We met as teenagers entering adulthood, the way young college students do – through mutual friends and shared love interests. I was reserved and guarded; Erica was extroverted and unexpected. Our first conversation was at a dingy IHOP booth, in the thick of Missouri summers, where the cracked blue plastic cushions stick to your legs the way that sweet, sticky syrup clings to your fingers. Both have staying power, like memories that you didn’t realize would be life-changing at the time.
Our shared connection, a lumbering 19-year-old boy, with a penchant for filling the space with hilarious behavior, guzzled butter pecan straight from the bottle, while Erica lectured us on the dangers of credit card debt as she made her way through bites of cheap pancakes.
She was fiery, with reddish hair and wildly freckled skin that were just a backdrop to the bold personality exuding behind her green eyes. We finished our meal that morning and moved on.
The school year started, and while our paths crossed countless times, she was never a close friend, but more like a well-known acquaintance. I, for one, was fine with that. There were times I would catch her laughing loudly in the cafeteria as she bounced from table to table. While I kept to my small inner circle of friends, she lived in Venn diagrams of overlapping connections and conversations.
A year later, we found ourselves firmly established as “frenemies”, courtesy of a surprise love triangle with a cute boy whose charm was far better than his ability to stay faithful in a relationship. As rumors swirled and hearts got broken, I hunkered down in my familiar, conflict-avoiding way. But not Erica. She’s a face it head-on sort of gal, and somehow a text message with an invitation to talk in person landed me seated across from her at a tiny two-top table at another run-of-the-mill restaurant. It was dimly lit with a pendant straight out of a film noir scene, illuminating our cheap chicken strip meals and the fragile hearts of two young women, trying to find their place in the world.
There were plenty of other encounters after that. Like talent shows ending in late-night pancake diner runs, where my friend-who-was-like-a-brother and I made sure to put her and this quirky, fellow musician boy at the end of the table together because we didn’t know how to tell them we didn’t like them “like that.” Turns out, she married that brother-friend of mine, I said “I do” to that quirky musician boy, and Erica and I wound up in the same newlywed women’s Bible study surrounded by 20-somethings swapping stories of cooking fails, struggles with sex, and freshly married life.
Our lives, for better or worse, always seemed to be inextricably linked.
A year and a half after getting married, I had a baby. And a year after that, I miscarried a baby. I shared our story on social media in the hope that someone else would find solidarity in it. Almost immediately, I got a phone call from Erica.
“I just want you to know that you’re not alone. Evan and I miscarried earlier this year….it’s hard…I’m praying for you.”
I hung up the phone, surprised that she would reach out, but grateful.
Nine months later, we posed bump to bump at a combined baby shower, weeks away from our shared due date. We welcomed two beautiful girls into the world. Her first, my second. The babies’ first Sunday at church, they showed up in matching polka dot dresses and tiny little bows; an accident we happily documented, of course.
Just a few months later, she and her husband divulged they were unexpectedly expecting again. A shock, but a sweet one. They wanted lots of kids, so this was good, even if it was sudden. She asked me to take their newborn photos that Fall and I happily agreed. As her due date drew near, I checked in more frequently. How are you feeling? Are you sick of being pregnant? Are you sick of people asking you if you’re still pregnant? Just keep me posted. We’ll do the session whenever the baby comes.
She was “overdue” but that wasn’t uncharacteristic for her. So we waited. And then, one night I got a text, not from Erica, but from another friend: “Evan and Erica are on their way to the hospital. Their midwife couldn’t find a heartbeat. Please pray.”
As soon as I read it, I grabbed my camera bag, and told my husband, “We need to go right now. We need to be there.” We drove to the hospital and joined our group of friends, where we waited for hours, talking, praying, singing, praying.
Their beautiful baby girl was already gone. 8lbs 7oz, dark hair, perfectly formed features, no heartbeat. They let us into their hospital room that night, but more than that, they let us into their grief. Heavy sobs hung in the air as they whispered her name: Millie.
And there was Erica. Empty womb. Empty arms. I sat in the chair next to her and grabbed her still wildly freckled hand. She was beautiful. Her reddish hair pulled high into her signature messy bun, her green eyes red and swollen, her once athletic abdomen now stitched up and aching. And all the things we’d walked through in the past – the boys and jealousy and vastly different personalities- didn’t really matter. They were silly and trite, but they brought us together and somehow, eight years after meeting for the first time, we found ourselves next to one another, not at a booth with a seat cracking at the seams, but in a hospital bed, with a heart shattered and hope deferred. I watched her in her weakness, for perhaps the first time in our relationship, and I heard the Holy Spirit urging me to stay. When everyone else leaves, stay.
When the rest of our friends had said goodbye and gone home that night, the nurses wheeled Millie in for us to meet. I photographed our friends holding their precious girl, studying every part of her, trying to sear it into their brains so they’d never forget. She was dressed in a tiny satin gown, made from someone’s donated wedding dress; a representation of love enduring. We laid her at her mama’s feet and took the photo that would be shown at her funeral, that would adorn the walls of their home.
In the weeks ahead, their house was a revolving door. People are quick to carry burdens when it’s fresh, when the pain is raw. The way others surrounded them in their darkest season was a rare gift. The presence of the people around them became the cracks of light that made their way into their home and into their hearts.
But eventually, the initial dust of despair settled and the meal trains stopped. The cards quit arriving, the text messages ceased, and a hard reality set in—they had a nursery with no baby. Putting away clothes, not because Millie outgrew them, but because she never wore them. Hanging her photo, not filled with warmth and smiles from a cozy newborn session, but as a tangible reminder that there would always be a void without her.
I felt that nudge again. Stay. When everyone else leaves, stay. For this introvert who rarely initiates, that didn’t always come naturally. Still, I made the choice to find tangible ways to meet my friend in the midst of her loss. I sent frequent texts and made freezer meals with her. I watched their daughter so they could go to a grief group, I listened through tears as she processed everything, and I said Millie’s name.
I watched Erica navigate the stages of grief with a supernatural strength that challenged my faith. I witnessed her wade into the darkness head-on, the way a warrior enters battle, knowing the risk and acknowledging the sure pain. I am certain I wouldn’t have been as brave. She could’ve run from the heartbreak, hardened herself, and built walls high enough to keep the pain out, but instead, she opened the door and let it mold her into someone new. She changed in ways only tragedy can create: her edges were softer, her compassion was greater, her voice for the broken was stronger.
And as I watched this unfold, I realized I had changed too. My heart was less guarded, my friendships more vulnerable, my willingness to encourage more ready. For nearly a decade, I had been privy to a friendship I never asked for, a friendship that was unexpected, but always right on time.
It’s been six years since we met Millie for the first and last time. Erica and I have been pregnant a combined 6 more times, with 4 of our babies here on earth and 2 more of hers in heaven. We were there for each other at those births and through those bleary postpartum weeks – holding babies to breasts, changing a thousand diapers, shushing screaming infants so mama can take a shower. We raise our kids as family; we discipline and disciple differently, but always in solidarity.
When they moved five hours away to follow big dreams, we helped them load their truck and waved goodbye with bittersweet pangs in our chest. And, three years later, when a pandemic rearranged those dreams of theirs, we drove the five hours and loaded their truck so they could move back home. Distance used to be my greatest friendship foe, the kryptonite that easily slipped silence into spaces where long-held connections once lived. But we were intentional in protecting the sacred friendship we were building and distance didn’t seem to matter. Instead, it created opportunities for us to host each other in our homes countless times, small rooms bursting with bodies and babies.
Even now, we stay up late laughing until we pee our too-many-pregnancies pants and we wake up early with the kids, commiserating as we watch our husbands flip piles of pancakes on the griddle. Our kids giggle and douse their breakfast in sweet, sticky syrup and we give each other a knowing glance, seeing new memories with that same staying power taking shape before our eyes.
Brittany Smith is a full-time creative in the St. Louis area where she lives with her husband, four messy, magical babes, and their Ecuadorian Au Pair. Brunch is her love language and quiet spaces to create are her happy place. In her past life, she was a singer-songwriter/worship leader. Now, she owns a photography + film studio and is the founder + creative director of She is Kindred. As a lifelong writer and professional people watcher, she has always been fascinated with people’s stories and unearthing the depth below the surface.
You can connect with her on Instagram @sixsmithstory.