Autoimmune Disease Introspection Life tips

I want to tell you about my friend Brenna.

October 1, 2020

This post is over three times longer, and 1,000 times more vulnerable than my typical posts. Bear with me, dear readers, as I process a painful new reality.

Before we became friends, I watched Brenna from afar with awe and wonder. She was confident, bold, smart, savvy. Like me, she wore glasses. But instead of making her look frumpy and dorky, like I thought mine did, she made them look cool.

Not only did she wear glasses, but she had multiple different frames! This was revolutionary to me. I’d never thought about glasses as a fashion accessory. They were just an embarrassing alternative to blindness.

Brenna made everything look cool.

And when you’re in junior high, it is very difficult to look cool.

Brenna played the clarinet in band. I can’t remember for sure, but I think she was first chair, or somewhere close. I played the flute. I was decent at it, so we both sat in the front row.

I’d sneak glances at her sometimes, and wonder what it would be like to be so sure of yourself. We were only six months apart in age, but she was a year ahead of me in school, and a lifetime ahead of me in wisdom.

She seemed to have a knack for seeing into the hearts of people.

I guess that’s how I ended up – to my utter astonishment – hanging out with her. Sitting at her table at lunch. Even making her laugh her gorgeous, one-of-a-kind Brenna laugh.

It was a laugh that came from deep in her belly. It was uninhibited and contagious. It brought life and joy to everyone lucky enough to hear it. It was a song comprised of giggles and happiness.

Brenna just sort of absorbed me into her world, and it was the safest, most nurturing place I’d ever been. Once I was invited in, I never wanted to leave. And for a few years, I didn’t.

By my freshman year of high school, I was all but living at Brenna’s house. I spent every night there that I could. She and her brother Evan were my family that year – a year my actual family was falling apart.

It is no exaggeration to say that Brenna and Evan saved my life.

I shudder to think of what would have become of me that year had Brenna not taken me under her very strong, very protective wing. I was a messed up kid with a screwed up family, and zero sense of self or direction.

I made some very questionable choices. But Brenna was always there, always loving me, always seeing only the very best. And always picking me up after I’d fallen down. She was one part friend, one part big sister, and one part foster mom. It was a recipe for kindness and unconditional acceptance that I gobbled up like a love-starved puppy.

Brenna was an old soul.

If she ever wondered what to do with her life, or who she was, or where she was headed, I never heard about it. She was always a teacher. She worked at the local museum, giving tours to visitors and learning everything she could about the history of our community.

I worked the checkout counter at a local craft and variety store and ate right out of the popcorn machine when the manager wasn’t looking.

Despite being exceptionally smart and rather reserved (until you got her giggling), she was also the epitome of cool. Everyone liked her – no, loved her – and somehow, I was a part of her world. To this day, I still have no idea how I got there.

Except, maybe I do…

I was raised to be a Barbie doll, a pink princess, a pageant queen without a crown. And I was terrible in this role. It was like being crammed into a cheerleading uniform that was two sizes too small. My true soul was in books, art, and writing.

The result was a parody of all the things I thought I was supposed to be – beautiful, poised, outgoing, and slightly daft – like Lucille Ball, minus the authentic comic genius.

I grew up being ashamed of my ineptness at the things I thought should really matter. By the time I met Brenna at age 13, I was already solidly convinced that I was a total and complete failure at life.

Brenna thought that was ridiculous.

She talked to me about books, encouraged me to read and to write. For the first time in my life, I felt truly seen.

I was astonished when Brenna talked about her own opinions about major world events, sometimes actively disagreeing with others with a confidence and articulation that I’d never witnessed, especially from a female.

And unlike me, she didn’t get red-faced and flustered when she spoke her mind. Her hands didn’t shake. She didn’t sweat through her shirt. She maintained the same calm, centered, conversational tone she’d use if she were discussing the weather.

Simply by being herself, Brenna introduced me to a previously unfamiliar type of woman – a fearlessly intelligent, fearlessly focused, fearlessly real female. It was absolutely earth shattering to me.

Unfortunately, not even Brenna’s influence could extract me from the broken reality of my life.

By my sophomore year, we were spending less time together. She was growing up, and I was digging myself into a hole that would take me 25 years to escape.

At the end of the following summer, Brenna and I were both moving.

Brenna’s family had bought a house closer to town and were selling the country house she’d grown up in. My parents were unofficially separating and we were moving closer to my mother’s family, to another small town a four-hour drive away.

I hadn’t been to Brenna’s house for a long time, so I was pleasantly surprised when she invited me to spend the night. She said she wanted to paint the walls of her bedroom something fun, to say goodbye, and she wanted my help.

We bought some craft paint from the store where I worked. She told me I could pick the colors.

Brenna knew I loved ROYGBIV – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – the colors of the spectrum.

I remember asking her, “Are you sure?” as we bought six of the seven colors and headed towards my car.

With the casual coolness that personified her, she simply answered, “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be sure?”

It never occurred to Brenna to doubt herself, as far as I could tell. And it never occurred to me to have a voice. My bedroom was custom designed by my mother, with pink carpet, pink walls, and fluttery white curtains around my custom-built twin bed. ROYGBIV was out of the question in my universe.

When we arrived at Brenna’s house, she asked me, “What should we do?”

Again, I was dumbstruck. “Well… What do you want to do?” I asked.

“Whatever you want,” she said.

I was hesitant at first. But as we got rolling, the color and ideas took over and it was, up to that point, the happiest day of my entire life.

At the end of the day, we laid back on her bed and took in our masterpiece with satisfaction. We’d used the sides of our hands to stamp what looked like tiny baby footprints – or maybe they were gnomes’ footprints – in ROYGBIV – around the entire room.

They beat a path up the walls, across the ceiling, and around the doorframe. It looked like a bag of Skittles had hiked along her walls, and it was glorious.

I moved to a new town soon after.

Over the next 20 years I would only see Brenna again a handful of times.

She made an effort. She came to my high school graduation, which stunned me and, oddly, shamed me, which was far from her intention.

In the two years since we’d painted her bedroom, any shadow of the girl Brenna had known was completely and entirely swallowed up by my circumstances. I didn’t want her to see who I’d become.

The thing is, I wasn’t outwardly horrible in any of the traditional ways. Sure, I partied some, but by the time I’d graduated from high school I was kind of over it. I partied to fit in, and it hadn’t worked. I was still weird, and it would take me many years and a lot of therapy to accept that my weirdness was what Brenna loved most.

I’ve never experimented with drugs. I tried smoking cigarettes once – when I was drunk – and promptly barfed all over a girl’s driveway. That was the end of that.

My wounds were largely invisible to almost everyone from the outside. I’d spent my 18 years of life trying to be someone I wasn’t; trying to please an ideal and cram myself into a mold that didn’t fit.

I didn’t want Brenna to see that I’d given in. I’d lost the fight. I’d lost myself entirely. After years of being pounded into a round hole, my square peg had cracked in two.

Brenna and I went our separate ways.

I saw her a few times during college, but I had no social skills. By then I was entirely absorbed in a very toxic relationship that would eventually turn into a toxic marriage and then a toxic divorce.

Being with Brenna brought my shallow existence into clear focus, and I had neither the maturity nor the courage to face it. I didn’t go to her wedding when she married her high school sweetheart. She didn’t come to my Barbie doll wedding to my college boyfriend.

We were Christmas card friends.

Once a year we’d update each other in a formal card. I wrote a newsletter called The Sara Beth Times that I published once or twice a year, in my single act of outward defiance towards the otherwise secret turmoil of my privately broken life. Brenna was a loyal fan.

My husband and I moved to the Midwest. He went to law school. I worked as a social worker, went to graduate school, wrote a novel that I never published, worked in academia and corporate America, built a house, and generally acted like a pretentious jerk to hide the fact that I was deeply miserable.

Brenna became an English teacher, just as she’d always planned. While I was playing house in Michigan, Brenna and her educator husband were making the world a better place, one child at a time.

By the time my whole world came crashing down, Brenna was – for all intents and purposes – no longer a part of my life. It was not her fault. I’d pushed and pushed and pushed her away. She was wise enough to recognize when she wasn’t welcome, and respected herself enough not to beg.

Once it cracked, the façade of my life came down quickly.

Within an 18 month stretch, I had a baby, turned 30, divorced my husband, and moved back to Montana, a single mother with no money, no home of my own, and absolutely no identity.

But that seed Brenna planted all those years ago – that I should read, and I should write, that I was somebody with a special gift to share – was still in there, deep down, buried under a lifetime of self-loathing.

I had a few samples that were basically rambling pieces of nonsense I’d hammered out when I just couldn’t fight against the urge to write. I took them to the local newspaper publisher and asked, with shaking hands and sweat dripping down my sides, if he’d be interested in hiring me as a columnist.

They had no budget for a columnist. But if I wanted to write for free, he’d run my work weekly. And bit by bit, week after week, I told my truth. I wrote about fear, about single parenthood, about hope and gratitude, and finding joy in the simple things.

Eventually, they did start paying me. I caught the eye of another small town paper, and became “syndicated,” in the humblest sense of the word. I earned an average of $120 per month at the height of my newspaper column. And I couldn’t have been happier.

As it turns out, Brenna stumbled across my column not long after I’d been picked up by the second paper.

She could have been bitter towards me. But that was not Brenna’s way.

She treated me with as much unconditional love as ever. She messaged me to invite me to speak to her class about writing.

Let me say that again… because, you guys… This woman whom I’d pushed from my life, who had no reason to believe I was at all qualified to speak to her class, aside from a brand new newspaper column in a couple of small town papers and a pile of overly sentimental newsletters written by a broken woman-child, was placing her total trust in me to share something meaningful with her students.

As I read her message, I was taken back in time to 7th grade. Once again I was sitting in the front row in band class, watching with awed admiration the cool, confident clarinet player in her fun and funky glasses, feeling like I was nowhere worthy of her friendship and attention.

And so, I turned her down.

I didn’t even think about it.

I hit reply and told her that my life was just too chaotic at the time, and maybe someday when things settled down I’d reconsider her invitation. She responded with the same grace that she’d shown me our entire lives. She said if I ever changed my mind, I was always welcome.

Always welcome…

Just like I’d always been welcome at her house when my own childhood home was falling apart.

Just like I’d always been welcome to join her at parties and outings, despite my social awkwardness and sometimes obnoxious insecurities.

Still, after all these years, and all my failings, I was still welcome. And she still believed in me.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what grace looks like.

In a world where people are fighting over toilet paper, where people are killed in the streets for being different from ourselves, where we don’t even trust our neighbors, we need more Brennas.

We need more teachers who push aside the muck and mire to find the treasures hidden inside each of us, regardless of our politics, our religion, our insecurities and failures.

We need more unconditional love and undying belief in the goodness that exists in even the most broken souls.

We need people who stubbornly refuse to give up on others, no matter how firmly they’ve braced themselves against personal growth.

Just as she’d done all those years before, Brenna’s love rescued me, even though I didn’t deserve it.

It wasn’t about what I deserved. It was about what Brenna knew was inside of me, beneath it all. She saw in me what I’d never been able to see in myself, and in doing so offered me the tiniest glimmer of hope that perhaps I was actually worth saving after all.

That invitation to speak to her class never left me. I carried it with me and pulled it out of the corner of my heart where I stored it for safekeeping; every time I felt like giving up, every time I wondered whether anyone was actually reading my column, every time I considered writing on a controversial subject or being particularly vulnerable.

That invitation to speak to her class was the shield I carried to protect myself against my critics, in my writing and in life.

But still, I held Brenna at arm’s length.

After that brief email exchange, we remained Christmas card friends. I remarried, built a new life, had another child, all without much thought of Brenna. Until…

During the fall of 2017, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She’d pop into my head at random times – sitting at dinner with my family, or grocery shopping, or in the waiting room at a doctor’s office. Thoughts of Brenna nagged at me endlessly.

And still I pushed her away. Until one December day, I decided to visit my Facebook page. You wouldn’t know it now, as often as I’m lurking around on there, but at the time I rarely went on Facebook. I had never posted a single photo to my timeline.

When I opened Facebook, the very first post was a picture of Brenna surrounded by a group of girlfriends. They were all wearing t-shirts that said, “Kicking Cancer’s Ass.” My hands began to tremble. A lump formed in my throat.

I hurried to Brenna’s page, terror gripping my heart. She had no hair. She had dark circles under those beautiful bright blue eyes.

And once again, I was filled with shame. What had I done?

This woman who had been nothing but kindness and grace to me for 25 years was going through the fight of her life, and I was nowhere to be found. She’d been there for me when I’d had no one else, had opened her home, shared her wisdom, and dried my tears.

I was always welcome in her world. But I had shut the door on her.

Brenna didn’t need my friendship. She had an army of love warriors behind her. You see, I wasn’t the only one who was always welcome. She welcomed everyone with the same grace she’d shown me. She didn’t need me, but she wanted me.

And at the risk of sounding really woowoo, I truly believe the universe pulled me to her, with those nagging thoughts, that random visit to my idle Facebook page.

It just so happens that I was sick, too.

In the fall of 2016, the week of my 40th birthday, to be exact, my body just broke. My diagnosis was different, but Brenna and I had been on the same journey of tests, surgeries, needles, hair loss, unspeakable pain, and debilitating fear of the unknown.

All this time, Brenna and I could have been sharing this journey, supporting each other, if only I’d put aside my shame and pride and reached out.

I decided, no more hiding.

I sent her a card; told her that I’d seen on Facebook that she had cancer, that I was sick, too. I told her I loved her, and offered whatever help I could give. It was too little too late, but as always, Brenna welcomed me back with open arms.

She responded with a card of her own, and shared her phone number. She said she was receiving treatments in Billings twice a month, and invited me to visit her at the infusion center the next time she was in town.

Once again, she invited me to sit at the cool kids’ table. And I made up my mind, this time I would be real. I would show up in all my awkward Olive Oyl glory, and I’d go back every time she welcomed me, even if conversation stalled; even if I said something stupid or felt like crawling under a rock.

Brenna didn’t need me there.

She had a revolving door of visitors – family and friends drove long distances just to sit with her for a while, as nurses in protective gear injected her body with chemicals they were afraid to get on their skin.

Sometimes she was tired. Sometimes she was sad, or scared. But most of the time she was her usual cheerful self.

During our visits I was an agony of social anxiety and mind-clouding fatigue from my own illness. But I returned every time she asked.

One day, it dawned on me…

Brenna was still teaching me. She was still mentoring me, offering me an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone. She was still loving me in all my brokenness. And finally, I was growing.

I wasn’t her most fun visitor. I rarely knew what to say, so I’d either stammer out something inappropriate or not talk at all. We spent a lot of time just staring out the window towards downtown, watching the cars buzz around down below us.

I often wondered why she kept inviting me back.

But now I think I know. I think it gave her peace to see that I was finally okay. I was finally fully myself – the shy, introverted, awkward writing nerd she’d embraced and encouraged half a century ago.

And, we shared a knowledge of the bone-deep exhaustion of long-term illness, the mind-hazing experience of experimental drugs, the ever present thoughts of death, and the enervation of holding those thoughts continuously at bay.

I only invited Brenna to my house once during my childhood.

She spent the night when I was 15. She took in my pink nightmare bedroom with a curious tilt of her head. Where most other girls who saw it swooned, she glanced at me with a knowing that made me rush her from the room.

We watched Gone With the Wind – based on my favorite novel – and stayed up the rest of the night talking about it, comparing and contrasting the book with the movie. Finally I had someone who saw the book not as a sappy love story, but a war story; a story of the breaking of a society that should never have existed in the first place, and how these complex characters of all races navigated the shift of the world as they knew it.

She told me about Margaret Mitchell, and the courage it took for her to write this story as a woman in the 1930s South. As always, Brenna challenged me to think beyond the obvious, and to dig into the why and how of life.

Keep in mind, there wasn’t Google back then. To prepare for our sleepover, a 16-year-old Brenna had to research in an encyclopedia to know these facts that she shared with me. She did homework in order to encourage my love of reading and writing. This was who Brenna was.

The summer after we’d reconnected, I invited Brenna and her husband to dinner.

I was a torment of nerves. I made a special pineapple cake, planned my menu around her food restrictions, and cooked and baked all day. I cleaned my house better than I’d cleaned anything since I’d been sick. I was fueled by a bizarre rush of anxiety and eager anticipation.

I’m pretty sure my confused young son thought this person who was coming over was some sort of royalty. I’d been sick for most of his memory. This was the most enthusiasm I’d shown for anything in years. Based on my nervous energy, it might as well have been the Queen of England coming to dinner.

Dinner was lovely.

I am the most relaxed in my own house, cooking in my kitchen and sitting at my table. Aside from my writing, my kitchen is the best place to get to know the real me, with my walls down, surrounded by good food.

There were still some awkward moments. My husband and I don’t drink coffee. We don’t even own a coffee maker. I don’t even know how to make coffee. So, cake with no coffee was a little strange. And I apologized too much, for not having coffee, or wine, or confidence…

Despite it all, Brenna was finally welcomed into my world. We laughed and ate and it was good, for both of us.

Last summer, I took my boys to the town where I grew up, to fish at the nearby lake, and to visit Brenna and her husband at their newly built house, perched on a hill overlooking the creek valley where we’d camped as teenagers.

At last, we’d come full circle.

It took 11 years for me to work up the courage to speak to Brenna’s class.

This past January, during a bitter cold snap, my husband drove me five hours north and east to the small school where Brenna taught at the time, to talk about writing with two of her classes. I can’t explain why I chose that moment. It was just something I felt like I had to do, immediately, just as I’d had to check Facebook, only to discover that Brenna had ovarian cancer.

I prepared almost nothing. I don’t know why. I guess I thought I’d get up there and just talk, which is so strange considering I suffer from debilitating social anxiety. I had some notes, but no formal outline, and no real direction.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in front of the classroom that I realized that “writing” is a fairly broad topic, and perhaps I should have narrowed it down a bit.

In short, I did awful. I mean, laughably awful.

Fortunately, I’m old enough not to take myself too seriously. By the time I was halfway through the second class, I was really fading. Although my condition has improved considerably over the past several years, I still get smacked with debilitating fatigue, especially under stress.

The consummate teacher, Brenna sensed I was struggling and came to my rescue (as usual). As I sat up in front of her class, repeating over and over how a writer needs to “embrace their weird,” (yeah… I said that, repeatedly), Brenna made her way up front and started asking the class questions, and writing down links to the various sources I’d discussed.

On the way home, I reflected on why Brenna opened her class to an inexperienced speaker with social anxiety.

I came to the conclusion that anything I could teach her students was just a bonus. Her primary goal was about what she could teach me. Ever since I’d known her, Brenna was pushing me out of my head and into the world, encouraging me to stretch and be uncomfortable, encouraging me to try new things and learn.

I didn’t know it then, but that would be the last time I saw her.

The cruel, unfair truth of it is, while my body was healing, Brenna’s was not. COVID-19 hit not long after I spoke to her class. They closed the infusion center to visitors, and I was not able to sit with her there anymore.

She liked to know what I was cooking. She’d text me often to ask what we were having for dinner. She didn’t like to talk about her illness, but she was always asking about mine.

Once I said something lame about how my stuff was nothing compared to what she was going through. She scolded me, telling me that my pain and struggles were just as relevant as hers.

Brenna died two days before my 44th birthday.

Four years after I first fell ill. Just under three years after I’d discovered she had cancer. We walked through illness together. But I came out the other side, and she did not.

Even in death, Brenna is teaching me. She’s telling me very loudly, very boldly, “No More Shame!”

No more feeling inferior. No more hiding behind insecurities. No more secret talents and aspirations. I’ve been given a second chance at life; a chance Brenna didn’t get.

I have to take it. It’s going to be really uncomfortable. It’s going to be scary and vulnerable. I don’t even know yet exactly what it’s going to look like. But I’m going to follow whatever dreams filter into my heart. Because that’s what Brenna had always been trying to teach me.

And finally, not a moment too soon, I’ve learned.

Donations in Brenna’s name can be made to the Glasgow High School Education Trust or the Pioneer Museum in Glasgow, Montana.

Copyright © 2020 Sara Beth Wald

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  1. Oh Sara. Your friendship with Brenna was beautiful and perfect, just like both of you. Thank you for sharing this story, for sharing so much of you, for teaching me so much about Brenna. Thank you for encouraging me to reconnect with her, as you did. I am so grateful to have her back, too, and see her and Wade last winter. I love you both.

  2. Oh my! This piece has kept me riveted. I, too, loved Brenna—from church, from Room 13 at GHS, from Pioneer Museum, Now I see Brenna in a brand new way, and it is too late for me to tell her my new knowledge. This essay will remain. Thank you.

    1. Brenna loved you, too. She spoke of you often. As for me, I still hold dear a poem I wrote in your freshman English class:
      To be alone, but not afraid.
      To go beyond, but not insane.
      To be afraid, but still smile.
      To be willing to go, but one more mile.
      You were another who encouraged my writing. I’ve never forgotten. Bless you.

      1. I also have a friend like Brenna, Sara. We have always kept in touch, but not as much as we should. She is one of those friends who is always close, with hundreds of miles between us. She shaped me. She held me up. She held me accountable. She encouraged me. She was THE most important person in my life. She loved me and I knew it. I wanted to be just like her! And, like Brenna, she just wanted me to be me. I didn’t get it.

        Thank you for reminidng me that I need to reach out to her more often. Time. I need to make the heartfelt effort to be present.

        Lastly, I want you to know how cool I think you are!! Have always been to Sydney and I. She is like you in so many ways. I love you dearly and always little cousin!!!

  3. Mrs. Sundby was one of my favorite teachers. I didn’t know her well, but I can recall so much of what you were saying about her kindness and her willingness to see the best, and encouraging the best, in people, through my memories of the classes I took with her. She was so wonderful and a true blessing to this world. Thank you for this.

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