Let’s be honest: unless you’re the guest of honor, or maybe a grandparent, most baby showers kind of suck. There are the mandatory feigned squeals of delight over bootie-appliquéd onesies, the cutting one-liners and hurt feelings from thoughtless relatives that inevitably arise during any large family gathering, and the awkward meetings of different friends who had no previous knowledge of one another.
At my friend Hannah’s baby shower on Sunday, it was perhaps slightly more awkward than others for me, who had to think fast to the question-of-the-day: “And how do you know Hannah?”
Trust me, the honest answer would put a fast halt to any conversation.
It was a little over a decade ago and I was 16, newly admitted to the in-patient eating disorders ward of a hospital. I was terrified of both gaining weight and of the other patients, whom I needlessly assumed were prototypical “mean girls” made even bitchier from hunger. When I walked into the dining room with my tray of food, it was the nightmarish “new girl” scene straight out of every teen drama worth its melodramatic salt: so quiet crickets could chirp, with everyone staring at me as I stood there, frozen in place like an idiot. The supervisor kindly pointed out a place for me, and I shuffled over there with my IV pole conspicuously lagging behind me. I sat down mutely, tears forming in my eyes because I was expected to eat an entire sandwich and because nobody was talking to me. I felt alone, frightened, and completely miserable.
That didn’t last long. That same night, two of the girls came to my room and introduced themselves to me as Amanda and Hannah. They were bearing small designer samples of shampoo and conditioner, like we were in some three-star hotel and not an antiseptic hospital ward with the smells of illness and medication and leftover entrees lingering in the hallways. “We thought you might have forgotten these things when you were packing to come here,” they said. I have never been so touched by a tiny bottle of shampoo in all my life. I went to sleep that night a little less scared of what the next day would bring.
We were a somewhat improbable group, from very different backgrounds and with different interests, but our friendship flourished from literally spending every minute of the day with each other.
We ate our meals and drank our supplements together, we tried our best to intimidate wide-eyed social work interns in therapy together, and we had “school” together where a sweet older woman attempted and ultimately failed to inject some semblance of academic rigor for two hours a day. We spent Monday nights watching the first season of “The Bachelor” together, where another patient who joined us said, “This show blows and won’t last more than one season.” More than anything, we knitted together; knitting was a popular activity in our ward because, as someone clued me in, it was one of the few hospital-sanctioned pastimes that burned any sort of calories. But it also gave us a creative outlet to create something beautiful as we were forced to sit on our bony butts. Together, Amanda, Hannah and I produced approximately 60 scarves and 12 hats. I gave out a lot of homemade Hanukkah gifts that year.
I made other wonderful friends at the hospital, but Amanda and Hannah were my lifelines.
After we were discharged from the hospital, we wrote and called and met up a few times, but as most friendships that are created from being in the same place at the same time are wont to do, ours dwindled over the years. I’ve unfortunately lost tabs on Amanda, but my correspondence with Hannah has persisted, in sporadic dates at Starbucks and breathless phone conversations as we ran to make the train from work.
Over the years, I have watched her hold a series of laborious jobs to pay for her own apartments and then graduate school, continue her exhaustive involvement in political causes from her genuine concern for disenfranchised people, and yes, marry her boyfriend and choose to enter the crazy and sacred institution of motherhood.
And I watched her on Sunday, and I had a corny moment of pride and pure joy as I thought of how far we’d both come to get to this place: me, a happy and healthy mom of two amazing kids, sitting there and nodding in recognition as she, a happy and healthy momma-to-be, opened various presents alongside her husband. “What is that thing?” another friend asked frantically as she hurriedly listed each gift to inform the future thank-you notes. “That’s a wipes warmer,” I said knowingly. “That’s a Sophie Giraffe teething ring.”
As I said my goodbyes and gathered my things, her mother and I chatted, briefly referencing mine and Hannah’s troubled adolescence. “I’m so happy to see both of you thriving,” she said. We turned at that moment to see Hannah, who at at this point, was laughing as she cut into the cake from which a creepy baby doll’s head was emerging, amid laughing friends and family. Her face was glowing with happiness and her free hand rested on her blossoming belly.
It was a really long road to recovery, and a really long journey to get to this place, in this small backyard in Queens that was strewn with wrapping paper and presents and yes, creepy baby dolls, but that was also an embrace of life itself: its grace and beauty, its promise and possibilities. Because we have friends from that time who are not doing much better than they were a decade ago, and we know how difficult it is for them, and we can cite the unfavorable statistics. And yet against the odds, here we are: happy, healthy, and thriving.
I turned back to her mother and simply, sincerely, said, “Me, too.” Me, too.