My oldest daughter, 11 now, was waiting for me when I walked in the door from work. Before I had set my bag down, she was sobbing, her face crumpled under the stress of crying out whatever she had been holding in.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, a ticker tape of terrible images flashing through my head as I waited for her to catch her breath enough to be able to manage speech.
“A party,” she started, pausing to wipe her nose on her sleeve. “I’m not invited.”
And just like that, all the parenting badges and medals I had earned, all the honors of having birthed four children (and the last one on the bathroom floor), all the wisdom of more than a decade’s worth of dealing with every flavor of crisis that could come along and reduce one of the six of us to a messy pile of tears flew out of me in one long exhale.
Because right then, I was eight again, still convinced that a girl we’ll call Annie was my best friend. I knew it had to be truth because I’d proclaimed it as many times as anyone would indulge me to listen, and then I’d sealed the deal with those chunky best friend necklaces that together formed one heart.
I was awkward and unpopular and a little jacked up, but the weight of that half a heart against my chest comforted me. No matter what the world took from me, I always had Annie.
That is, of course, until I didn’t. Until I realized I never actually had had Annie at all. Come to think of it, she’d never worn her half of the interlocking heart necklace, and I’m certain I’d never heard her mention me as her best friend. Hell, I’m not sure I’d ever heard her mention me at all.
And she definitely forgot to mention me when she gave her mother the list of people she wanted to invite to her extra super special mega blowout birthday bash at the skate n’ place roller rink, because out of our entire third grade class, I was the only one not invited.
You can imagine the heartbreak.
So I stood there in my foyer, 30 years later and very much an adult, still in my adult heels and my adult coat, and trying my adult best to summon words to make everything better for the little love of my life who stood before me as brokenhearted as my sad unrequited necklace. But I couldn’t.
The ticker tape was back, except this time, it flashed ideas of what I should say here to fix it. “People are terrible” seemed harsh. “Never trust anyone” was likely a little too bleak. I had nothing, I realized.
Except that wasn’t exactly true either.
What I had was the sadness of a 30-year-old heartbreak that I could still feel if I closed my eyes, even though I had grown up to feel wholly loved. I knew there had to be a lesson in this, a teachable moment maybe, but I hadn’t found it yet. What I found was my compassion.
So I stepped out of my heels and the shadow of my past. I shed my coat and the weight of the grudge I might have still been carrying against Annie – not a bad one, like I was going to boil her bunny or send her a horse’s head, but more the kind where if I saw her in the grocery store and her hands were full and she needed to reach the good ice cream on the top shelf of the freezer, I would reach in for her and grab it and then run away cackling with it tucked under my arm.
I got down to where I could be eye level with my bleary-eyed girl. I wrapped her in my arms and rocked slow and said the two words I did know to be true: “I know. I know I know I know I know.”
Because didn’t I? Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone know what that feels like, some personal version of Annie and the birthday non-invitation heard round the world? Who would ever wish such pain on their kid?
It was later, after the sting of both our wounds had settled into a dull ache in the background and we had words again, when I asked her what she thought she could do to make things better. And I saw the lesson had been there all along.
“What can I do? Maybe nothing,” my daughter said, “at least not about the party. But I could try really hard to make sure I don’t ever make anyone else feel like that.”
That’s when Annie rushed right out of my heart once and for all. There just wasn’t any room left for her, what with all the love and gratitude swelling up in there.