It’s hard to sum up a person in words. You can describe them- their personality, their looks, tales and stories of things they did, and share their words of wisdom…but words and paragraphs can’t fully capture the look of a person. The way someone’s eyes crinkle in just such a way that is uniquely theirs when they smile, or the feeling you get when they say your name in a certain way. The subtle glances exchanged over inside jokes, or the way you can send a silent message of understanding that only comes from the heart of a deep friendship. The familiar scent, the sound of a laugh, the weight of an arm around your shoulder, or the gentle pat of a hand- all these things are beyond the description of words. It’s a feeling of someone. And when they’re gone- you’re left with an emptiness that also defies description.
My friend Maria was… one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. I’ve known her since I was 15- that right there ought to tell you something. Teenagers are not fun. And the fact that she looked past my sullen, grumpy, mixed up teenager attitude and still saw something redeeming… says a lot about her. I remember the first time I met her was when I grudgingly went to dinner with her and my parents. I think I was probably the epitome of a sullen teenager who would rather be anywhere than at a boring work dinner. Boy was I wrong. I liked her instantly. She spoke to me like an adult. She didn’t ask me what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, or how I liked school, or any of the other ridiculous questions adults seem to like to ask kids. She asked about my interests, and my thoughts and opinions on things. She was definitely one of the coolest adults I’d ever met. After that initial dinner, I went with them often when they’d get together. My parents were out of town when the terrorist attacks happened on September 11. My parents couldn’t get back home, and didn’t want my sister and I to be alone. Maria, a government employee working in D.C., came without hesitation. Driving probably a good three hours to stay overnight with my sister and I so we wouldn’t be alone, just to turn around and have to drive back early the next morning. I’ve never forgotten that. Her presence was calming in the midst of a tragedy beyond comprehension. In the days and weeks after the attacks, I was convinced that my dad was going to be re-called from retirement into the military and would have to go to war. I finally e-mailed Maria and asked her what she thought, (probably hoping she’d have some inside-information and could tell me if he would have to go.) I still have the e-mail she sent back to me: “I don’t think this is something you need to worry about, but I won’t lie and tell you that it isn’t a possibility. Right now things are pretty uncertain. But I will tell you that if they get to a point where they have to recall old retired farts like your dad (sorry dad!), then we’re all screwed anyway.” That of course, was Maria.
One year she asked me if I’d be interested in riding with her for a charity bike ride- 150 miles in two days along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I think that’s really when I stopped seeing her as just my dad’s friend and she became my friend as well. You spend a lot of hours together when you train for a long bike ride. We’d meet halfway, or sometimes I would drive to her house and spend the weekend. She had a way of listening without judging. She never made me feel like I was whining. She gave you advice without lecturing. And she was able to maintain a distinct line between being both a friend to my parents, and a friend to me. She listened to me complain about my parents, and I’m sure she listened to my parents complain about me. She saw me as Melissa, not Wayne and Peggi’s daughter. And she saw my parents as Wayne and Peggi, not Melissa’s parents. Not many people can do that so effortlessly, and make it work so well.
When I think of Maria, I think of how her eyes were always smiling. I think about the fact that she was who she was, and she didn’t care what anyone else thought. I think about her huge heart, her contagious laugh, and the way she walked. She walked on the balls of her feet, so she always had a little bounce in her step. I could pick her out of a crowd anywhere. I think of the last time I saw her a few months back. She looked so happy. Happier than I’d seen her in a long time. She and Rimas, her partner, came to South Carolina with a golf group. I drive down to meet them for dinner. It was the first time I’d seen her since I moved south, and now I am so thankful I took the time to see them.
Her service is tomorrow. Well, I say service, but it’s actually a celebration of life. She did not want a funeral, so her family is having a celebration at a military country club. Attire is jeans and your favorite beer t-shirt: no suits. She is my hero.
But I’m not going.
I thought long and hard, and did a lot of soul-searching. I can come up with a million plausible excuses: It’s a really long drive, and I just did it last weekend. Plane tickets are too expensive. I’d have to fly into a different airport, and it’s not convenient for someone to come get me. But when it all comes down to it, they’re just excuses that could be worked around. The real reason I’m not going, all excuses set aside, is simply because:
I don’t want to.
I don't want to remember her in a room surrounded by a crowd of people I don't know, pretending to celebrate, but still saying goodbye. I don't want to hear stories just yet. Even though it's what she wanted, I am not ready to celebrate her life. I still need to mourn her loss. No, back up. I still need to accept the fact that she's gone, and I'm not there yet. I'm still stuck in the "I can't believe it isn't true" phase.
I am just not ready to say another goodbye.
And you know what? I think Maria would completely understand that. So I’m going to celebrate her life in my own way. Since I don't have a beer shirt I’m going to wear my shirt she bought me from the Tequila Mockingbird restaurant on one of our bike rides, I’m going to find a quiet spot on the lake, and I’m going to have a margarita and drink to my friend’s memory.
And the world’s going to keep on-turning, the memories still churning. Hearts continue breaking, and souls are still aching. But the world keeps moving, and memories start soothing, giving healing to a sorrow that has no words.