By Dorothy O’Donnell
It wasn’t as if I hadn’t been dumped before. Or ended my share of relationships that had disaster written all over them. But this particular break-up hit me harder than most, even though, technically, I wasn’t the one being dumped.
It happened at my eight-year-old’s school on her first day of second grade, the hottest day of the summer. Seeking shade while I waited for the screech of the bell to release her, I headed for the courtyard with the big oak—the one the kids called The Barney Tree—by her classroom. The mother of Sadie’s closest friend was already sitting on the wide, tile-studded concrete planter that surrounded Barney. I smiled and sat down beside her.
I liked Janet. I considered her my friend. We made small talk—about the weather, our husbands’ annoying habits—as we had so many times before while we waited for our girls.
That summer, they’d spent hours bouncing on the trampoline in my backyard, dissolving in peals of laughter as they played a game they called “Butt War.” They dressed up like Hannah Montana and danced around my living room belting out “The Best of Both Worlds.” They went to day camp together and called each other B.F.F.
Just before the bell rang, Janet turned to me and sighed. “I need to let you know what’s been going on,” she said.
My stomach clenched. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.
She told me that during their last playdate, Sadie kept punching and pinching her daughter, Amy. It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened, Janet confided. Sadie had even kicked her in a fit of anger.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said, her eyes wide.
I stared at the tawny oak leaves scattered on the asphalt and pushed them around with my foot.
Sadie was diagnosed with early-onset bipolar disorder when she was five. Frequent mood swings—including extreme irritability that can be triggered by something as innocent as a playmate saying “hi” to someone else—are symptoms of the illness.
Usually, she saves her explosions for home. It’s where she feels safe to lose control. Maybe all the time she’d spent with Janet and Amy made her comfortable enough to reveal her ugly side to them, too.
When the girls first became friends, I expected each playdate to be their last. Although she’d never physically attacked another child before, Sadie’s explosions had pushed most of her few other companions away. But as the months rolled by and their get togethers continued, I made myself believe everything was okay. I was desperate for my daughter to hold on to her one good friend. And Janet never mentioned any problems.
I’d told her about Sadie’s condition, although I’m not sure if she understood it. And I get that. It’s easy to see my little girl’s outbursts of rage as bad behavior. Or the product of poor parenting.
I wouldn’t want Sadie to play with someone who hurt her, either. But that knowledge didn’t soften the blow when, as the classrooms’ turquoise doors swung open and chattering kids flooded the courtyard, Janet said she thought our girls should “take a break.” It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: I knew their friendship was over. And so was ours.
I broke the news to Sadie as gently as possible on the drive home. She kicked the back of my seat and pummeled it with her fists. She shrieked that she hated Amy. But by the time I pulled into the driveway, she was sobbing as the realization of what her behavior had cost her began to sink in. Inside the house, she grabbed paper and crayons from a kitchen drawer to make a card.
“I’m so, so, so sorry!” she scrawled beside a giant purple heart with a sad face and a jagged line severing it in half.
I squeezed her tight and told her I was proud of her for taking responsibility for her actions. But I warned that the card wouldn’t magically fix everything. She said she wanted to give it to Amy anyway.
I wish I could say that I handled the situation with as much grace. I didn’t. I’d expected my child to be destroyed by the break-up. I wasn’t prepared for how devastated it left me. I missed talking to Janet, who, like me, was an older mom with one child. I missed our occasional outings to the beach, barbeques, and dinners at the girls’ favorite pizza parlor.
Like a scorned lover, I obsessed over every conversation I’d had with my former friend; I tried to pinpoint the exact moment our relationship had soured. Was it the afternoon when she’d called me a soft touch when it came to discipline? Or the evening I showed up at her house to pick up Sadie and she’d hesitated a second too long before answering when I asked how the playdate had gone?
“Great!” she’d said with a strained smile, peering over my head into the dusk. “Everything went just great!”
The more I kept hitting the rewind button on our relationship, the more bitter I became. I went out of my way to avoid Janet at school. One day at pick-up time, I saw her walking toward me as I sat in the car line waiting for Sadie. She was holding hands with Amy and another girl I recognized—a docile creature, who, I was sure, never lost her temper or hit anyone. As I slouched in my car and watched the happy trio cross the parking lot, a wave of envy and anger crashed over me. How could they move on so easily with their lives after leaving such a gaping hole in ours?
I hit rock bottom a few weeks later. I was walking my dog in our neighborhood when a blue minivan chugged by. The driver lightly beeped the horn to say hello. I recognized docile girl’s mother behind the wheel. I gripped Max’s leash tighter, wondering if this woman lingered in Janet’s living room to chat after playdates the way I once had.
From the back seat, Sadie’s ex-bestie and her new sidekick turned to grin and wave at me. I feebly wagged a few fingers in return. What I really wanted to do was flip them off. Because I so wished that my daughter was crammed in the back of that van with them. I ached for her to have a normal childhood, for me to be a normal mom. As the van disappeared around a bend in the road, it felt as if the life we were supposed to have was vanishing with it.
I yanked Max’s leash and turned for home, ashamed of the jealousy and self-pity churning inside me. Janet had every right to protect her child. That’s what mothers are supposed to do. It wasn’t her fault that Sadie is the way she is. It wasn’t my fault, either. A gray river of fog tumbled through the valley below the street where I was walking. I imagined it washing away the anger and pain I’d been lugging around since the break-up.
That night, I clicked on the website of a local support group for parents of kids with special needs. I’d thought many times about going to one of the group’s monthly coffees but always found an excuse not to when the day came around.
The following Friday, I printed out directions to that morning’s coffee and drove to the house. With a trembling hand, I pressed the doorbell. A woman with long black hair and a kind face opened the door and welcomed me. She led me into her living room where a dozen or so other women sat on a cream sofa and dining chairs, nibbling blueberry scones and talking. No one looked shocked when, after introducing myself, I told the story about Sadie hurting her playmate. They just nodded or flashed sympathetic smiles.
The next time I saw Janet heading across the school courtyard in my direction, I didn’t look away. I said, “Hi,” and asked how it was going as we passed each other. It still stung to know that she and Amy weren’t part of our lives anymore. But I was finally ready to start moving on with mine.
DOROTHY O’DONNELL is a freelance writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and daughter. Her stories and essays have been featured on greatschools.org, brainchildmag.com, mothering.com and NPR. She is currently working on a memoir about raising a child with early-onset bipolar disorder. You can find more of her writing at dorothyodonnell.com.