She didn't make a good first impression.
I would have sworn she was fresh out of high school, and I wanted to take her aside and ask her why she was wearing that somber black dress to work at a pizza place on a weekend night. Her glasses were perched on an aquiline nose on a pale face, and long, matte, dark hair brushed the crisscrossed ribbons on her dress in a ponytail that swished when she walked. In fact, she didn't so much walk as she glided, silently. She gave us the barest hint of a smile as she stood at the cash register.
When she brought out the wrong salad, I may have rolled my eyes at my husband. New girl. And why doesn’t she smile?
Week after week, we saw her on Friday night, and her expression barely changed. She delivered our pizza and scurried away quickly. Laura knew us by name, though, and had our order ready when we walked in the door. At Christmas last year, she decorated all of the pictures on the walls of the pizza place by cloaking them in wrapping paper - Sponge Bob, Snoopy, and other children's characters. She hung stockings above the kitchen with the names of everyone on staff written in loopy glitter. We complimented her on her work. She ducked her head and the corners of her mouth turned upward in a soft Mona Lisa grin.
We became good friends with the owner of the restaurant, and we met him and his little girl - the same age as our son - at the pizza parlor for dinner last Friday. Laura brought our pizza and disappeared again. She seemed to be a shadow, a shade. When the kids grew restless with our adult talk and wanted to get up, they approached the counter, and Laura reappeared and gave them stickers, bending down to their level to talk to them and offer them distraction. She looked into their eyes and listened intently, as if she had nowhere else to be.
Out of the blue, the owner of the pizza parlor said, "She had a little boy." We were across the room, and his eyes were on his little girl, who was talking animatedly to Laura. "He was a year and a half old, and he just never woke up one day. She's never been the same."
All of the air was sucked out of the room; I couldn't breathe for a moment. I tried to imagine the pain of losing a child; I didn’t want to imagine it. Now I understood why she was so quiet, why she didn't look into our eyes, or linger to talk. I understood why she stopped what she was doing to look my son in the eye and address him directly when he approached her for a to-go box or a glass of lemonade.
Laura is, as it turns out, 25 years old; much older than she looked. Unless you looked into her eyes, which I hadn't, really.
My head turned in her direction, and our eyes met. How could I have missed the sadness emanating from her face?
I neglected to look a little deeper than the surface.
I was thinking of Laura when I called an old friend of mine this weekend. Many times over the last year I have tried to reach her, and I had hoped to see her in my hometown when I took a vacation at my parents' house. She lives a few hours away from the town where we both grew up, and I usually see her when I come home. She responded with a text, but didn't call me back.
We have known each other since we were 16; I know her well. And yet, with no response, I assumed the worst. Like a girl in grade school, I assumed it I had done something to cause the radio silence. Sending her an email, I attached some current photos of my son, and asked her if I had done or said anything to upset her. No response.
Uncomfortable and feeling a little foolish, I called her again a week later and left a message. When she returned my call in less than an hour, I picked up, and waited, anxiously, for the tone of her voice.
She started with an apology, with the tears threatening to spill over, giving her voice a tremulous quality. She briefly explained why she had been hard to reach for the better part of a year: family stress, the loss of her husband’s job, building a new home, a surprising turnabout from a neighbor she thought was a friend. She hadn't wanted to talk to anyone or to relive everything that was going on; instead, she opted to lean out. Way out.
I could have let her go. I could have assumed that she wasn't worth the time and energy it took to continue the relationship in one-way mode for so long. But I've been there before too. Our friendship is worth fighting for.
In the years before I met my second husband - my "past life" - I shut out plenty of people. It was easier than trying to explain the pain just underneath the surface, or to face the reality of what my best friends would surely tell me. Get. Out. Move out. Leave him. So I hid behind a smile, or omitted the truth, or I ran away. Friends have told me that now they understand why I was so distant. They didn't know, at the time. They didn't know how to reach me.
I’ll never forget my friend Terri, who called me every day for weeks as I was going through my divorce. I wouldn’t pick up the phone, because I was generally a mess, but every time I listened to her messages, my heart would heal just a little bit.
Hey, girl, I’m just calling to check in on you. I love you.
You have no idea what your words can do for a friend in need. You may not even know she needs you, so don’t give up.
Reach out to a friend you have been missing today.
Be kinder to someone who is unhappy.
Help someone find her smile, even if just for a moment.
Don’t give up. Somewhere, there is a Laura who needs your kind words and understanding. And it’s never too late to try once more.