It’s past midnight when I finally collapse into bed. As I sink into the air mattress on the floor of our empty bedroom, my mind fills with scenes from the previous two days. The semi-truck parked in front of our home ready to hold all our belongings. One last walk around the neighborhood with the kids. Takeout Thai food in lawn chairs on the front porch. Heaving sobs as the lock turned on our empty house one final time. A 700-mile drive. A different empty house, waiting to be filled with our things.
Jake turns the light off and settles in next to me, his weight popping my side of the air mattress up. I flip over onto my back and center myself on my pillow. As my eyes adjust to the dark room, I notice the lights on the ceiling fan above me. The switch has been turned off, but the lights continue to glow slightly—four dim circles directly overhead.
I wonder why they aren’t completely black. It’s strange; the light is gone but also still here.
Four years before I sank into that lopsided air mattress, our family moved away from home for the first time. Jake had just graduated from medical school and a residency program awaited him in Ohio. In our first weeks there, I spent a lot of time on our front porch during nap time—my feet pressed firmly into the sturdy planks while also feeling as though I had completely lost my footing. One afternoon, as I watched a car drive down our street faster than it should, an unsettling combination of anger and jealousy rose within me. I thought of all the friends I had left behind and realized their lives were flying forward without me. Their daily routines and structures were relatively unchanged by my absence while everything I knew had been turned on its head.
Self-pity washed over me. I felt cut off and convinced myself I was forgotten.
A few days later, I checked my mail. As I sifted through the junk mail and coupon packs, a small postcard with a cityscape on the front caught my eye. I flipped it over. It came from a friend back home. The message was only 30 words long—a quick note to tell me she hoped the move had gone well—but those words overwhelmed me with gratitude. Seven hundred miles away, my friend had thought of me, and then she went one step further: She wrote down those thoughts and sent them in the mail.
I walked inside and hung the postcard on the refrigerator, where it would stay until we moved four years later.
A few months after I got that postcard in the mail, Norah turned one. Instead of the family-filled party Lily had for her first birthday, we answered FaceTime calls and sat around our table, just the four of us. As we sang “Happy Birthday” that cold night in November and watched Norah eat an entire mini cupcake in one bite, I wondered how many of my friends back home remembered her birthday. Did they realize we were celebrating this milestone alone? The familiar pang of self-pity beat in my chest.
The next day, a package arrived on my doorstep. Inside, I found a board book of animals and a note: Dear Norah, We love you and miss you so much. Happy birthday! The gift came from another one of my friends from back home.
During the four years we lived in Ohio, our kids celebrated a combined 11 more birthdays (including the actual birth day of two additional kids), and this friend remembered to send a package for every single one.
She never forgot.
Toward the end of our residency in Ohio, Jake had to spend two weeks out of town at various conferences and job interviews while I stayed home with our five-year-old, three-year-old, two-year-old, and two-month-old. It was not an ideal situation, but we were all determined to make the best of it.
School schedules kept us busy during the day, but the afternoons and evenings were long and lonely. By the time I needed to cook dinner each night, my patience was thin and my energy for meal prep thinner. Then, just when I was feeling as though the two weeks would never end, a giant box arrived on my front porch.
The kids and I opened it together. We pulled out pasta, macaroni and cheese, Goldfish crackers, coffee, chocolate snacks, and various other pantry essentials.
“Who’s it from?” my oldest asked with a jar of peanut butter in her hands.
I checked the box for a note, but couldn’t find one. I remembered a conversation I had recently with another long-distance friend about how hard it was to have Jake gone for so long, so I picked up my phone and called her.
“Did you send me a giant box filled with food?” I asked her after she answered.
“Yes!” she said. “I thought it might help.”
Jake rolls over to his back and jostles me on the air mattress again. His movement pulls me into the middle, so I lay my head on his chest and close my eyes, exhausted from all the moving boxes, goodbyes, and general upheaval the previous days had held.
“Look at the lights,” he says; noticing the same dim glow I had moments earlier. “Why do they still look like they’re on?”
I glance up again. It’s not enough light to keep us awake at night, and if we weren’t looking directly at it, we probably wouldn’t even notice it at all. To see it, you have to make an effort.
The moving truck with the rest of our things arrives the next morning. The air mattress is replaced with a real one, and the rooms are filled with boxes of belongings. A few days later, I walk down our long driveway to the mailbox and, to my surprise, find a small package inside. I open it immediately and pull out a wooden ornament in the shape of Ohio and a note from a friend I just left behind: “Miss you already!”
Gravel crunches under my feet as I make my way back to our house, and I think about the various notes and packages I’ve received from long-distance friends throughout the years. As I hold the most recent one in my right hand, I realize the gift itself doesn’t even matter that much.
The real gift is the fact that someone took the time to notice. To see me. Even after my light had faded from view, my friends kept looking at me—seeing my dim glow from a distance and refusing to snuff me out.
Later that night, I lie in our bed and wait for Jake to turn off the lights. As soon as he flicks the switch, I stare intently at the four faint circles of light above me. Jake slides in next to me and grabs my hand.
“You doing okay?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say, feeling seen once more. “I think I am.”
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