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A Significant Friendship

school end 002Eight-year-old Laura drew a happy picture and wrote “I miss you! Come back soon! Your friend, Laura!” It was addressed to my son Gage. With the help of her mother, she carefully delivered it to our house the first day Gage was missing from school.

Gage wasn’t at home to receive the note and wouldn’t be for several days. At the same moment the flower drawings were taped to our door by Laura and her mother, Beth, he was in a psychiatric hospital because of a complete emotional breakdown.

Gage and Laura’s childhood relationship looks like any other grade school friendship, except, for the most part, Laura has been Gage’s only continuous, long-term friend since they met in Kindergarten. At school functions they were always side-by-side, they’ve played together outside of school, and they’ve always traded small gifts. She helped him and encouraged him in class. Their mutual affection was tangible.

Gage was diagnosed at age one with a vision disorder causing developmental delays and at age 3 with a rare kidney disease he shared with his younger sister and both diagnosed with when she was born. Hundreds of therapy appointments helped with his late talking and walking and anything else that could be recorded in a baby book; he’s been evaluated more times than we can count on our family’s fingers and toes.

By the time first grade was in full swing, Gage was in complete kidney failure and he required dialysis at the hospital three days a week. His energy waxed and waned, and was barely enough to attend school to learn some of the basics. The end of first grade brought a new kidney and new found strength.  Laura helped bake a going away cake from the class, homemade with the message, “Good Luck with Your New Kidney!” Her mother explained that instead of “Love, Your Friends” Laura wanted to sign it “Love, Laura.”

Isolated because of his health, behavior issues, and differences in development compared to his peers, his ability to form deep friendships was profoundly affected. While other kids were mastering their social skills and modeling good behavior, he was fighting to stay alive; all of his energy was spent on surviving tests, procedures, dialysis and a kidney transplant. He is what most consider “different,” making him vulnerable in the eyes of kids who bully. He’s depended on the guardianship of teachers and adults around him, and the watchful eye of a best friend. During the year after his kidney transplant, Gage had suicidal thoughts, severe depression, rages (lasting hours) and complete disregard for anything he previously enjoyed, including friendships.

He was lucky to have Laura, because at the time, he’d nearly closed himself off from the world. He’d rage while begging, pleading with us to kill him. He’d run from a room to barricade himself in a cabinet under a sink for an hour, or he’d simply weep quietly into his pillow, pushing us away, unable to accept any attempt to ease his suffering. Spiraling for days over several weeks, it culminated in an episode of lashing out and grim drawings of devastating violence. Having tried everything known to us to help him with no sign of relief for him, we drove our 9-year-old son to a psychiatric hospital, signed a release, and left him in the flat, one floor building with strangers.

I shared the details of his admittance with Laura’s mom, Beth. We talked about the months and weeks leading up to the day we drove away from the psychiatric hospital without our son and how in the darkest times, Laura, with the support of her parents, stayed connected to Gage.  Laura helped Gage become less vulnerable at school. She allowed him to be a friend and have a friend; she helped him feel valued and she encouraged him to take part in life, if even the tiniest bit. She saw the best in him when he couldn’t find it in himself. Beth reminded me that day that their friendship was not a one-way street; Gage’s qualities provided Laura a friendship like no other.

When Laura was writing that note with happy pictures and carefully taping it to our front door last year, Gage was in a white, sterile, padded “safe room” under the watchful eye of one-on-one supervision:  suicide watch. Laura is the only friend that sent Gage notes even though all the children in his class knew he was out for an unknown amount of time. Laura had been with Gage through more than one abrupt absence from school before; he’d been out multiple times for his illness and we’ve canceled more than one play date or birthday party.

Laura stood up at 5th grade graduation to declare that Gage was her inspiration. She said “Gage inspires me because he has been through a lot and is still going strong. He has experienced more challenges than most, yet he still puts his best food forward….Gage is the person who inspires me to keep going and be all I can be. Thank you, Gage.” Her words were validation that his life mattered to someone outside of his immediate family. It was when he realized what we were saying all along; his life mattered.

Their friendship is an example of how one little girl helped one little boy by being a friend and that every human – even the one who thinks he is unlovable – that acceptance and friendship, one friend who believes in you, can make a difference.

When I walked to the psych unit on visiting day number one and went through security holding Laura’s note, I was keenly aware of what the note represented. It made me think about the time that Gage quietly leaned over in the car on the way home from school one day so his sister wouldn’t hear him as he whispered in my ear; “Today Laura said she likes me just the way I am.”

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