Monday, May 10, 2010


It all started with a letter.

In 2003, upon my acceptance to the Physician Assistant Program at Wake Forest, I received a letter from the President of the Class of 2004. Contained within was my official welcome to PA School, as well as the assignment of my big sister, or the mentor from the class ahead of me who would guide me through my first year. I couldn't have known it at the time, of course, but that class president would later become my husband. And the big sister he assigned to me all those years ago? She became my best friend.

Last week, as I prepared to stand beside her as her Matron of Honor, I searched through some of our old cards and photos. I even found the first e-mail she ever wrote to me, introducing herself as my big sister. Dated 04/14/03. I can't even believe I still have it in my Inbox, but there it was. And it's no secret to anyone - especially her - that she was possibly the worst big sister. Ever. Like, in the history of Wake Forest. Busy with the challenges of adjusting to PA School (for me) and surviving clinical rotations (for her), we almost never saw each other. I didn't know it at the time, but she was also grieving the loss of her precious sister-in-law, who had suddenly passed away only two months before I arrived at school.

But there's always a greater plan at work. And I'm not sure there's ever been a more powerful illustration of that in my life than during those early days at Wake. Because while my big sister was sorting through her life changes, another mentor stepped in - and much later, when the time was right, I even fell in love with him! As that relationship evolved, so, too, did my career. After graduation, I began working at an orthopedic practice in Winston-Salem. As fate would have it, my big sister was working there, too.

And that's when the magic started.

Our friendship blossomed quickly. She brought me something in my life I had never had before. And to this day, if you ask me what it is, I'm not even sure I can tell you. What I do know is that for as long as I live, I hope I'm never, ever without it.

We commonly refer to each other by our last (maiden) names. Payne and Starnes...or, more accurately, Payne&Starnes. Just one word.

I somehow tricked her into signing up for her first 5K back in early 2006. And to this day, I blame her exclusively for making me do my first triathlon. I can still remember that chilly fall morning before the Angels Race. We were so far beyond nervous, it was ridiculous. In the tradition of that race, you have your race number marked down one arm and the name of someone you race in memory or in honor of down your other arm. She raced in memory of Jenny, her late sister-in-law. But standing there in line behind her, I decided to have something altogether different written down my arm.

If you've seen the movie 'Talladega Nights,' then you know that Ricky Bobby and his best buddy, Cal, always give each other a fist bump before the start of any race and say "Shake and Bake." Earlier that summer, when the movie first came out, Starnes and I decided we'd snag that slogan for our friendship, too. We'd used it over and over so much that I suddenly knew exactly what I needed the volunteer to write on my arm to serve as my inspiration on the morning of that first triathlon.

So while I joke about blaming Starnes for making me do that first race, the truth is, I've been grateful ever since. We've now done so many races together that it's become one of the (many) signatures of our friendship. And maybe with the exception of a Baby Grant and a Baby Bus down the road, I'm pretty sure we won't slow down any time soon.

We've also traveled together a bunch - both with our guys and on the greatest girls' trip in the history of the world (so far). Our trip to New York City in 2007 was something I won't ever forget. Holiday lights, the tree at Rockefeller Plaza, a shopping bag from Tiffany's, and a peppermint white mocha every fourth block. And if you add that to Max Brenner's Chocolate Factory, the giant piano at FAO Schwartz, and pomegranate margaritas from Rosa Mexicano, all set to 'The Music of the Night,' then you have one of the greatest trips ever taken. Period.

Later that spring, I asked Starnes to stand with me as I married my Erich...the greatest day ever. And if you can believe it, I totally kept the secret when her Erik proposed to her the following spring until she could tell family and friends in person. And so life was really sweet. Crazy jobs and Starbucks dates and swim-bike-run...with a kindred spirit by your side, laissez les bons temps rouler.

But it doesn't take much living of life to know that a good friendship - I mean, the really good kind - needs to have its hard times, too. That's how you know it's made of the right stuff. Or as Kahlil Gibran (much more eloquently) put it, "How else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

So last summer, on the 4th of July, I knew immediately when my mom handed me the phone that something just wasn't right. My parents and sister had come down from Virginia and New York, respectively, to visit us for the holiday. Starnes had left our house with Bus, her fiance', not two hours earlier on their way to dinner. So I had no idea why she was calling me...I just knew when I heard her voice that it wasn't for any good reason at all. The few words she could speak clued me in that her brother and Bus' father had been critically injured in a horrible accident. What followed was, I think, the longest, scariest night of our lives.

You learn a lot about somebody when you see them in that kind of pain. And you learn a lot about yourself when there's not one thing you can do to fix it. We spent that whole long first night shoulder-to-shoulder in the ICU waiting room. And when it finally became clear that recovery was possible at the end of a long road, I learned that it's totally possible to love somebody so much more than you already did.

This past fall, I watched from the edge of the pool, the side of the road, and the end of the trail as Starnes did the Angels Race again, this time in honor of her brother. It was the first time he'd ever seen her race. As she approached the Finish Line to the sound of him ringing a cowbell and cheering her on...well, let's just say it made waking up early on a weekend morning way more than worthwhile.

And so, this past Saturday, we came to her wedding day. My anxiety over somehow summarizing in a toast what it all means to me was outweighed only by the very deep honor I felt to stand beside her. We spent the early part of the day getting ready, and in addition to the countless other emotions, I couldn't help but feel really, really lucky. Because it's not every day that you find yourself sitting on the edge of a bathtub, drinking a celebratory mimosa, and watching your best buddy put on her (waterproof) mascara before heading off to the church. It was, in the very best way, such a privilege to be there in that moment. And I felt a nearly overwhelming sense of gratitude.

It was for those (and so many other) reasons that we had agreed to keep our words few before walking down the aisle. Because I knew that when everyone else had gone inside, it would be just me standing there with her and her father in that vestibule. So you may not believe this, but in a moment that will be a highlight of my life for a long time to come, we leaned over, gave each other a fist bump, and mustered up a "Shake and Bake." It was the planned ending to my toast for later that night, and she couldn't possibly have known it at the time. But that's just how we roll.

It was, in the most real sense, the Start Line of her biggest adventure yet, so for us, those were the perfect words. And I won't be able to tell you all that it meant for me to stand there beside her while that knot was tied. What I can tell you is that I have most happily surrounded myself with people who make me better because of who they are. And when you share a day like we all shared together this past weekend, what you're left with is a happy, (so very) happy heart. I guess every friendship has their own language, their own quirks and funny phrases that mean something special, just to each other. And you often hear about those three little words - I. and Love. and You. Believe me, Starnes and I said those words plenty of times on Saturday. But at the end of the day, it might have been those three other little words that knit our hearts just a little closer together.
Shake. and. Bake.

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