fact that Troy never will hold his own bottle so sometimes I have to juggle feeding Troy a bottle and nursing Claire. Other than that Claire and Troy enjoy watching each other and over time, they begin to play.
Because the kids like each other well enough, and because we have something in common (apartment managing) we decide to try a play date where we all hang out for a morning. I’ve never really hosted a play date and the only one I’ve ever been to, the mom served us all a gourmet lunch. I’m not sure what protocol is so I decide I should serve lunch, too. I open a can of soup and then try to make lunch seem a little more gourmet by broiling the ham and cheese sandwiches. Tenley only eats about half of the lunch and leaves early because Troy is fussy. I figure we should just stick to the babysitting exchange. We don’t really need to be friends. The set-up we have works. Why force more?
Before long, we’re hanging out every week. Then Tenley asks all of us to come to dinner. Then we ask their family to come to dinner.
Suddenly I realize that Tenley has become my best friend.
Later, Tenley says something in passing that makes me wonder if something is wrong. I don’t get the chance to ask her about it. It stews in the back of my mind. I can tell by the way she mentioned it that she doesn’t actually want to talk about it, but I can’t stop thinking about her. I should have at least asked her if she wanted to talk about whatever is bothering her.
I'm picking Claire up from an afternoon at Tenley’s. I’m 8 or 9 weeks pregnant with Avery (baby number 2) and feeling nauseous. I think I’ll just dash in to get Claire then hurry home to make dinner. My morning (day) sickness begs to be fed often and dinner time is no exception. When I get down on the floor to pick up Claire’s various socks, shoes, and stuffed animals, I remember that I should tell Tenley that we can talk about whatever is bothering her any time, so I do. She resists, but I push just a little, and then we really talk. I talk through the nausea because all that matters is that Tenley needs me. I have the thought that this moment in our friendship is probably one of the reasons I introduced myself at the party and then said yes to babysitting her baby.
Even if it was just so we can have this important conversation today, it is enough.
A little over a year and dozens of playdates later, my beautiful Claire is diagnosed with Leukemia. My world shatters and amongst the pieces I find wonderful friends. Tenley and her family are the first visitors to the hospital. She immediately seems to have a great respect for Claire’s new immunity problems. I know she won’t visit if she or Troy has the sniffles or a scratchy throat. I trust her. She calls me every couple of days just to check in. She seems to understand when I shut down socially.
One day when we can’t go anywhere because of Claire’s compromised immune system, Tenley and Troy give us a ‘heart attack.’ We watch them through the large living room windows. They tape colored, paper hearts all over the window. Some are covered with obvious Troy scribbles. Some have happy writing from Tenley. Still others have photos of Claire and Troy from our camping trip earlier in the summer. I ache to be helping them heart attack someone else. I wish fervently that we didn’t need it, but try to enjoy it just the same.
Later, when Claire has to be hospitalized, I arrive home from the hospital to take the night shift at home with Avery. I get home late and exhausted. I eat a dark, lonely dinner. Less than half an hour later, there is a soft knock at the door. It’s Tenley. She’s holding two cups of Starbuck’s hot chocolate. With the liquidy chocolate, she offers her company and a listening ear if I need one. I accept them all gratefully.
Now, a couple of years from that moment of crisis, I think back to the beginning of a friendship. I think of the playdates, the babysitting, the shared meals and outings. I think of my fatigued heart with blood continuing to pulse painfully even though I would much rather be dead. And, I think of the relief a friend can bring. I assume Tenley thinks I was an answer to her prayer when she moved to Seattle with a newborn and some challenges of her own, but I know better.
Tenley was the answer to a prayer I had not yet prayed.