Tuesday, Sep. 7 was the first day of school here in our sleepy seaside town in southern California, and Monday night was marked by a bit of fear and trembling on the part of our newly minted fifth grader.
It's our son's second year in school -- ever. He attended school in his native Malawi only sporadically, when his failing health allowed it. I'm proud to say he rocked his first year of school here in the U.S. A year ago he didn't know the alphabet. Now he can read and write and do math like a champ.
To me, he's a wonder. But he's a kid, and he was nervous. We talked a lot about what was troubling him, and to my surprise he was most worried about his social life. Would his friends from last year still be his friends this year? Would his new classmates be kind or mean? Would he make new friends or eat lunch alone? Would it be hard or painful?
My husband and I assured our son that he is deeply kind and that such a beautiful quality goes a long way when it comes to making friends -- true friends. We also told him that he is interesting and funny and gracious and that he cares for others intensely and isn't afraid to reach out to strangers. All those things bode well for a life rich with friends.
Still, he worried and went to sleep fitfully, if prayerfully. That's one of the remarkable things about our child. He prays and believes that God hears and answers him. We like to say he has a hotline to Jesus. We're only half kidding.
As I went to sleep Monday and awoke Tuesday to the familiar hustle and bustle of a school day -- "Mom, where are my sunglasses?!" -- I prayed, too. I prayed for my son and for his teacher and for his classmates. And then I got to thinking about something that a family friend said to me the week before.
I was in St. Louis for my best friend's 40th birthday party, and early on in the evening, her mother-in-law cornered me for a heart-to-heart. "You know, as a mother, you pray for your children's friends because you know that they will be there for them in a way that you can't," she said, tearfully. "You have no idea how many prayers have been said for you."
I was stunned. She and I don't usually share such intimacies. What she said is one of the tenderest things anyone has ever said to me. I started to think about my own mother and how often she prayed for my friends, the friends I would make, and the man I would marry (some day) long before I ever met him.
I'm a mother now. The mantle has passed. As my son dressed for school, I took a moment to pray for his friends. For the ones he has already -- for Frankie, Petie, Cora, Max, Sam, Willem, Schuyler, Shea, Neva, Sterling, Thomas, Teague, Darla, Audrey, Theo, Ian, Maisy, Mimi and many others. I prayed for the new friends he would make this week and in the years to come.
I prayed that God would send him kind traveling companions, friends to come up alongside him, have his back and keep him company along life's journey.
I prayed that my son would be a great friend to others -- generous, thoughtful, selfless, of good humor, gracious and deeply kind. I prayed that he would listen well, offer good advice, commiserate, empathize, support and love with an open heart and spirit. I prayed that God would send him friends who are the same.
And then I prayed for his Anam Cara. In the Celtic tradition, which is my heritage, Anam Cara means "Soul Friend." It's beyond pedestrian friendship. It is sacred, God-given and ordained, a miraculous blessing with feet.
An Anam Cara is someone with whom you share your deepest loves, fears, dreams, doubts, joys and sorrows. That soul friend will know him and love him for exactly who he is. He or she is a friend who will uplift him, reflect God's love for him, and draw him toward his Creator, not away or astray.
I prayed that, in the words of William Shakespeare, my son would take his soul friends into his heart and "grapple them to [his] soul with hoops of steel."
Finally, I thanked God for sending me my Anam Cara 22 years ago. She is my very best friend and is hooped around my heart with unbendable steel.
She knows me for all that I am and loves me (anyway).
Cathleen Falsani is journalist, blogger and author of several nonfiction books, including the memoir Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and the forthcoming The Thread: Faith, Friendship and Facebook.