Rude Reactions, Angry Outbursts, & Ladders that Lift

conditions of the heart

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
-Plato

I tried to get the attention of my daughters but they were intently focused on their pre-swim meet warm up. I decided that if I hurried, I could get to my car to retrieve what I’d forgotten before their warm up concluded.

Although I was parked at the back of a mile-long parking lot, I walked quickly and was back to the front the door of the natatorium in less than seven minutes. I was heading through the double doors that led into the pool area when a stern voice stopped me in my tracks.

“Timers, that way!” an older gentleman in an official uniform was barking orders at me. Even his finger, which stiffly pointed to a dark equipment room off to the side, appeared angry. It was as if I was a child being sent to my room for misbehaving. I was speechless … and unmoving.

The man jabbed his finger angrily once more in the direction he wanted me to go. His face had now become a dangerous color of red. I was in complete disbelief. All this over my entry through a door? Seriously?

“I am not a timer,” I said calmly to the man, attempting to model a normal speaking voice. “I am a parent who is trying to get to her children.” I then proceeded to walk through the doors I intended to go in the first place.

But yet again, I was blocked. The man’s entire hand was now in front of me. “THAT WAY!” he screamed pointing back to the dreary equipment room that clearly didn’t look like a pathway to the pool to me.

Upon further inspection, I saw a steady stream of parents and meet officials heading that way. I surmised that the main pool door had been closed to walk-through traffic when I ran out to my car. But how was I to know? There were no signs, no yellow tape, and no caution cones – only this not-so-jolly navigator who wasn’t doing anything to enlighten me.

I began walking in the direction the man desperately wanted me to go, but then I stopped. I turned back around, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Why do you have to be so rude?”

I was not expecting an answer, but I got one.

“I fell off a ladder yesterday,” the man said irritably, his angry tone still alive and well.

I stood there for a moment looking at this man … this man who didn’t want to be there … this man who was in pain … this man who was perhaps fed up with life and feeble bones.

And that is when I realized this man’s anger had nothing to do with me.

“I am sorry to hear that,” I said quietly.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said referring to his harshness toward me. He looked down at the floor.

“I hope you get to go home soon and rest,” I offered before walking away.

I made it back to my seat just as my children were coming back from their warm up.

“Where were you, Mama?” my younger daughter asked.

“Well, I had to run out to the car and I met someone on my way back into the pool,” I explained. When we got home and were not surrounded by loud speakers, buzzers, and splashing water, I would tell my daughters about the man who’d fallen off the ladder. We would say a prayer for him.

And we did.

But that man continued to remain in my thoughts. I couldn’t get over the fact that by asking one mere question, he revealed something I don’t get see everyday: the condition of the heart. And getting a glimpse of his heart explained a lot—actually, it explained everything—about his behavior. That man sure didn’t enlighten me about how to get into the pool, but he enlightened me on something that mattered much more.

Three days later my typically cheerful younger daughter came home from school in a foul mood. She was unusually whiney and oppositional about almost everything. Her snack on the way to swim team practice was yucky. Her practice was torturous. She didn’t want to take a bath when we got home. Dinner was picked at with a frown. Her guitar chords even sounded miserable as she half-heartedly strummed. I wondered if she might be getting sick.

We crawled into her bed for nightly reading time. Normally when I pull her covers up around her, she giggles. But there was no laughter that night.

“You okay? You don’t seem like yourself today,” I said with concern.

“Mama, there’s a boy who keeps asking me to take off my glasses. And I kept saying no—until today. Today I took them off,” she paused for several seconds in an effort to keep from crying. “And when I did, he said, ‘yuck.’”

For some reason, the grumpy man and his ladder popped into my head. And I suddenly realized that my child’s painful admission explained a lot – perhaps everything – about her sullen behavior.

My baby fell off a ladder today. I thought to myself. And the ladder of shame and humiliation can be a rough fall. It can make you question things about yourself … it can make you feel suddenly unsure and self-conscious … it can make you want to hide … it can make you want to cry.

All at once, I could see the condition of my child’s heart … and this explained so much.

condition of the heart 3 HFM

“I am so very sorry,” I consoled as I pulled her close. “I am sorry you were hurt,” I whispered gently rubbing her back.

After spending a few minutes just holding her I said, “That boy is wrong, you know. He is so very wrong. You are beautiful with or without your glasses. Maybe that boy wishes he had glasses. Or maybe he wants to be your friend but doesn’t know how to go about it. Or maybe someone tells him he is ‘yuck’ and he has pain in his heart.”

My child and I talked through some comebacks she could say if he (or anyone else) asks her to remove her glasses in the future. We talked about getting support from the teacher or guidance counselor if needed. We then read Diary of a Wimpy Kid and laughed at the silly antics of Greg and Rowley.

As I closed my child’s bedroom door, I felt incredibly grateful that my eyes had been opened a little wider on this journey to grasp what really matters in a culture of distraction and disconnection. I decided that when someone reacts toward me in a negative way, I would try to remember there might be more going on than meets than eye. Assessing the situation based solely on the person’s actions may result in failure to see what is most important: the condition of the heart.

My friends, as you go about your week, I encourage you to try The Ladder Perspective. Perhaps you might discover this:

Her ladder is a sick parent. When her father was rushed to the ER, she fell about ten rungs down.

His ladder is a job loss. From the moment he got the news, he fell all the way from the top.

She’s waiting to get the test results back. She’s clinging, barely clinging to her ladder.

His ladder? His loved one is drinking again. It’s that same old ladder of pain and hopelessness that won’t go away.

Her ladder comes in the form of daily school reports. Is there a problem? Should she be getting her child help? She lays awake at night searching for answers, slipping further down her ladder.

His ladder is a secret too heavy to bear one more day, but who can he tell? Does anyone even care?

When you take a moment to consider there could be unseen pain impacting the life standing in front of you, you are able to realize this:

Her anger towards you has nothing to do with you.

His impatience towards you is all about him and the burden he bears.

Her complete and utter avoidance of you is because she is trying to hide from the world, not you personally.

His hostility is a direct reflection of the fear and uncertainty that is gripping his heart.

By using The Ladder Perspective you are able to be more compassionate and less defensive. You are able to be more supportive and less consumed by unfounded assumptions that you did something to cause this reaction. By using compassion in the face of negativity, there is opportunity to shed light on human suffering through the gift of a question.

Are you okay?
Is there something going on?
Could you use someone to talk to?
What’s really bothering you?

When faced with other people’s unpleasant behavior, let us remember to consider the condition of the heart. And instead of kicking them when they are down, we might just be able to help them up … one rung at a time.

conditions of the heart 2

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Friends of The Hands Free Revolution, I welcome your experiences, thoughts, and stories in the comments below. I do feel the need to clarify that this post is not advocating we tolerate personal attacks that are abusive or repeated hostile behavior from others. My intent is to share the worry and pressure that has lifted from my heart as I have stopped taking other people’s negative reactions personally. I continue to be awed by how this change in perspective has allowed love and connection to come into my life at the most unexpected times. In fact, I’d just finished polishing this blog post when I got off a plane the other night. I literally ran to the restroom only to find it was closed for cleaning. I begged the cleaning woman to let me use the restroom. She looked at me with disgust and then slammed the metal barrier against the wall as she let me in. As I left the restroom minutes later, I looked her in the face and said, “I bet you’ve had a long day.” The woman looked at the floor and said, “I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I have a hard week.” I touched her hand and said, “Bless you.” This is how I want to live—to see the heart so I can lessen the hurt. I’d love for you to join me. 

*As you do your holiday shopping in the weeks to come, please keep in mind the beautiful hand-lettered prints and handmade bracelets that bear loving Hands Free messages we all need to hear. I will be gifting The Presence Pledge to my children’s teachers as well as dear friends to let them know the impact they have had on our lives. Thank you for your support!

To Build (or Crush) a Dream

dreamer #HFM
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly. -R. Buckminster Fuller

When I get in front of a classroom of children, I am home. I was a special education teacher for ten years before I became a full-time author and speaker. On occasion, my two passions—writing and teaching children—collide. I go into these situations on high alert. If there is ever a time to pay very close attention, it is in a classroom. Because if I do, I know I will be the one to walk away educated and inspired.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak at my daughters’ new school. I was prepared to be enlightened. I was not disappointed.

This is my story …

My presentation for both second and fifth graders consisted of two parts. The first part described the steps I took to achieve my childhood dream of becoming a published author. The second part of my presentation was a lesson and group exercise on descriptive writing.

As I spoke to the children, my teacher training quickly spotted the ones who were having trouble sitting still … the ones who were weary to raise their hands but clearly had something to say … the ones who were fiddling with something inside their desk, perhaps thinking of their own passions. I tried to draw the children out, sustain their attention, and create a safe environment where all ideas were accepted and respected. When it was time for the students to craft their own sentences, I was pleased that most of them looked comfortable and engaged.

As the students worked quietly, I was able to interact individually with each one. Their unique personalities surfaced during these brief exchanges—their comments and posture revealing details about their life experiences, their confidence, and their strengths.

As I was preparing to leave the fifth grade classroom, a boy asked for my autograph. This idea started a trend. As the children lined up with blank notebook paper in hand, I felt compelled to write more than my name or “Live Hands Free.” In black Sharpie I wrote, “Go after your dreams!” Then I paused and asked each child, “What is your dream?”

Every single child had an answer.
There were no hesitations.
There were no duplications.

Every single child, no matter how reserved or how outgoing … no matter how serious or how silly … no matter how neat or disheveled, had a dream. And more importantly, every child had a twinkle in the eye when speaking about it.

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Drowning Out the Inner Critic

drowing the inner critic HFM
She’d asked me to get in the bathroom stall with her while she put on the swim team suit that she’d been given to wear to the meet. I hesitated. The stall was exceptionally small and the air conditioning in the building was not working. But there was a pleading in my child’s eyes that seemed hauntingly familiar so I accompanied her.

She immediately asked me to turn away. I crammed myself into the corner. The bathroom door hinge was two inches from my nose. I was already sweating and I was not the one wrestling with a fierce duo of nylon and spandex.

I had a bad feeling about this.

Behind me there was grunting, wiggling, pulling, stretching. There was a tremendous amount of exhausting effort going on back there. I could feel the frustration radiating from my child through the back of my shirt. Or maybe it was sweat.

“Everything okay?” I asked with a cringe.

“I.Can’t.Get.It.On!” my child burst out.

“Would you like me to help?” I asked hopefully. “I’d be happy to help,” I repeated desperately hoping to improve the situation.

After a few more grunts and sighs, my child accepted my offer.

“But close your eyes, Mama,” she instructed.

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Preparing the Ones We Love For a Troubling World

preparing for world #HFM

My older daughter was sitting on the floor of her room totally engrossed in a project. She was writing to her sponsored child, Priscilla, but I didn’t know what she was writing because it was written in Swahili.

The last letter she sent was also written in Priscilla’s native language, but I thought it would be a one-time thing. I was surprised to see my typically speedy child patiently looking up words on the Internet in order to write full sentences in a foreign language. She knew all notes written in English were translated to the sponsored child, but for some reason she felt compelled to write in words Priscilla could read and understand herself.

“I see you’re writing in Swahili again,” I said sitting down next to my daughter.

“I want to be sure she knows she is loved … in words she can understand,” my daughter explained. “There are many diseases in and around her village,” she said gravely. “This way Priscilla can read the letter herself and won’t have to wait for a translator.”

That powerful little tidbit shed some light on my daughter’s motive.

“I want these words to stick,” my child added determinedly.

Like a bulletin board, I thought to myself looking at the corkboard directly behind my daughter’s head. It was filled with photos, motivational quotes, swim team goals, and love notes from family members. It was filled with words and images she wanted remember—treasures she wanted to stick with her.

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The Hands Free Revolution page was hacked, but now the issue is resolved

light will outshine darkness

UPDATE:  Over the last 24 hours my page was taken over by hackers, and I was shut out as the page administrator unable to do anything to stop them. This amazing community came to aid and my defense in a way that I will never forget. Thank you for knowing my heart would never willingly allow this to happen and post the horrific things that were seen here. Thank you for reporting the images to Facebook and for sharing my blog post asking for help to get my page back. This community, as well as many fellow bloggers and personal friends stepped up to show these sabotagers that GOODNESS prevails. While I hope that my administrator status is back for good, please know that if you see anything out of the ordinary from what I normally post, please report the vile content see the steps outlined at the bottom of this post.

I hope to get back to my regular schedule of positivity and hope tomorrow on The Hands Free Revolution FB page. You are the most wonderful community and I am blessed to walk the Hands Free journey with you. Let us continue to focus on the good.

“I’ve always believed the light can outshine the darkness.
I’ve always believed that goodness will prevail.
But sometimes in the face of adversity, a need a little reminding.
Thank you for reminding me.
I shall not ever forget.”
-Rachel Macy Stafford

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Original post:

My friends, I have been locked out as administrator of The Hands Free Revolution Facebook page. The hackers have been posting vile and offensive material. I am deeply sorry if you have been subjected to this in your newsfeed on Facebook. You can help me GREATLY by doing one or both of the following to report the problem:

1. Click this link and report that The Hands Free Revolution page has been hacked.

2. Go to the page and hover over the top right corner of the offensive post for the drop down carrot to show
then click on “I don’t like this post”
A pop up will come up – click on: “It’s Spam”
On the next window click on: “Their account is hacked”
That will report it.

I am so grateful to all of you who have written to me personally to let me know about the situation. Thank you for standing by me as I try to regain control of my Facebook fan page so I can continue spreading messages of positivity and hope!

A Daily Goal with Life-Changing Results

I hope after spending an hour … a day … a lifetime in my presence, I leave your heart fuller, your smile wider, your spirit stronger your future brighter than you could have ever imagined by yourself.   -Rachel Macy Stafford

I hope after spending an hour … a day … a lifetime in my presence,
I leave your heart fuller,
your smile wider,
your spirit stronger
your future brighter
than you could have ever imagined by yourself.
-Rachel Macy Stafford

*name & story have been used with permission

A little over four years ago I started my Hands Free journey to let go of distraction and grasp the moments that mattered. It became my daily practice to write down the little moments of meaningful connection that I would’ve missed had I remained tethered to my devices, pressures, and regrets. What I experienced during my designated Hands Free pockets of time was so powerful I knew it was meant to be shared. I started publishing my daily Hands Free successes and failures on a blog. This helped me stay accountable to my goal—to live more and love more in the precious time that I’d been given. But there was more. My willingness to share my story was unexpectedly reciprocated. Each day for the past four years, I’ve heard from people I do not know. But they tell me their stories and inspire me in ways I could not be inspired alone.

Recently I opened my inbox to this:

“I have you to thank for the light bulb that lit up inside of me that turned into a flaming inferno of wanting to connect with my children. I have you to thank for the belly laugh (the best laugh that I have had with my oldest in years) that I would have missed had I not been in a ‘Hands Free Zone’ that I’ve designated and stuck to. I have you to thank for the wall in my kitchen (which is against my obsessive compulsive nature) that I have posted blog entries and favorite quotes from your book. This wall is what I look at when my baby is crying so loudly that I want to rip my hair out—your words are the caution cones that tell me to slow down and embrace my screaming baby and laugh. I have you to thank for my life, my children’s lives, and the amazing mom that I never knew I could become to them. I have you to thank for raising me from the dead; for that I will be eternally grateful. Thank you for saving me.”

–Fallon*

This message was written by a single, full-time working student/mother. I could see her in her kitchen. Her eyes weary from lack of sleep … baby food stains on the front of her shirt … her older child’s homework splayed across the counter along with bills and school reminder notes. I could see her trying … trying … trying. I did not know this woman, but I adored her.

Attached to the e-mail message was Fallon’s completed assignment for her psychology class. It was a short description of her fall semester goal: Keep Things Simple. To her this meant trying to avoid “overwhelm” which she knew had a negative impact on her mood, her progress, her sleep and of course, her children. “Keep Things Simple means not sweating the small stuff, getting tasks completed in a timely manner, not over exaggerating, and eliminating unnecessary stress to enjoy my life to the fullest,” she wrote.

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Which Way to a Peaceful Response?

"Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves." ~Henry David Thoreau

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau

I should’ve known not to get so confident. I hadn’t gotten lost once in this new big city of mine. I’d traveled interstates, back roads, and busy thoroughfares. Every time I’d punched an address into my new navigation system, it had taken me there without fail.

I’d become so confident that I even stopped printing out paper directions as a back up or calling people ahead of time asking for landmarks along the route. Those were the safeguards I’d used for over a decade to compensate for my severely flawed sense of direction. I am known to turn the wrong way out of the bathroom at a restaurant and not be able to find my family. I am known to fear that my car’s been stolen until my Noticer daughter tells me we’re in the wrong parking lot. When my friends heard I was moving to a new, much larger city, they worried. They suggested I not leave a two-mile radius for awhile. But with the help of a new navigation system, I’ve had a new lease on life. I’ve been taking my children to places I never thought I could go by myself. I stopped gripping the steering wheel with sweaty hands when venturing into uncharted territories.

Well … until Saturday morning.

My daughters had their first swim meet with their new team at an aquatics center that was about twenty minutes away from our house. After years of stressful crack-of-dawn departures, we’d learned to get prepared the night before. All the bags were packed. Swim suits and flip flops were laid out. I had the address of where I was going written on a sticky note next to the bags. All I had to do was punch the address in. The night before I thought briefly about gathering my direction back ups, but I happily reminded myself I didn’t need them anymore.

That morning when I punched in the address of the swim center, it didn’t show up. I tried typing in the name of the facility. No luck. I tried just the street. That didn’t work either. For five minutes, I punched anything I thought might get us in the general vicinity. I noticed my fingers becoming more aggressive with each fail and the air in the car was getting warm. Suddenly my hazard lights came on automatically. I frantically felt around the steering wheel for the off button. The obnoxious clicking sound was nearly loud enough to wake the neighbors. I had a full-on sweat going now.

“Why is this address not in existence?” I growled to myself. “And how in the world do I turn these hazard lights off?” I angrily punched more buttons on the dash and ended up turning on all the lights in the car and opening the trunk.

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An Invitation to Live, Really Live

“Come outside, Before the world gets any colder, And you and I get too much older. ‘Come outside,’ she said. ‘Come outside,’ she said.  Climb out your window.” -Counting Crows

“Come outside,
Before the world gets any colder,
And you and I get too much older.
‘Come outside,’ she said.
‘Come outside,’ she said.
Climb out your window.”
-Counting Crows

Recently I’ve found myself driving like my seventy-four year old mom. I’ve been double and triple checking before making left turns. I’ve gone a mile out of my way just to avoid a dangerous intersection. I’ve also been chewing my food slowly so I don’t choke and taking a multi-vitamin. I’ve been determined to do the best job I can of keeping myself alive.

I didn’t connect these heightened safety precautions to my current project until I came to the conclusion section of the book I am writing. My hands began shaking as I typed the closing thoughts that I’d been waiting … living … and making cautious left turns in order to finish. And although I knew my editor would probably remove these final and unnecessary words, I typed, “The End,” in fancy font at the close of my 63,714-word manuscript. And then I cried. I cried because I lived to tell the story.

This particular book was not the easiest to book write, not that any books are—a fact I failed to appreciate until I actually wrote one. This book called for my deepest truths and my most painful reflections. But even more, it called for me to trust that the words would come in due time, not in Rachel’s time. Knowing the deadline for submitting this manuscript to my publisher would sneak up on me as far-off events often do, I tried writing this book last fall. I wrote lots of notes. I wrote lots of ideas. I wrote chapters that I ended up trashing. It was not time. I tried writing this book again in the spring. I took lots of notes. I wrote down lots of ideas. I wrote chapters that I ended up trashing. It was not time. And then summer involved moving boxes, anxious children, tearful goodbyes, and new territories to navigate. I didn’t even try to jot notes or cultivate ideas. I allowed myself to be in “receiving mode” rather than “producing mode.” I decided I would live. I would taste. I would cry. I would walk. I would laugh. I would read. I would say yes to as many Moments That Mattered as I possibly could. I ended up filling lots of little notebooks with experiences that only come from living, real living. And when my family felt settled in our new home, my husband and I went to a Counting Crows concert at a beautiful outdoor venue in our new city. I thought I’d heard every lyric Adam Duritz had ever sang, but on this particular night, he was the master of improvisation. “Round Here” turned into a message my soul had been longing to hear. “Climb out your window,” Adam sang. “Come outside before the world gets any colder, and you and I get too much older. Climb out your window.”

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To Love a Child By Their Book

by their book 1 #HFM

“Well, good for you. You stopped rushing your younger child and undid some of the damage, but what about your older daughter? What about her? What about the damage you did to her?”

It was a question posed by a commenter on this post almost a year after it was published.

Although the reader had no way of knowing, I’d addressed the damage that my hurried, perfectionistic ways had on my older daughter in several painful posts like this one and this one. But for some reason when I read his comment I saw an underlying question: You describe what you did to love your younger daughter as herself, but what about your older daughter? What did you do to love her “as is”?

To me, that question was far more important to address than what damage was done. It’s taken months, maybe even years, but I finally have an answer. I hope it will help someone crack open a few undiscovered pages of a book well worth reading. This is my story …

When I experienced the “hurry up” epiphany several years ago, I realized I needed to make changes before I completely stifled my younger daughter’s carefree spirit. What Avery needed was painfully obvious—it was written all over her face. She needed me to stop trying to change her … to let her be herself … to love her “as is.”

I dug deep to find patience buried inside my productivity-driven soul and stopped trying to turn my child into someone she was not. I noticed certain offerings produced a wide smile, a sigh of contentment, or the look of relief on her face. I learned:

Saying the words “take your time” was love to this child. I tried to say it at least once a day.

Allowing her to do her own hair was love to this child. I stepped aside and let her fashion her own haphazard ponytail for school. If she was happy with how it looked, I chose to be happy with it too.

Letting her play the guitar notes as she felt they should be played was love to this child. I sat back and watched and left the correcting to her instructor.

Giving her assurances in new situations was love to this child. I stopped dismissing her fears and hesitations. I stopped saying, “It’s no big deal. Stop crying,” and instead said, “New things are scary, but I think you are ready. You can do this.”

Speaking gently and not so sharply … letting her do things differently than I did … giving her privacy when she was getting dressed were acts of love in Avery’s book. And through this process of watching, listening, and observing, I learned how to love this child and even found myself borrowing a few pages from her book to re-write my own. Witnessing her approach to life helped me slow down, live better, and love more than I ever imagined I could.

But how to love as my older daughter “as is” was not so obvious. Natalie was the speedy one, the planner, the supervisor, the overachiever, and the worrier. Her book was strikingly similar to my own book, and this didn’t really come as a surprise. I didn’t begin my Hands Free journey until Natalie was six years old and the letting go process took several years. But the more Hands Free I became, the more I could see my former Type-A tendencies in my older daughter. Every time she was impatient, strived for perfection, or laid awake worrying about things beyond her control, the word damage flashed like a neon sign in my guilt-ridden mind. What have I done? I thought. Was there any way to undo the damage?

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A Question to Live By

small moments/small notebooks HFM

“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” –Fernando Sabino

I was standing over the shrimp dip when a family friend approached me. Although he was known to ask thought-provoking questions, and this was my going away party, I was not expecting this one. “So once you get settled in your new home, what do you imagine that moment will look like when you feel like everything is going turn out okay?” he asked.

In one mere sentence my friend went straight to my greatest fears, my greatest insecurities, and my greatest hopes. Funny thing is, I knew the answer to his question. I’d envisioned it a thousand times as I’d prepared our home to be emptied. Tears began dripping my face. An unsightly sea of mascara, I was sure, but I could not stop the tears if I tried. My friend didn’t act like it was any big deal. His wife, who is also my dear friend, had probably exposed him to spontaneous sobbing a few times. My friend just waited. Then he listened.

“When my children come home from school and say, ‘I met a friend today, Mama.’ That is when I know it’s gonna be okay. One friend makes the whole world better, you know. One friend for each girl. That is the moment,” I replied. Then I dabbed my eyes with a yellow party napkin and smiled because friends like that just make you smile even when you’re crying.

I thought that conversation concluded over appetizers and farewell hugs, but it didn’t. For the past two months, that conversation has continued in my head.

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