We met when we were gangly 8- and 9-year-old girls. Our small church and a mutual love for rollerskating were the only bonds we needed to forge a simple friendship. Had you asked us back then if we’d still be friends 32 years later, Karen and I would have giggled in disbelief.
In fact, we giggled a lot. Karen was eventually banned from Saturday night sleepovers at my house—something about the all-night laughing fest wasn’t conducive to my dad’s sermon preparations for Sunday morning.
We saw each other through the awkward growing-up years, with Christmas pageants and lock-ins and beach trips and potlucks weaving our childhood friendship into something more comfortable and familiar.
Then suddenly college came, and there were degrees to be had and new friends to be made and husbands to be found. We ended up with the degrees and the friends, but without the husbands we trekked into the unknown as single working women.
Our lives didn’t look like we’d always pictured they would. But we were young and energetic and the world was our oyster, so one day we emailed each other from work: “Let’s move to Washington, D.C.!”
And we did.
We packed up our belongings and headed east. Karen worked her way to the White House; I had to return home to California. My return meant we were now long-distance friends for the first time in our lives. In the decade that followed, we bridged the gap by flying coast-to-coast to visit each other several times a year.
Then the waiting years were upon us. We watched 30 come and go without a boyfriend in sight. Conversations were full of “Where have all the godly men gone?!” and “Is there a man famine?!”
We learned to work hard to support ourselves, to make transient homes, to live with a variety of roommates. Karen was Director of White House Personnel and met with heads of state. I was an English teacher and an editor, trying to inspire teenagers and wrangle words into submission. Karen traveled the world and filled up her passport—I lived vicariously through her exciting stories.
And oh could she tell stories. (Still can. There isn’t a better storyteller than Karen.) She made me laugh by the hour with her accounts of high-fiving President Bush; walking across Spain on foot, with blisters the size of tennis balls; and that time she accidentally stepped into an unmarked van and ended up at FBI headquarters on lockdown (in her red heels, of course).
We both grew social circles the size of small countries, both struggled to find balance and the courage to say “no,” both had an unhealthy obsession with coffee and late nights and Les Mis.
Then the changing years came. It had been so sweet to share our single years together, to have someone else “get it,” that we’d prayed marriage would come at the same time for us both.
I called Karen the night I got engaged. My heart anguished over it. I knew what it was to feel “left behind,” to wait long and fight for hope while everyone else walked the aisle. But Karen showed me a love so selfless, so freely given at her own expense. She celebrated God’s faithfulness to me, showered me with bridal gifts, and spoke encouragement into my new marriage with Eddie.
She celebrated again eleven months later when I gave birth to my son. She continued to rejoice with me even as she continued to wait.
It was two years later when Karen casually (or not so casually) mentioned a great guy named Rob. Soon our conversations were filled with talk of this handsome U.S. diplomat who had a personality even bigger than her own. He was kind, intentional, intelligent, and loved God. And he loved my dear friend. It wasn’t long before I was flying back to D.C. to celebrate a long-awaited wedding. Karen Race was now Karen McCutcheon, and her husband whisked her off to Dubai (to provide her with more storytelling material, of course).
And now somehow, by some mysterious blinking power, the forties are upon us. A few days ago we admitted again that life looks nothing like we thought it would. It’s been harder than we’d imagined. It’s been richer than we’d dreamed.
In the fall of 1985, God gave me one of the sweetest gifts of my life. Because I know Karen, I know what joy and perseverance and transparency look like. I’ve laughed until my sides hurt. I’ve had adventures to last me a lifetime. I’ve loved people better.
I’ve loved Jesus harder.
Today I celebrate a phenomenal woman on her 40th birthday. And I thank God for the friendship He knew would beautify the many seasons of my life.
Happy birthday, Karen.
(Photo credits: First wedding pic by Lorelei Conover Photography. Second wedding pic by Marissa Joy Photography.)