Writer Kristy Woudstra had known her BFF since childhood, when the duo became pen pals—but they didn’t actually meet until last year.
"You've been waiting 28 years, two more hours is nothing," I kept repeating as I tried to calm myself in the car. But I found I couldn't care less about the majestic views as we drove along the coast. I just wanted to get to the little town of Hilo. That was where Michelle was waiting.
On that January evening, I was meeting my longest-standing friend for the first time. Nearly 30 years before, an awkward, geeky kid in Canada (me) became pen pals with an effervescent girl in Australia (her) and an incredible friendship was born. We may live on opposite sides of the globe, but our steadfast bond proves distance doesn't determine connection.
Neither of us can remember exactly how we found each other. I vaguely recollect an ad in the back of one of my dad's computer magazines. She's fairly certain she was at her aunt's house when a friend gave her a pamphlet about overseas pen pals. But somehow we sent those first letters of introduction, probably with a photo, on a nearly 15,000-kilometre journey.
Thin at first, the envelopes got thicker as we revealed more and more about ourselves. Our handwriting was curlicued and often on colourful stationery, with stickers added for panache (this was the '80s, after all). We held nothing back, sharing all the things that occupied our tween minds: school, music and boys. So many boys.
What I didn't tell her, or even realize at the time, was that she was likely saving my life. I grew up in Barrie, Ont., a small, suburban city about an hour's drive north of Toronto. For me, elementary school was a cruel landscape I endured.
As the kid of Dutch immigrants, I stuck out. My dad worked in a factory; my mom cleaned houses. We couldn't afford the Polo Ralph Lauren shirts, Kettle Creek pants or Tretorn shoes that were the currency of cool back then. Instead, I wore my sister's oversize castoffs (she's seven years older) and pretended the quirky pieces I occasionally picked up at Woolworth's or BiWay were "fashion."
I stayed inside at recess a lot, helping teachers prepare lessons and mark papers, because I didn't have many friends. Hanging out with me meant drawing the attention of bullies—a dangerous proposition. And there was a constant barrage of bullying. Girls would become friends with me just to find out some gossip or my crush, which they could use against me later. I was locked in change rooms, beaten up in the schoolyard, left out and ridiculed. My humiliation seemed to be the daily goal of the popular kids.
But those bullies couldn't reach Michelle on the cane farm where she lived in northern Queensland. This kind, hilarious friend with an expressive smile and positive outlook didn't know that I was the school "loser."
When one of Michelle's letters arrived at my home, my heart would leap. I'd grab it and run to my room, where I'd gently open it so as not to ruin any of her writing. Like an added PS, she would often include little phrases on the back of the envelope: "Hi," "Write soon" or "Have a good day!"
Sadly, I can't find a single one of those letters now. I likely lost them in one of my many moves. But I can still see her script, the Australian stamps and blue airmail stickers in my mind's eye. To me, those were beacons of hope that life wasn't so miserable everywhere.
As we drove toward Michelle's place last year, I reflected on how much it meant to receive those letters, and my heart felt like it would burst with gratitude. Whenever I told people that we had decided to finally meet in Hawaii, they were astounded that we had maintained a friendship for so long through correspondence.
We lost touch only once. We didn't have a falling-out; we just stopped writing in the middle of high school, likely caught up in the whirlwind of emotions and self-inflicted teen drama. Or maybe we were just lazy.
But then, in my 20s, I got a call from my mom: "Kristy, a letter has arrived. It's from Australia." I immediately knew who had sent it.
"I don't know if you will remember me or not," she wrote. "We were pen pals. My name is Michelle Darwen (now McDonnell, I got married last year)…. Today, I went to my mum's place, and she had done a big cleanup. She handed me some letters, among other things, and I started to read them. Wonderful memories of you, and our letters came flooding back…. It's embarrassing to see how boy crazy we were…. I hope you are enjoying life to the fullest and all your dreams are becoming reality."
And with that, we reconnected. We tried sending letters again for the nostalgia but quickly moved to email. From there, our relationship evolved with technology.
I'll never forget the moment we connected on Skype. When my face popped up on her monitor, Michelle literally jumped out of her chair, laughing with delight. We marvelled at seeing each other "live" for the first time. It was surreal. Michelle was very late for her daughters' swimming lessons that day.
We have stayed in touch through divorce and remarriage (mine, hers is still going strong), the births of our children (I was the first person she told she was pregnant), deaths of family and friends, and just the mundane reality of everyday life.
When crappy stuff happens, Michelle is the first person I want to tell. I value her opinion the most. She's my 2 a.m. friend—you know, the one you call if you end up in jail or in a ditch or something. Sure, she lives on the other side of the world, but she's just a wireless connection away.
As we pulled up to the house, my heart was hammering in my chest. David, her husband, was standing in the window. Her youngest daughter was at the door, smiling and waving.
I suddenly realized Michelle and I were about the same age as our girls are now when we first wrote so many moons ago. Maybe our kids will continue the legacy of this friendship long after us (though, hopefully, they won't be as boy obsessed).
I felt like I was having sensory overload as I walked in the door. My body couldn't quite handle the anticipation anymore. Then, just like that, she was right in front of me.
I choked back tears as we hugged, compressing all time and distance into that very moment.
When we finally let go, our kids kept asking: "How do you feel? What's it like to meet after all this time?"
I realized nothing could have been more natural. After all, I already knew her better than anyone else. But being in Michelle's physical presence only confirmed one thing: Our deep connection has made her more than a friend. She is my sister.