A few years ago, in the late summer, a feral cat gave birth to a litter of kittens, mostly black and white cats with one lone ginger kitten at my parents' home in the Appalchian mountains of Pennsylvania. Auntie M, my mother's sister who lived with my parents, never really named any of the other kittens except "the ginger kitten," who was the friendliest and seemed to have the sleekest coat, perhaps because he was the most distinctive. The kittens lounged around the porch and went hunting in the forest that borders my parents' home as the seasons changed. After a while their mother left, but 6 or 7 of the kittens stayed on. They glided around the property growing up, too wild to be owned, but tame enough to belong.
It was a cold January morning and Auntie M was getting ready to go to work. She didn't know that the ginger kitten had taken refuge on her car radiator when she turned it on. She only heard a yowl of pain and a loud banging from under the hood as the ginger kitten skittered away, his front paw half burnt off and dripping blood, red on the white snow. She didn't go to work that morning—she tried to catch the ginger kitten to take him to the vet, but he couldn't be coaxed, he always managed to elude her. After a while, all the other kittens, now grown, came and huddled around the ginger kitten. They were still, hunched together on the porch against the wind, the ginger kitten at the center. They sat like that for hours, an entire morning. Just waiting for healing to come. Days and weeks passed and the ginger kitten healed. He still managed to glide around on 3 paws with surprising agility. Auntie M let out a long, loud horn blast before turning on her car during those winter months after that,just in case.
I have many healthy, interdependent female friendships. They save my life on almost a daily basis. There has been many times when, like the ginger kitten, I've mistakenly huddled up for warmth in a place that isn't meant for me. I've been bleeding before, burnt and raw and limping, from a miscarriage or an unexpected tragedy or a surprising diagnosis or another grappling match with anxiety and depression or just plain old exhaustion, and these women show up and just sit with me, braced against the wind. They might offer some tangible things, like a bar of dark chocolate or a cup of coffee or a casserole. But mostly, they offer me the strength of their presence, the honest vulnerability of their lived experiences, the wisdom gathered from the work they're doing, and the bravery of limping through the wilderness with me. Mostly, they listen and wait with me for the healing to come.
When I was a young mother, I was isolated and lonely. I didn't have a sisterhood, but I craved one so I tried to build it. I built it by sitting in rooms with strangers at church, reaching out to friends far away, putting myself out there in awkward and messy ways for years. These friendships didn't root down until adversity came and shattered something in us and we shared our broken bits with each other. Without judgement, without reservation, shared pain creates a strong bond. I'm not sure why God's made it so that in order to become strong, first we must be broken down by resistence. But he has. It's how we grow in our muscles, in our minds, in our relationships.
What a mess. It hurts so much.
I sat in a therapist's office last July after my greatnephew died, trying to get a handle on myself, how to grieve, how to be, how to go on. The therapist asked me, "Ok, before we begin, who are your safe people? You know, people who will drop everything to come help you if you need them?" I listed name after name after name: women who at first I didn't like but now couldn't live without; women who were once girls I knew; women who had argued with me and then reconciled years later; women who hold space for me in their busy lives. They all help shoulder some of the burdens I can't carry alone. I don't have to carry it alone. We aren't supposed to carry it alone.
"Wow, you have quite a network," she said. "Yeah," I said, replaying all the times we've sat together in the midst of our struggle and pain, appreciating again how beautiful it made my life, "I really, really do."