“What is there to look forward to?” Sylvia asks me hopefully the other night as we set out on our nightly walk. It is the first week back at school after Christmas break. For the entire previous month, there has always been something delightful just around the corner: meeting Santa, making the gingerbread house, decorating cookies, seeing the lights at Lake Julian. Now that all the decorations are put away and the relatives have gone home, what is there to look forward to, indeed?
“It’s your dad’s birthday party on Saturday,” I tell her. “And we can finally do the piñata.”
It is not the right thing to say. The piñata was supposed to have been for the twins’ birthday, but the few kids who came to their party had to leave before it could be disemboweled. Tears come to Sylvia’s eyes, remembering.
“Nobody I invited even came to my party.”
My heart sinks; her disappointment is at least partly my fault. The girls hadn’t wanted a huge crowd, so I had suggested that, in addition to some family friends, they each invite only two friends from school. Unfortunately, the girls Sylvia had invited didn’t come.
“It’s because they’re sort-of friends,” she explains to me now. “They’re not real friends.” She pauses, considering. “I don’t have any real friends,” she concludes, beginning to cry.
I hug her close, wanting to contradict her. Of course you have real friends, I want to say. I mean, how couldn’t she? Sylvia is my one extrovert, with her father’s sense of humor. Sylvia wakes up in the morning eager to go to school so she can make people laugh. So how can my funny, kind, social child not have a real friend?
But I bite my tongue. I know what a true friend is, and I also know that there are times in your life when you just don’t have one. To tell her that of course those girls are true friends isn’t right, for what can I know, really, about the nature of her friendships? I can only tell her to be patient, to give it time, that she is doing the right thing by getting involved in the things she enjoys and being kind to everyone.
I tell her that there have been times in my life when I’ve been lonely, times when I’ve longed for a true friend more than anything. And, walking along the wet street in the dark, I sing her Diana Ross’s “You Can’t Hurry Love,” a song I listened to again and again in high school as I washed the dishes after dinner, a song that always brought me comfort in the way it both normalizes loneliness and offers up a cheerful reassurance that it’s not forever.
Singing the familiar lines, I realize, of course, that the song isn’t completely apt. Sylvia hasn’t endured heartache after heartache; she certainly isn’t longing for a pair of tender arms to hold her tight (at least not yet— thank goodness). But it seems, too, that there is something essentially the same about the kind of loneliness Sylvia feels without one true friend and the kind that seeps through the bars of the Supremes’ hit single from the sixties. I want it to be a comfort to Sylvia that she is not alone in her aloneness.
In general, Sylvia is my sanguine, upbeat daughter. For her, the glass is always half-full; she finds the silver lining where she can. After two weeks off at Christmas, when reading logs and division tests loomed their ugly heads, she announced, “I can’t wait to go to school so I can use my new lunchbox!”
And so it especially heart-breaking to me when Sylvia cries. Really cries. Not the cry when her brother has pushed her a little too far, or the cry when I’ve spoken harshly to her and she must run to her room in tears to let me know how wronged she’s been. But when she cries that she has no real friends at school, no one who can be counted on to come to a birthday party and stay until the contents of the piñata lie scattered on the ground— that cry breaks my heart.
Hugging Sylvia to me while the dogs pull at their leashes, I have to learn again— for the gazillionth time— that I am long, long past the days of motherhood when I held infinite power to make my children happy. And that lesson, too, breaks my heart.
I know that there will be times when my children are sad. They will feel wronged or lonely. Someone will disappoint them, or, worse, they will disappoint themselves. I believe the Greek poet Hesiod understood something essential about the human experience when he first told of Pandora opening her box. We have the right, not to happiness, but to its pursuit.
No, I can’t make my children happy. I can’t make Sylvia believe she has a true friend if she doesn’t. I can’t stamp out Clayton’s despair when he makes a less than stellar grade on a big math test, or lift Dee Dee from her darker moods. I can only try to shepherd my children through their griefs and disappointments with as much grace as I can find. I can only tell Sylvia that we love her, that she is not alone.
And, when we get home from our walk, I can play her “You Can’t Hurry Love” on youtube and show her pictures of Diana Ross.
“Oooo,” she says, brightening. “When I’m a teenager, I want a dress like that.” And just like that, Sylvia finds her own way back to joy.
Note to the reader, in case you’re worried about Sylvia:
A few days later, Sylvia was telling me about how she played with another girl on the swings at recess and they had a “nice little chat.”
“It seems to me that you might have real friends at school,” I said tentatively.
“Yeah,” she said, nodding. “It seems to me, too.”
Unfortunately, it rained at Daddy’s party so the piñata is still in the basement, waiting for Valentine’s Day.