Going into labor is not the most obvious way for strangers to become friends but it worked for Kathy and Patti. Kathy delivered first, in the evening of August 13, then Patti a few hours later on the fourteenth. Two boys born hours apart. In a recovery room at Sherman Hospital, the conversation was easy for Kathy and Patti, laughing and celebrating together. For those first months, they’d stay in touch. Getting lunch occasionally. Calling to share milestones. First smiles, one of the boys rolling over, the other finally able to be propped up on a pillow.
But twenty-seven miles of backcountry roads is a long way to maintain a friendship in the harsh winter of ‘88. Especially for two working, first-time mothers. And the boys were small. And then there were more babies. And work gets busy. And then they thought they should call the other soon. And then there were new homes with new phone numbers.
I’ve learned as an adult that sometimes friendships fade with only the best of intentions. It’s been ten years since I left home to travel the world. Moving first across the country, then the ocean, then back to the coast. Friends I spent every day with have become memories who occasionally text, Let’s catch up next time you’re in town. As I settle into life here in Southern California, across the street from the hospital where my son was born, I sometimes wonder how everyone back home is doing. Scrolling on my phone, double-tapping hearts on their pictures, I wonder, When did their kids get so big? I smile and keep scrolling. Look how far we’ve come. But with some friends no matter where we find ourselves, no matter how far or how long it’s been we belong to one another. Even in moments of silence the conversation that began long ago keeps going.
When I was five, my mom moved back to her hometown of Hampshire with me and my sister. A town in the middle of a cornfield. A town you move to only to be closer to the family that never left. I started first grade as the new kid in a close-knit group of kids who were either siblings, first cousins, second cousins, third cousins twice removed. Kids from families with streets and parks named after them. The teachers who taught us taught our parents and their parents before them. After graduation, they all shared stories together of way-back-when at the dimly lit Corkshire Pub. It was hard to break into that. At least the kid in the seat next to me wanted to be friends.
“Mom, I made a new best friend! Can I go play at his house?”
“Once I meet his parents,” my mom smiled at me. At the first parent-teacher conference of the year, I searched the crowded library for my new best friend and his parents. When I found them I pointed them out for my mom to see.
“Kathy?” My mom asked as a fond memory walked into the room, “Is that Ian? When did he get so big?”
“Patti? Our boys are all grown up!”
They hugged, laughed, and the conversation has continued since. How could it be that their boys found each other? Somehow of all the babies born that week at Sherman Hospital, of all the small towns in northern Illinois a family could move to, of all the ways a school administration could divide children into three different first grade classrooms, of all the seating charts a teacher could write, it was their boys who found each other. Of course we could play together. Ian’s house was just a block from the duplex where we lived. The next Saturday and every Saturday after we were together, talking about who knows what.
Children can make a whole world beneath a tree. Before our neighbors moved, we’d sit out front talking as our boys played together on our warm California evenings. The boys ran in and out of the palm trees in front of our duplex. Making swords of sticks, potions out of lavender, shouting and yelling with glee and rage. We’d watch our boys turn the trees into the Titanic and become ninja-mermaid hybrids to stop the iceberg. A full-proof plan. Maybe it is our nature to create worlds beneath the branches of trees.
There was a tree in Ian’s backyard. We’d crawl through the dirt like spies, ruining the new landscape. We made a whole world out of Hampshire. Back then, Hampshire was so big. We’d ride our bikes to the edge of town, to the cornfields that stretched to infinity. A sea of green waving in the breeze. We found gold in the creek that cut through town. We rode up the hill at Seyller Park and perilously took our feet off the pedals and flew down. Look no hands! We carved trails in the overgrown forest behind the park. The years wrapped rings around us like the rings in the trees we made our worlds beneath.
It was no surprise in high school that we didn’t quite fit in with all the cousins, second cousins, and third cousins twice removed. I suppose everybody feels like they don’t belong in high school. But Ian, me—kids like us felt it acutely. Never bullied but we had to throw our own parties. While the other kids were drinking wine coolers and cheap lagers at barn parties, Ian was writing space operas and I was auditioning for Fiddler on the Roof. But like everyone we wanted to belong.
Our junior year I started a Christian youth group out of my house with the history teacher. The teacher did all the Bible teaching, I led the music. It grew from eight the first week, twelve the second, and by the end of the first month, it had over thirty kids. That first year some two hundred students out of the five hundred or so in school came to the group. Perhaps it was then that I started to drift from Ian. I had found where I belonged, made new friends, found a life’s calling. Ian was always supportive, glad for me. He came once or twice but the church thing wasn’t for him. As the group grew in numbers, it grew in dogmas. We had the corner on truth and, supposedly, love. We’d corner people at their lockers and list their sins. Did they want to hear about Jesus? It must have been lonely to be outside of all that watching your best friend revel at the center.
The summer after graduation Ian moved to Seattle for college. We emailed and texted but two-thousand miles is a long way to keep in touch. And then I moved to Southern California. And then there were babies. And then more babies. And work gets busy. And then we thought we should call the other soon. And then there were new homes and new phone numbers.
Maybe we knew way back when that it was inevitable we’d grow up. One Saturday before either of us moved away, before youth groups, before high school, when we were small and Hampshire was big, Ian and I built a time machine in his basement. We were going to go to the future to see if we were still best friends. But time travel is tricky. It’s taken us decades to get to now. The other day someone asked me how long I’ve been in California. I was amazed to realize it’s been just about ten years. Perhaps it’s time that makes a place home. Hampshire seems so far away now. With each passing year and a growing collection of memories, Southern California is becoming home. Here is where I spend my days loving my wife, watching my children play, serving my church. Letting the minutes and hours tick into the future. I’ve found where I belong is beneath the palms of Southern California and not the wide-open fields of Illinois.
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But in 2016 my wife, Alyssa, and I moved to Hampshire with our son to be near my family and to figure some stuff out. The town had grown but somehow seemed smaller. They chopped down the forest behind Seyller Park, replaced it with an unfinished tract housing development called Prairie Trails. The creek ran dry, the fields didn’t wave. On a cold fall night, I got a message from Ian, I’m in town. Want to catch up? I was working at the local library and as we were closing I saw a memory browsing our limited DVD selection. Kathy and Patti’s boys hugged and laughed. When my shift ended we walked down the streets we roamed as kids. For the night Hampshire was big again. We talked for hours without pause. We talked about who knows what. We talked about babies. We talked about work. We talked about new homes. We counted the rings around us and the worlds we’ve made.
The conversation that began when we were born keeps going.
Cover image by Sander Weeteling.