Conversations

I almost didn’t take the part-time nanny job. I’m sure I had my reasons, though it’s hard to remember the details now, all these years later.

I went for the interview mainly because a friend of my best friend had recommended me, and I felt obligated to show up. I practiced my “thank you, but no thank you” speech on the way over, and then I rang the doorbell and waited.

Only, I never got to the speech.

A sweet brown-haired girl answered the door, still wearing her school uniform from earlier in the day and clutching a Harry Potter book, and I thought, Okay, well, this changes things.

I took the job, staying until the kids were too old for a sitter. When I was done being the nanny, I became a friend.

Last week, I sat across the table from that brown-haired girl, so beautiful the bartender danced a little jig to get her attention. She’s an attorney now, but just as funny as ever. Just as tenderhearted, too. And, I had to hold myself together while she talked because in some tiny, tiny way she is like my first-born, and I think it is almost always a mother’s instinct to gush instead of listen.

I didn’t know then—when I rang that doorbell—that this little voracious reader and her family would teach me how to be a mom, that they would have a far greater impact on me than I on them, and that what seemed like a job was actually the start of something more like family.

That’s the crazy thing about life: profound beginnings are almost always disguised as ordinary moments.

Some of our closest friendships, most important work, and deepest change take root in days that look as plain and uninteresting as all the other bits of time strung together. We only see their significance, the deep shift towards a whole new way of being, when looking in reverse.

The first day working in their home, I remember seeing the picture of their mom, a beautiful woman, blonde and thin with charming warmth. You could feel it radiating from the photograph nailed to the wall, even though several years had already passed since her death. Yet, there she was wearing a black swimsuit and an August tan, preserved forever in that youthful state before her illness.

I went home that night and cried, understanding that I was there because she wasn’t.

When I became a mom myself, I cried again. My God, the pain she must have felt, holding her preschoolers one final time, knowing that she wouldn’t see them grow up, or graduate from college, or get married, or have their own babies.

Maybe what hurt the most was knowing she couldn’t protect them from the pain of her leaving. At least that’s what I think when I look at my son’s chubby face, knowing I would willingly stretch my body across a red-hot track to slow the harshness of life from barreling down on him. I am certain she would’ve too, if given the choice.

I am not their mom; I know this. They have a kind, attentive father that in every way has served as both mother and father, but I think—if I could be bold enough to say it—that I got to bear witness to their lives. It is one of the most precious things I’ve been entrusted with.

If heaven is the kind of place where people swim and talk and eat ice-cold watermelon and hold one another’s babies, and I think it might be, I hope to sit next to her for awhile and say, “What a gift you have given me, to share your children with me. I am sure you would have asked for something different for your life, and I would have too, but I can say with all my heart that they never forgot you, that you were present always in their kindness to one another, their humor, their discipline, their warmth. Aren’t they amazing? I just love them.”

I can’t be sure, but I think she might give me a hug and tell me she knows.

CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.

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