“God sends us friends to be our firm support in the whirlpool of struggle. In the company of friends, we will find strength to attain our sublime ideal.” -St. Maximilian Kolbe
“I love you, Walter!” I still hear my friend’s voice calling out to my son, echoing in my ears as my boys and I walked away from telling her and her family “good-bye” as they prepared to PCS from our little street on a Navy base in nowhere California to sunny Florida. Biting my lip to hold back the flood of tears that would unleash the second I made my way into the safety of my living room, I squeezed my infant in one arm and gripped my two-year’s old hand with the other – I could feel my heart breaking a little. Why did it hurt so badly to tell someone I’d only known for two years good-bye, as if she was family? I tried to describe it to a girlfriend on the phone that afternoon but felt silly and quickly changed the subject mid-sentence to something different.
The truth is, it’s difficult to describe the bond that forms between strangers who come together from completely different walks of life but share the commonality of a husband in harm’s way and a young family to be strong for. When Ben and I were preparing for marriage, I always anticipated that everything would fall on our shoulders. We would be strong for one another when things were tough, and of course that has been the case, but we quickly learned that when you enter the military, you get so much more than a uniform. You get an entire community of people who are experiencing the exact same struggles you are, and with that comes the opportunity for special friendships to blossom. Every friendship is a blessing from God, but some have enriched my life in ways that I never expected. Through each one, I have learned a little bit more about myself and others, and in doing so, have been brought into a deeper friendship with Jesus.
One of the first things I learned as a new Navy wife was how many opportunities there are to practice (and receive) the Corporal Works of Mercy. Most everyone in a military community is far away from family and friends, which means there is always someone in need of a friend to help lighten her load. I’ve been inspired and encouraged by how hospitable, and quite frankly Christlike, so many fellow military spouses have been to my family in our times of need. When I was eight months pregnant with our first son, Ben and I moved from Virginia to California in an unexpected transfer. We went from being 14 hours away from family to 36 in the blink of an eye, making us feel even more alone and vulnerable in a very delicate time of not only preparing for our first baby, but also our first deployment. When we got to California, we were met by warm strangers who were eager to support us right from the start. Neighbors introduced themselves with baked goods as movers still unloaded our trucks, a wife who I had never met before picked me up to take me to my first spouses’ meeting, a meal train was provided from the day we brought our son home from the hospital, some meals from complete strangers. I was blown away by the love and compassion we felt from people we didn’t even know – how easy it would have been for them to turn the other way or leave us alone having not known us, but how much it meant to us that they didn’t!
It was through that experience that I learned to always “bring the food.” There are so many occasions when I see the opportunity to help someone else in need, but I talk myself out of it for so many reasons. I’m too busy with my own problems, I don’t know the person in need very well so maybe it would be uncomfortable for both of us if I tried to help, that person already has a lot of support so they don’t need mine. These are all ideas I’ve had to push from my mind and remember how significant it was for me to be taken care of by strangers. Now when a mother has a new baby, I make an effort to bring over a meal or offer to hold the baby while she showers. If someone’s husband is gone, I might babysit her children for a few hours so she can run errands or offer to take her to the airport if she is traveling to visit family. Or I’ll try to send a text to another wife who has been alone for a while or seems like she’s having a hard time. The important thing is showing up. When in doubt, I always remember “bring the food.”
The Corporal Works of Mercy are just stepping stones into reaching a deeper communion with people. After bringing the food or lending a helping hand, the door is opened the get to know those acquaintances better. Being an outgoing introvert, it is sometimes challenging for me to break down my walls and reveal my heart to my neighbors, but when I do, I’m thankful. By allowing myself to love my fellow Navy wives openly as Jesus would, they go from being acquaintances and friends to family. Holding the baby while the new mom showers or driving the neighbor to the airport when no one else can turns into heartfelt conversations about missing our families or the struggles of raising children alone and makes evangelization nearly effortless. Suddenly, we both feel a little less alone and a little more loved. It’s in those moments that I feel the presence of the Lord.
These military friendships are bittersweet because, of course, they are only temporary. Duty stations change every few years, and so right when you feel like you’ve found “your people” one of you is destined to leave. Whenever this happens, there are always so many thoughts and emotions that wash over me. I am tempted to be angry with God at times for giving me something so beautiful but then taking it away, but once the anger fades I am always left with immeasurable gratitude. Gratitude for Christ revealing Himself in sometimes the most unlikely of faces, gratitude for Him inspiring me to be better through each of those people, and gratitude for loving those people enough to have the pain that’s left in my heart when they’re gone. And when my friends are gone and the heartache ensues, who is left? Jesus.