Friends for life If things had gone according to plan, they never would have met. But with three untimely births came the bonding of three families. And proof that there is such a thing as a happy ending.

December 27, 1998|By Laura Lippman

With her short blond hair, gym-hard body and emphatic way of speaking, 39-year-old Sherry Dougherty brings to mind the pretty-pretty girl who proves herself by being a tomboy. But Sherry's tough exterior is piecrust-thin, and, on this hot June day, it's threatening to crack.

Fighting tears, she paces in the kitchen of her Riderwood home, dialing portrait photographers, looking for one, just one, who might have an opening. All she wants is a no-frills, blue sky-in-the-background staged shot, the kind advertised in every Sunday circular, and suddenly it seems like the Holy Grail. Everyone is booked.

"I need a drink," she mock-wails between calls to Sears and J.C. Penney and Olan Mills. "Where's the gin?"

Her daughter, Shannon, and Shannon's friend, Meredith, watch Sherry carefully. They have been in the car with Sherry much of the day, and they know she's at the breaking point. Even 3-year-old Colin, Shannon's little brother, understands this is a good time to be good.

It's silly to cry, Sherry thinks, blinking back tears. Silly to cry about this, she means. Ten years ago, she would have prayed for such a normal, trivial problem. It's just a photograph, a surprise that probably won't even be a surprise when all is said and done.

Still - she had planned it so perfectly, had played it so cool with the other mothers. I just want to borrow Meredith for a night, she had told the always-quizzical Sandee Mahr down in Severna Park. Sandee doesn't like giving up Meredith, even for a night.

What's so odd about asking R.J. to spend the night with Shannon and Meredith? she had asked Susie Rose in Damascus. Susie did not, as one might expect, find anything curious about a slumber party consisting of two girls and one boy. But when Sherry asked that R.J. bring a white top, Susie's cop instincts kicked in, and she also peppered Sherry with questions.

Sherry feels as if she's been planning this all year, this damn surprise, so simple yet so complicated. She began talking about it in the winter, but spring break came and went without an opportunity. Suddenly it was AprilMayJune, and now June is almost over. But, finally, she had a plan, a plan only a shade less ambitious than Hannibal's march over the Alps.

All she had to do was load Shannon and Colin into the car and zoom down to Anne Arundel County to pick up Meredith. Zoom over to Highway 97 and pick up R.J. Zoom to J.C. Penney.

It fell apart on the second zoom. Sherry had assumed 97 referred to the interstate to Annapolis. But in Montgomery County, where the Roses live, 97 means Georgia Avenue.

So R.J. had waited on his 97, while Sherry had searched for the meeting place on I-97, making increasingly frantic calls from her car phone. By the time the mix-up was resolved, the J.C Penney appointment was history.

The thing is - it's always like this. Three families, three different counties, three dramatically different households. Just getting together for dinner is a logistical challenge. But they roll with it. They're flexible. They have Christmas in January. And they won't celebrate the children's spring birthdays until the Fourth of July, their first mutual vacation in 10 years of knowing one another.

Why do they keep doing it? Why, after a decade, do three families whose only common bond is the worst thing that ever happened to them, refuse to let one another go? They've all asked that question at some point.

And, although it's hard to remember now, there was a time when Sherry didn't see any reason to make an effort. What's the point, she had wondered when Sandee invited her to Meredith's first birthday party. Who are you to me? Susie was asking the same questions.

But they went, each planning to duck out early. They ended up in the corner together, giggling at the overwhelming perfection of Sandee's house. Every detail was just-so, down to the dainty lace gloves draped with artful carelessness on a low hall table, a string of pearls on top of the gloves.

You have a 1-year-old, they wanted to tell her. The days of white lace gloves are over. But they didn't know Sandee well enough yet to say such things to her face.

Before the party ended, they lined up the three babies for what would prove to be the first of many group shots. Bald Meredith, chunky R.J., skinny Shannon. They didn't look that different from any other trio of babies.

Underweight, of course, but off oxygen. And no more monitors. The monitors - those had been the worst, little gremlins following them home from the hospital, reminding everyone of how vulnerable they still were. For the longest time, all three mothers had heart palpitations in McDonald's, because the buzzer on the french fryer sounded just like the alarm on the monitor. It was all part of being a preemie mom.

Which was all they had in common. Or so they would have told you at the time.

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