You are not my friend, you are my sister
– Susan E Foster
There is a supernatural energy shift that occurs when girlfriends come together. Life alters and makes way for our power when we unite. Together, we problem-solve. When it’s for one of our own, we move mountains. That’s what began to happen when I awakened the first morning of leading my four teen-agers out of domestic abuse into the great unknown.
With the morning dew and sunrise returned the looming fear. With my head still on the pillow, lying in bed upstairs in my brother’s home, looking up at the ceiling, wondering how to face the first day of our new life, I was bombarded with a list of issues needing immediate attention. I was contemplating the many needs of my four teen-agers, What do I tackle first?
Suddenly, the doorbell rings and I hear my sister-in-law greet a familiar voice. Walking down the stairs, I saw a great big bright-eyed smile on Gina’s beautiful face. My best friend since the age of 12, Gina, was standing at the foot of the stairs holding three steaming to-go cups of coffee, smiling. “I thought you might like a fresh Starbucks,” she said, adding, “Welcome home!”
Home . . . I was home, in my hometown where I had family and hometown friends. I had not felt home since I married. The me they knew had become someone in my past life. It felt good, soothing, to be with people who knew the me I lost. They knew me before all my marital trauma began. Their parents were friends of my parents, they not only watched me grow up, they
watched my brother. There stood my lifelong best friend, one who knew when I wasn’t being myself. Oh yes, she could see through any imitation. She knew me.
“Susan, we hear this new husband of yours coming out of your mouth,” my true friends warned me as an engaged young 23-year-old girl about to marry. “You don’t even sound like yourself anymore,” they’d implore with worry. “You don’t dress or act like yourself, either,” they’d boldly say.
“It’s the improved me,” I defended as I was fast becoming convinced. I had no idea that a young, handsome man with abilities to quote scripture could have anything but goodness inside. Oh the danger of naiveté. What I thought was virtuous was, in fact, my folly almost to my total destruction.
We were two of a group of soul mate friendships, some of which went back to third grade and beyond. We went through the adolescent stage, the disco dancing, and what was supposed to be fun “Teen Dance Nights.” Gina could move to the groove of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. I, on the other hand, was ridiculously stiff and awkward, turning down any invite to
the dance floor, watching her blissfully twist and twirl from the sidelines.
Determined that would never happen again, Gina stood me before her mirror with the Saturday Night Fever record playing, teaching me all her great moves in the privacy of her bedroom. The next Teen Night Dance, I was out on that floor. If she had a finger pointed up in the air with a hip swung out, I did too; if she twirled, I twirled, and we laughed hysterically at each other as I finally learned to make it out on the dance floor on my own.
Fast forward past all our weddings and into motherhood came the crises that rocked all our worlds. Gina’s 10-year-old daughter, Tara, contracted an amoeba-borne illness while swimming in a lake.
Nothing prepares a parent for the loss of a child, nor friends on how to console one so brokenhearted. Our friend group rallied around Gina, consoling her, sharing her grief and tears, totally unsure of what to say. How does one console the yearning heart of mother for her child? Gina had always been our leader. She organized our first pep squad, served in almost every student leader position, excelled in academics and sports. Now she would lead us in dealing with a mother’s greatest loss.
Not sure how I could be a support for her, during a momentary break of our deep, communal rushing flow of sobs I risk, “What are you going to wear to the service?” Four wide- eyed sets of eyes looked at me shocked and appalled, as if to say in disgust, “Susan? Seriously, you’re asking this now?”
“Well,” I said, having started it, “what look shall we go for?” running with the question I always asked her for any and every event. Bringing our normalcy to this traumatic moment would either feel good or really bad. Knowing this was going to be the most crowded funeral service I’d ever attend, I waited for her to respond. Shaking her head, cracking her first smile, Gina breaks the gasping in of air with, “Susan, you know me so well.”
Temporarily tossing the mascara-laden tissues to the trash, we all pile in a car to take Gina shopping. Sometimes, the answer is a new pair of shoes has long been my personal mantra, and I continue to stand by it today. Bombarding a local boutique, we five usher our friend cloaked in the balm of “grief shock” that numbs the coming flood of unbearable pain to find that perfectly put-together outfit.
Tara’s funeral left us forever altered. It was our first loss of that magnitude. The loss of a child is a loss all its own. It was deep. It was dark. It didn’t leave. Not for a long, long time.
In grief counseling, Gina later learned that when life’s path takes you on a sudden drop into a dark, deep abyss, not all your friends meet you down there. Oftentimes, the ones you least expect are there to greet you, softening the blow, while others stay at the top looking down, just waiting for you to come back up. Sometimes, you are never able to make it back to them.
A crisis comes in many layers. It either attracts or repels the people you love. The pain is multilayered, as well, because every kind of loss involves more than just one person. Even within our group, some of us picked up where others dropped off.
January 2, 2010, almost three months before my children and I packed up to leave, my other very best friend since the third grade rushed us back into the next of our greatest crises. Jonell was the friend that would say, “We’re going to do what?” when presented with one of my wild, exciting adventurous ideas to which all my other friends, possessing too much common sense, would boldly refuse. Jonell, however, was the one upon whom I could always rely. She faithfully joined me on many escapades, exploring many outlandish ideas, including an exciting high school senior trip to go on a road trip without a plan.
“Let’s just take off and see where our adventure leads!” was my bright idea for two young teens, never giving the question of safety a single thought. Fortunately, an Ordinary Angel swept in, diverting a few episodes of what could have turned terribly dark.
Eight years after Tara’s passing, and three months before my crisis of fleeing abuse was in full bloom, our second daughter of the group went to heaven at the precious young age of 15.
What started as aches and pains in her wrists and ankles turned into fainting spells, visits to multiple children’s hospitals, and more and more blood work, with no conclusive answers to the cause. This was Alex, Jonell’s otherwise healthy, vibrant, sassy little high-school teenaged soccer player, the baby of the family.
There Alex lay in the same ICU as Tara once had. Visiting Alex was Gina’s first time to return since the passing of Tara. And going down the familiar corridor brought forth daunting, challenging, ever-raw stuffed memories. As she forged ahead to support Jonell, our friend who was no stranger to life trauma, I worried about both of them pulling out of this one. Jonell survived losing her mother at the age of eight; being shunned by her cantankerous, crusty, harsh. father; divorcing from a tumultuous marriage with four little girls, and now add this?
Her list of traumas, at the time, included all that we had collectively been through and more. With Hollywood beauty and Diana-like grace, she faced her life from the outside-in, looking like a beauty queen on the outside while fighting vicious depression within. Losing Alex would take her depression to new heights.
Our hope rested in her wonderful, amazing second husband, David, whom she and we all love and appreciate. It would be a heavy load for him, but we would be there to support him as he carried the mother lode. It would take her family, all of us, shock therapy, psychotherapy, medication changes, drinking with her, overlooking her drinking alone, girls trips, and, of course, shopping to see her through. Nothing was too much for us. We took turns with each other through the ugly. Infidelity, financial crises, and more couldn’t break the bond of our friendships; in fact, it made us stronger.
Crowded around Alex’s graveside, huddling and hugging beneath a cold, overcast Texas January gray sky, another storm cloud loomed, threatening to erupt. Lost in grief with and for Jonell, Gina whispered to me, “Susan, I don’t know what to say,” allowing a different set of tears to flow freely down her cheeks. “I’m scared for you to return to him,” expressing herself more boldly in response to the massive hematoma covering my shin beneath my pant leg.
Knowing my husband recently kicked me, she begged, “Please stay here,” as they all turned toward me in unison.
“I drank the juice,” I responded. “I let all this happen. It’s all on me. I have been so stupidly blind, believing all his fundamentalist lies, and I must fully own this predicament I’m in.
“Please don’t bother Jonell with this,” I asked of them all. “Please take good care of her, because I can’t. I’ll figure something out for me,” I said, assuring them. “I am going back for my kids. I’ll figure a way out.”
Walking away from my trusted group of friends shrouded in grief, tears, and fear for two of their own, I could see Jonell in the distance, hovering over her daughter’s white casket, offering a final hug. From the grassy, crowded hillside of mourners in black, I drove myself back to what would be my closest encounter with hell.
Not even three full months later, On April 2, 2010, I awaken in my brother’s home to find Gina greeting me at the foot of the stairs.
How is it that so many memories flash through our minds in seconds? Carefully taking a cup of steaming coffee from Gina, I held and hugged my dear, precious friend. This was my girlfriend who I was bonded to like a sister all my life and continues to today…
At that time, The Tara Sawyer Foundation provided my children’s school uniforms affording my children to complete their final couple months of the school year with their cousin in his church school. Gina’s family foundation, The Tara Sawyer Foundation, was formed after the tragic loss of her 10-year-old daughter, Tara. Gina and her family turned their tragedy into an opportunity to help others.
Life has a way of circling around. Her tragedy helped me then. I could hardly believe it was happening. ‘We are doing this,’ I could hardly imagine at that time, ‘We are going to survive this abuse.’ With the help of sister-friends, I was beginning to believe I could lead my children out of abuse into a healthy future.
Seven years later, my children and I were making it until my youngest son, Marshall, began to spiral downward emotionally. On October 12, 2017, my 21-year-old son committed suicide following his miraculous survival of a harrowing motorcycle accident. It was not the accident that led him to end his life. It goes much deeper. Marshall was battling thoughts of suicide long before the crash. The full story is in my first book, Charming Impossibles: How Ordinary Angels Help Free the Hopelessly Stuck. Readers will learn how Ordinary Angels became a beacon of hope for me, my three surviving children, and many others.
In my second book Inside His locked Box: The Marshall Racing Project 33 Story, I give voice to Marshall. Through Marshall’s personal inspiring writing intertwined with the telling of our story, Inside His locked Box is a message that breakthrough is imminent the more hopeless we become. Through this inside look into Marshall’s troubled written struggles, his awaiting breakthrough is discovered. And it was available to him if only he had eyes to see. Marshall experienced perhaps his greatest sense of joy, accomplishment, and independence on the seat of his motorcycle, a black Kawasaki Ninja. It was so much more than a motorcycle. It was his dream realized.
Through sharing our story, I hope readers will discover the Ordinary Angels in their own life, that there is always hope, and that breakthroughs are imminent especially at our darkest hours. At those moments, we simply must help each other hold on.
Facing the daunting challenge of losing the third child of our friendship group, ‘money seeds’ from our supporting friends inspired The Tara Sawyer Foundation to, once again, create light and hope from pain by establishing The Alex Chance Scholarship and The Marshall Racing Project 33 Scholarship connecting our beloved children and our friendships in this meaningful memorial legacy of hope and love.
…A special thank you to Mary Ellen for the seed money to this vision.
To learn more: Tarasawyer.org and MRP33.org
Above: Jonell, Susan, Gina
Susan E Foster is a mother, author, speaker, coach and advocate hoping to equip men and
women to recognize the abusive Charming Impossibles in their lives. By sharing her personal
story of survival and faith, Susan reveals how we must never give up. She also detangles the web
of confusion spun around abuse, and works to inspire healthy change for men, women, and
children to help them overcome and heal.
Susan resides in Fort Worth, Texas. For more info: Susanefoster.com