This morning, my friend Gerry sent me a testimony he wrote about a dear friend who suddenly passed away. Through the email I could sense the sting that he is feeling- the kind of shock that sends you reeling and leaves you disoriented and confused. I remembered that same feeling one evening when I opened a letter from my sister. When I tore open the envelope, a newspaper clipping fluttered to the floor. I picked it up, expecting to read some cheery news about one of my nephews. Instead, I found the obituary for my closest childhood friend.
The winter I was in first grade, I moved from the parochial school in nearby Three Rivers, to the public school in my home town. This was done because I spent the first half of the year standing in the corner, rapping my own knuckles with a ruler as penance for horrible sins only a six-year-old can commit, such as spelling my name wrong, or arriving past the second bell when the bus was late. The months between that September and December were filled with fearful tears and the few memories I have of those days are shrouded in lonely darkness.
First grade in public school was very different from St. Anne’s. The classrooms were bright and sunny. My teacher was Mrs. Cassidy, a petite lady who wore flowered dresses and corrected me with a gentle smile. At St. Anne’s, I had been taught to write in cursive, using the Palmer method. Mrs. Cassidy showed me how to print rounded letters between the wide lines on special penmanship paper. It was fun, like artwork, and when I was finished, I decorated the margins with small sketches of puppies and tulips. How Sr. Lucien would have cringed! Under Mrs. Cassidy’s guidance, I learned to add and subtract, to read and to sing songs about April showers and the grand old flag. My Monday morning stomach aches were replaced by enthusiasm, and I finally relaxed enough to begin making friends with some of the other children.
One of those children was Linda. She was delicate and blonde and reminded me of a spring lamb. She wore a red and black cowgirl outfit, complete with boots and fringed shirt to school, and her lunch box was shaped like a barn. Linda invited me to her sixth birthday party and on a beautiful May afternoon, I gathered at her house with other little girls in pastel dresses to eat cake and play “Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” I still remember my party favor- a string of amber beads to wear around my neck. They were translucent and glistened in the sunlight and to me they were as precious as diamonds. But more precious was my friendship with Linda.
Despite her fragile stature, Linda was daring and adventurous. She and I would spend overnights at her house, rise early in the morning and armed with chocolate covered graham crackers, explore the woods behind her house. We swam in the icy waters of her brook during the summers and slid down her snow covered hill in the winter. We sang songs to each other over walkie-talkies, earned 4-H badges by planting Mother’s Day seeds in paper cups and shot BBs at each other’s feet. As teenagers, we rode a motor scooter through nearby pastures, daringly cutting the headlight in the dark, as if to look danger in the eye and tempt fate in a wicked game of roulette. We whispered about boys and borrowed each other’s clothes, and smoked cigarettes in the school bathrooms. And through the years, we watched the clear night skies for shooting stars.
After high school I went away to college. Linda did not. Our paths didn’t cross again until many years later, when I was in the early months of my first pregnancy. She arrived at my house, her baby boy- Micah- happily packed on her back. He reminded me of her as a child with his elfin eyes and wispy blond hair. We excitedly caught up on each other’s lives and went for a walk. When we returned, I started to bleed and within a few days, the baby was gone and I was left in a quiet house with empty arms. Buried in my own grief, I mourned for weeks. Months turned to years, and somehow, Linda and I lost touch, never to see each other again.
Linda’s memorial service was much like she was- free, open and non-traditional. Her friends and family spoke fondly of her sense of adventure and her zeal for life. We all agreed our lives were brighter and happier for having known her and then with a tear and a hug, we went again in our separate ways. I will always carry the regret of not being there while she was sick, of not standing with her in the dark days, of not saying goodbye.
People’s lives are much like the shooting stars Linda and I sought. Some do a long, slow swan dive, leaving trails of red fire so bright that we can still see them long after their lights have burned out. Others, like Linda, dance so quickly across the night sky that if we look away for an instant we’ll miss them.
Life is short. Take a little time, look up a falling star and say hello, before it’s too late.