Today I’m thinking about an old friend. We were close in high school and I always think of her around this time of year. It is true that we never really know what other people are going through and that we should always keep this in mind before we talk badly about someone or talk down to them. This is the true story of Jennifer.
Jennifer and I became friends when I was falsely accused of stealing a pen from another student in class. I was accused because I was a foster kid, no other reason. I didn’t have a history of stealing or lying but apparently my teacher had a history with foster kids. And so it went. I was kept in from recess every day until I confessed to the crime and returned the pen…kind of hard to do when I didn’t steal it. Jennifer felt badly about this, worse than anyone else as every by this time suspected that I really was to blame. Finally she told me it was Cathy, her cousin and another classmate of ours. She’d bragged about it to her the night before.
Cathy overhearing our conversation from the hall, left the pen on the floor of the bathroom, in the doorway, for us to find. Jennifer and I looked at the discovered pen like it was a two headed snake. Yes, it was awesome that we found it but we also knew if I returned it, the teacher would be justified in her belief that it had been me that had stolen it and things were hard enough for me. Children were being instructed not to play with me at recess because I was a state kid and teachers always seemed to accuse me of being the one to start fights or play pranks.
Jennifer knew all of this. She scooped up the pen and headed for homeroom with a stomp to her step. At 10 years old she walked up to the teacher’s desk and slammed down the pen. “I stole it.” She announced, “And you owe Addison an apology.”
Years later Jen and I had become very close. She was the shy one always in the background quietly calculating everything but never saying a word accept for one day in advanced anatomy class when we were dissecting cats. One of the girls from our group was taking credit for everything Jennifer did. Jennifer glanced up at me when the other girl went to announce another of Jen’s finds, to the teacher. “I’m sick of her. She’s always taking credit for everything. She has no idea what it’s like.”
I remember being surprised that she’d actually said anything but when the girl returned we all went back to dissecting the cat. Then Jennifer did something I’d never thought her capable of. “Candice, is this the bladder or the liver?” She asked poking the swollen organ with a short metallic spear.
Candice leaned over the cat to get a better look, because in all honesty she wouldn’t have been able to tell the animal’s ass from its head, and just as she was inches away, Jen stabbed the badder straight through, spraying Candice in the face with the whatever mummifying fluid was used to preserve the dead cat.
I burst out laughing, proud that she’d finally stood up for herself for once.
One year later Jen and I were going to celebrate my seventeenth birthday by over eating candy, shopping and watching a movie at the mall two hours away. Jen was late, she was never late. Finally just as I was about to give up she pulled into the yard in her pickup. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Sorry, um my dad had a heart attack.”
I stopped her from putting the truck in gear and peered at her in the growing darkness. “Jen, we don’t have to go. It’s just my birthday. I’ll have more.”
She smiled and shook her head. “It’s okay. He’s in Colorado and there isn’t anything I can do by sitting at home.”
“Why is he in Colorado?” I asked.
“He’s got a job there. He moved there when my parents got divorced.”
“Wait, your parents got a divorce?”
“Just don’t say anything.” She shrugged and I sat in stunned silence. I considered Jen to be a close friend and she hadn’t even told me her parents had gotten a divorce and her father lived three thousand miles away.
The next morning Jen sat in the hall with a blank stare on her pretty face. I sat next to her and she looked at me. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Is your dad okay?”
She shook her head and tears rolled down her cheeks. “He died last night. They’re going to take my little brother away.”
“Why would they do that?” I asked.
She looked at me with her wide cornflower blue eyes. “Please don’t tell anyone, but my dad has been sending us money. My mom left about a year ago. I’ve been taking care of Adam, but I can’t take care of him and go to school.”
I want to take a moment here to tell you that she’d been maintaining straight A’s this entire time while I was a B student and had nobody to take care of but myself.
Jen left before first bell and went home to plan her father’s funeral.
A couple days later I was sitting in study hall drawing up a huge card that everyone was going to sign for Jen. Candice, her old arch rival looked at me and snorted. “Nobody made me a card when my dad died.” Her father had died four years earlier and no I didn’t make her a card, but all I could think was how selfish she sounded and I snapped.
“This isn’t about you Candice. Her dad died three days ago. I know your father died and I’m sorry, but you have no fucking clue what she’s going through right now.”
Needless to say I was ordered by the principle to spend some time in the guidance councilor’s office later that day, discussing the finer points of sensitivity and how I lacked them.
Jen ended up running out of money and made a call to their older brother, who quickly decided he didn’t want the responsibility of raising their 12 year old brother while Jen went off to fight a war in Afghanistan. I sat her down and told her that it wasn’t so bad being a foster kid. I’d had great families that loved me very much. Soon there after, Adam went into foster care with a great family that loved him and years later ended up adopting him on his eighteenth birthday. This is something a lot of people don’t understand but in a foster family, it is a huge gesture of acceptance and dedication to the child.
Jen went on to serve two terms in the military and now works as a manager for a large retail chain one town over. We say hello to one another when we meet, but we never kept in touch. I miss her sometimes and I think about her and her strength of character. I think about how amazing she is and how much I want to be more like her. I wonder if I ever gave her a reason to think about me. If I was ever as good a friend as she was. I truly hope so because she deserved at least that and I know when she comes up in conversation I’ll have her back every time!