We've all had moments where the conversation starts: "Hey, do you remember so-and-so?"
Answer: "Oh, sure!" Cue mental memory of last interaction with that person. What the person was like, what you were like. If fond memories (almost always), a sweet haze surrounds the evocation.
"So-and-so is dead."
Cue giant scythe swooshing down and cleanly slicing the reverie, slicing the moment to something horrible and abruptly sad.
That didn't happen today. But I got word someone I once kissed died after a protracted fight with cancer. Same age, endured through her birthday last week and then surrendered following a visit from long-time friends and surrounded by family.
When someone we know dies, we become the sole caretakers of those moments. That person can no longer speak up with a smile or a head shake and say "Oh, yeah! I was there with you." Even minor moments. A stark experience.
In high school, she was wavo/goth. By junior/senior year, pancake makeup, clove cigarettes. Usually second or third banana. Content to be in the background.
I went to college in another city for two years. Moved back into my hometown where she was by then in regular social rotation with a pocket of long-held friends.
The anthropology of dating was never my forté. I was a keen observer, but a lousy participant in picking up/acting on cues. Shy, easily daunted despite tendency toward extroversion and saying severe things very loudly to the acclaim/dismay of those within earshot.
So, in this small social circle she was initially unattached. She had also really blossomed. Dropped weight, got confident about her appearance. Went out into the sun. Got a retail job. A decent car that she painted colorful fish on. Strong sense of humor. Good listener. Fun to be around - good with a supplemental joke to follow someone else's start. I got interested.
She had no problem dating. One of her boyfriends was a Deadhead guy who was the typical tightly-wound "It's all good" mellow affectation, VERY PARTICULAR about the type of mellow to be, and who became highly agitated when his sensibilities were challenged. 22 years later, I wonder if he detected my circling around her and reacted to it, or if I was laying topical landmines for him to step on because I was jealous.
Eventually, I had a chance. I invited her to watch a movie with me at my parents' house out in the country. I had just moved back and transferred to the hometown state university and hadn't found a place yet. Can't remember the movie we watched. She was wearing capri pants and I spent much of the movie semi-absent-mindedly stroking her lower leg, which she had rested on my lap.
I drove her back home to her apartment, dropped her off, and we kissed in the doorway. She put her hands in my pants pockets and said: "Oh, what have we here?" "Keys" I answered with a smile. She laughed. No invite in. Never kissed again.
I was still hanging around in group settings, sometimes hanging out in restaurants. I was still interested. I talked the ears off of mutual friends (thank you for your patience). They knew it wouldn't work even if it DID happen. I kinda knew it, too. But I still liked her. Hadn't dated for a while other than her. It was a goal.
She finally admitted to others that she wasn't interested in me, but did like having me around for the attention. Mutual friends told her it was mean to waste my time like that. She reacted with a shrug. *GASP* was my reaction upon this report. Still I continued to hang around. Can't recall for how long.
A sister of hers was getting married. Among her sisters, she was the only one NOT yet married or engaged. The Catholic wedding was on a Saturday, but she asked me to go as a date. Met a lot of her family, dull as I was, I was clearly a beard or being used to keep the pressure off her a bit. In advice column parlance, in this phase I had the knack of falling into the "friend" track instead of the "boyfriend" track.
During the wedding, someone had taped letters onto the soles of the groom's shoes so when he kneeled for Communion it said "Send Help". Really, really funny.
Later that night, I was to carpool with my brother to meet our parents for a weekend at the beach. As I drove with her to the reception, I mentioned looking forward to the beach. She got huffy and said: "Well, if you're looking forward to the beach so much, you DON'T have to go the reception!" Then the weeks of being kept around, being a prop boyfriend/fiancé, not getting a thank you for sitting through a wedding all fell into place and I felt a bit of a spine forming. "Okay. I'll drop you off, then." Did just that. She slammed the door. I couldn't wait to tell my friends. Drove to one friend's workplace. We cracked up. Reported later that she was FURIOUS for days afterward, and they reinforced to her that I got fed up of being dragged around.
Eventually I think she moved to Seattle. Then a long while later I heard she got married.
A year ago I heard she had cancer, and that it was severe.
A few days ago mutual friends gave updates on her condition: fatal. She's a mother and wife.
One of the friends posted a recent photo of her. The trend toward coming out of her shell continued. She looked radiant, proud, even prettier than when I knew her.
I feel for her grieving spouse and children. A horrible loss for them, and an awful burden for her, to know you will die and not get to see your children become adults. This children you love losing a parent. Your spouse burdened by your permanent absence.
My memories of her will remain true to the time. I'm still proud of my little stand, slow-coming though it was, but I've no illusions: that moment in no way fully reflects on the people we each were and became.
News and contemplations like this can lead to new resolve to strive for something inward, or for something outward. As it does in the plots of books and movies. Even now, though, through the sympathy and sadness I still sense myself wanting what I want, as before. Am feeling the impermanence of things more than usual. Slightly increases the resolve of "capture the day" when it comes to projects and other ambitions, but that could fluctuate based on what's on tv or other distractions. And had the last few lines of Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool" running through my head today:
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Goodbye, S. I regret not knowing you better, but am glad to know you became a mother with a supportive spouse and children. I wish them well, and can imagine the depth of their loss knowing an aspect of you (and being drawn to it), though I will never meet them. Life goes on. Until it doesn't.