She was just a Facebook friend of mine. Anyone who knows Facebook knows that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. I have lots of Facebook friends, and some of them are wonderful. Some are just people who share some common interest. I am “friends” with lots of people with whom I attended school nearly half a century ago, but they weren’t friends then, and are not even really acquaintances any more. There is some comfort in the connection, though. I had "known" this friend for about a year, but all I really knew was that she was in a relationship and that she had two daughters, ages three and eight.
I’ve met two other Facebook friends, and I think the world of them both. So, when I found out she was bringing her family to Orlando for a visit, I was excited, albeit somewhat naturally nervous about meeting her. My shyness is at times extraordinarily painful. What if it turned out we had nothing in common after all? It was also terrible timing for me; my life was in chaos. I couldn’t afford to take them out for dinner, or to do anything for them, really. “No matter,” I was told. “We have figured into the budget a way to take you with us to Disney, or whatever else we decide to do.”
I felt less than enthusiastic about it, given my financial state, but meeting them was not something I was willing to miss out on, so I went along with it. In the back of my mind, I thought, “There will be another time, and I will make it up to them then.” And with that, my husband and I joined them for dinner one night. I then accompanied them to Magic Kingdom, Sea World and Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. We had a grand time; each adventure more fun than the one before. When it was over eight days later, my life had been changed forever.
I guess it was the children who won me over first. I’d long told myself I might never be a grandmother, given that my son expressed no interest in having children. I am a “step-grandmother” to five, but those five have their “real” grandmothers and as such, I am kept at arm’s length. I’m all right with that. I am glad those wonderful children have their “real” grandmothers, and since I don’t see them often, anyway, I guess I am content in simply being Julie, to them.
My friend’s children have “real” grandmothers too. In fact, in conversation with the then eight year-old, she mentioned that she has “lots” of grandmothers. Theirs is a huge family and extended family, and I suspected that there are many aunts and uncles and grandparents. Somehow, that abundance made me let my guard down, I guess, but I soon thought to myself, “I will accept any position in their lives that they are willing to offer.”
I watched them as if feeding a hunger inside me; the grownups holding hands and smiling into each other’s eyes; the children laughing and climbing into their father-figure’s lap as if they had known and been loved by him forever. The simple ease of family; joining hands as they walked through crowds. All of it felt like a sweet miracle to me.
I gladly watched the girls while the other grown-ups went on the grown-up rides. It was no sacrifice, even though I love a good roller coaster. I delighted in the children, in their trust and openness. The younger of them, at three, took to me at once, hugging me and telling me she loved me before our first meeting ended.
Her sister was a bit more reserved; more open to question-and-answer sessions than to affection. Though it took a bit more time, it wasn’t long, considering she barely knew me.
Ultimately, though it was their mother and her boyfriend who were most fascinating to watch. The ease with which they talked things over and made decisions, quietly and assuredly. The quiet exchanges, smiles, the respect and appreciation. The warmth. I watched with what must have been an almost tangible wistfulness.
Oh, that I could have had that, with the father of my own son… how much better might his life have been? On a par with those beautiful girls, so secure in the love of the grownups in their lives, perhaps?
And why wouldn’t they be secure? They were irresistible, bright and beautiful and open. Just like my son was at a young age, before he became aware of the roller coaster which was his life; the twists and turns and barrel loops and sudden looming descents. Before he shut down his heart, for fear of what lay ahead and what may happen if he closed his eyes instead.
What wouldn’t I have given, all those years ago, to be able to have given my son that; a father I could have loved in that trusting and respectful way that my friend and her boyfriend shared? Perhaps he would not have closed himself down as he did, showing fleeting glimpses only when he let his guard down, of the devotion and passion of which he was capable. I had watched him for more than twenty years, holding himself back from love.
How might he have been different, had he grown up as my friend’s children are, surrounded not only by love but by patience and encouragement? I know I told him I believed in him, but was he ever convinced that I did? Could I have been convincing, given my insecurities about my own parenting? I’d struggled with mothering him, from the start, never feeling good enough to do the job, so even I was never certain whether I was seeing my son as he truly was, or just an illusion, the son I hoped he was and could be.
My wistful longing was, in the end, set free. The night before they departed, we all went to dinner once more. Pictures were taken. Smiles were shared. A good time was had by all. When, later, we had to part ways, there were magnificent hugs and talk of another visit… and longing tears as I walked away, my husband making light of my emotional state by pretending to cry aloud.
As we drove away, I received a text saying the older girl asked if my husband was really crying. Her mother told her no, to which she replied, “But grandma is?”
As I mentioned above, my life has been forever changed. It still breaks my heart, knowing that my son did not grow up with two parents who adored each other as well as him. But that break is healed with the knowledge that despite the odds, he and my “Facebook friend” are giving that gift to these amazing children, the grandchildren of my heart.