When Your Best Friend Becomes an ‘Aunt’ to Your Kids

“Kristi’s been a constant in my life. I couldn’t even imagine not having her involved in the girls’ lives.”

Illustration of a woman holding a giant umbrella over another woman and her two kids. One of the kids is reaching out toward the woman holding the umbrella.
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with Judie, an introvert, and Kristi, an extrovert, about their opposites-attract friendship, and how Judie leaned on it when her daughter was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic. They discuss their years as roommates, how “Auntie Kristi” is an important part of Judie’s daughters’ lives, and how Kristi showed up for Judie and her daughters when they desperately needed support in a time of social distance.

The Friends:

Kristi Dusek, 45, a project manager at a research nonprofit, who lives in Baltimore
Judie Hyun, 45, the chief of the division of infectious-disease surveillance for the Maryland Department of Health, who lives in Baltimore

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: Tell me how you met and became friends.

Kristi Dusek: Judie had just moved to Baltimore to start grad school, and she was looking for a church.

Judie Hyun: That was 1998.

Kristi: She heard through a friend of a friend about our church and visited. We were pretty small then, and we would have lunch together after the service. She was probably the only new person there that week, so, of course, everyone’s like, Who’s this? We just hung out and chatted.

At the end, because I get a little excitable, and when I like people, I like people, I just blurted out, “You know what? Even if you never come back, I think we could be really good friends.” I instantly had an internal cringe. Why did I say that? You sound crazy. But she kept coming in spite of my creepy, weird overshare.

Judie: I was a new person in a new city, and having a hard time fitting in. This church was one of the first times when people actually came and talked to me, more than just, “Welcome to Baltimore.” I do remember I was taken aback a little bit [by what Kristi said].

A selfie of two women in sunglasses on the beach
Kristi Dusek, left and Judie Hyun, right (Courtesy of Kristi Dusek)

Beck: How did your friendship evolve from being just church friends to something deeper? You were roommates at one point, correct?

Judie: Kristi, if you haven’t figured out already, is—

Kristi: A lot?

Judie: Expressive, and very inviting as a person. Shortly after meeting her, I started getting invited to hang out with her and a few others. It usually involved late-night Krispy Kreme runs. We spent more time together, and Kristi connected me to people who’d been part of her life, because she had been in Baltimore since college and knew more people.

Eventually, Kristi asked if I would want to room with her and another person from church. I was living in this dark dormitory at Johns Hopkins, so when the opportunity came to move out, I was like, “Yes, please.” We lived maybe a year with the third roommate, and then we found another place and just roomed together for three to five years after.

Beck: What was your roommate dynamic like?

Judie: I like to keep myself busy, whereas Kristi is very chill and loves just being with people. I was always out doing something, whether it was volunteering with church or working. Along the way, I got another graduate degree, and was crazy enough to drive to Philly from Baltimore once a week to do it. I was not around a lot. But when we did spend time together, it was very, “Let’s chill and hang out, eat, and just talk about life.” And Kristi is an amazing chef.

Kristi: I went to culinary school for a couple of years in Baltimore. I’m like, “Let’s invite people over all the time and feed them.” Judie tolerated that. She enjoyed the people, but I think that wore on her. I was a little oblivious because I’m like, Who doesn’t love lots of people?

Beck: One of the things you mentioned when we were emailing is that Judie tends to keep her circle smaller than Kristi does. I’m curious, Judie: What is it about Kristi that made her someone you wanted to keep in your circle?

Judie: Kristi has this ability to actually seek to understand what you’re saying without an agenda, without trying to tell you, “This is how I think you should see it.” She was one of the first people I’ve ever met who is like that. Whenever I would talk to her, she would help me process a lot of the things I felt inside but never really talked about or even acknowledged.

Beck: Is that rare for you, to have those kinds of deep heart-to-hearts with friends?

Judie: I don't have very many people I talk to and share feelings with. My husband, and Kristi, and maybe one or two other people.

Kristi: I am very cognizant that Judie doesn’t share with a lot of people. I try to treat that with the seriousness it deserves. Judie is also a safe place for me because I actually don’t share my feelings that much either. I talk a lot, but I’m rarely actually vulnerable with people. I call it a discipline, to share deep, hard stuff. That’s part of what being in this friendship is.

Beck: How did your friendship evolve after Judie had kids?

Judie: I might dare say that our friendship evolved even before I had kids. Probably when I got married. Looking back, I feel bad. I sort of disappeared. Not intentionally but [in the sense that] now I have to deal with this person 24/7 and I don’t know how to do that.

And quickly thereafter, I had kids and [my husband and I started] a church. I wasn’t as readily available. Kristi’s always available when I want to talk to her.

Kristi: I know those first few years were hard for you all. And then you didn’t get pregnant right away and that was a really stressful and hard thing that occupied a lot of time and mental energy. I didn’t feel abandoned.

Beck: Kristi, what’s your relationship like with Judie’s two daughters? How has that affected your friendship?

Two women and two young girls, wearing face masks and winter coats, gather outside in a yard
Kristi, Deborah, Tabitha, and Judie (Courtesy of Judie Hyun)

Kristi: I’ve been really grateful to get to be “Auntie Kristi.” I just want to try to support Judie, because I have my own hard stuff, but it’s not trying to take care of small humans while being exhausted.

Deborah is the older one and Tabitha is the younger one.

Judie: They’re 12 and 10.

Kristi: Deborah [said something to her dad about me]: “I know she’s not family, I just love her so much.” The other thing she said was, “Auntie Kristi just makes me feel good about myself.” I can die happy. My life’s work is done.

I’ll come up with crafts to do with the girls. When you’re a working mom, if you like those things, fine. But if they don’t come naturally to you—

Judie: That’s me.

Kristi: Why should you feel guilty? I love to do those things. Let Auntie Kristi bring the crafts.

Judie: Kristi’s been a constant in my life. I couldn’t even imagine not having her involved in the girls’ lives. When Deborah was first born, Kristi was one of the first nonfamily folks who came, saw her, and held her.

Beck: I know that your youngest daughter, Tabitha, got sick right before the pandemic, and that was really hard. Can you tell me about what happened?

Judie: Yeah, 2020 was a crazy year. In January, Tabitha got ill out of nowhere. She was in the pediatric ICU for about a week because she had acute liver failure. And even after all the tests they ran, they were like, “We have no idea what caused this.” It turned out she had really low counts of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets.

A month or so after they discharged her, her health started returning to normal. Then [at] Easter last year, she started having a fever out of nowhere, and no Tylenol or ibuprofen was working. She was diagnosed with leukemia on April 16, 2020. She needed to start chemo right away.

The pandemic had started at that point, so only one person could be in the hospital with her at the same time. After a week or two, they told us to go home. I took a month off from work to figure out our new life. It happened suddenly. Who really expects things like this to happen, right? I think Kristi was one of the first people I told about this.

Kristi: When she got sick, you were already working crazy hours because of the pandemic. I knew you were going to do what you had to do, because it’s your family, but if you’re working your fingers to the bone all of this time, what’s going to happen to you?

Beck: That’s the moment you most need social support, and that’s also the moment we were all starting to distance from one another because we had to. How did you process that as friends?

Kristi: I felt helpless. I just couldn’t think of any way to help. I can’t have Deborah, the older one, over for a few days to give them a break. I can’t come and clean Judie’s house.

I felt bad for Deborah, too, because Mom and Dad are stressed so they don’t have as much bandwidth for her. Not that anybody did anything wrong.

Judie: You started to talk to Deborah a lot more during that time, when Tabitha was in the hospital.

Kristi: Deborah and I definitely had a couple of one-on-ones. She’s old enough and smart enough to understand all the limitations but still feel neglected, and, on top of it, just sad that her sister is sick. Sometimes we talked through ways for her to advocate for herself , or how to even participate some in Tabitha’s care.

In May, [Deborah, Tabitha, and I] started a weekly videochat. Most of the time, I hang out for two hours and they just make memes and send them and share their screen while they play Minecraft. Sometimes we just hang out and craft.

Beck: Judie, what is your perspective on the videochats?

Judie: Both girls look forward to that time every Saturday, particularly Tabitha. It gives her an outlet to talk to someone outside the family, because she’s with us all the time and is tired of us. We’re always just telling her, “Keep drinking water, take your medicine, do all these things,” and time with Kristi is not that. Knowing that the girls are really loved and that they’re getting emotional feeding from her has been such a burden off my shoulders.

Both girls are at the age now where they feel like they can tell Auntie Kristi things [they don’t tell me]. She’s the cool aunt that does fun things with them and I’m the mom-enforcer at home.

Kristi: Not that I’m telling on the girls, but I will [tell Judie], “Oh, I did notice they said this.” The girls do all these meme pictures. I’m going to show you this one Tabitha drew very early on. It’s her face and rain clouds. And then [it says], “Life is bad, live with it.” It was like, Oh, that’s not who she is. She’s not prone to depression. She told me early on, “This is the worst year of my life.” Super dramatic, but not untrue. I try to sit with it for her, and just be a good friend. But I also make sure Judie knows those things if there’s stuff she needs to know.

Beck: Where are things at now with her treatment?

Judie: She’s now in maintenance. The first eight months of her treatment, she was going into the clinic once a week or every 10 days. But now she’s going in only once a month. This part of her treatment is going to last another 16 or 17 months, and then she’s supposed to be done.

Kristi: Her hair is growing back and it’s supersoft. Every time I do see her in person, she’s like, “Do you want to pet my head?”

Beck: Has this time of Tabitha’s illness made you learn anything new about your friendship?

Kristi: I don’t know. I’ll just be there, Judie. Okay? I’ll just be there.

Judie: This is just more of the same of what Kristi’s been like and what life has been like being her friend. I just feel really fortunate.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.