During my senior year of high school, a close friend's father passed away. His death was sudden. It was unexpected and it was tragic.
I remember driving to my her house that afternoon. I was seventeen. I was afraid. I had no idea what to think or what to say.
In the days that followed I spent many a day and a night with her. I wanted to be there, I wanted to help and I wanted her to know that she could count on me. On the day of the wake I spent seven hours at the funeral home. Sometimes I was standing next to her, hugging her or holding her hand. Sometimes I was just there sitting. Just in case.
I remember the last few moments of that day vividly. The immediate family members approaching the casket, huddled in a circle and holding each other tightly. My dear friend was heaving, crying so violently and it is one of the most profound memories of my life to this day.
I returned to work the next day, my high school job as a bus girl and my manager asked me how it went. I told him.
"That's a good friend," he said.
In the weeks following her father's death, my friend shared some things with me. Gifts and notes and cards, condolences from friends and family members that had been helpful to her. I remember reading one of the cards, sent from a grade school acquaintance I believe, who had also lost a father.
"Friends mean well," it said, "but friends forget."
"I won't forget."
And I was certain she was wrong. I would always be there and I would always remember and I would never, ever leave my friend to question who remembered and who didn't. She would always have me and I wouldn't disappoint. In short, I was determined to prove this person wrong.
Only it didn't happen that way.
I returned to my normal-ish, seventeen year old life and I went about my teenage frustrations willingly, attended the high school dances and the state soccer games and Rose and Candle and graduation, and when a significant moment approached in my friend's life we would all hug her, look back and reflect on the immense absence in her life and applaud her for continuing despite it.
But I forgot how weighted her breath was, the effort required to get out of bed on those normal weekday mornings before homeroom. I forgot how it must have felt for her to watch the dads in the carpool lane every day, how every "Father-Daughter" dance must feel like a stab wound. A deep, throbbing, penetrating shot to the chest during the Super bowl commercial, the coffee run, the grocery store. To me the pain was palpable during the all-important milestones. To her it was a constant. Always, always, always there beside her, and as we walked alongside and left for college and get married and have babies it doesn't dissipate. Doesn't lessen. Doesn't forget. Even if we have.
I read an article once, written by a bereaved father whose son passed away at the age of five. When a child dies there is talk of joining this horrendous, smaller subset of the population. This "club" of bereaved parents, and its recognition can be isolating. I appreciated his perspective when he described this transition in a different way. In the article he explains that after losing his son he would actually enter a larger group, leaving a much, much smaller one behind: those who have not experienced great loss.
Because great loss is great. It's broad and it's penetrating and it forever, and it spreads and it invades every outlook and relationship until it becomes a part of you. A mannerism. A part of the morning routine, so present in your space and so mundane and so ordinary that others forget it's there. This can be difficult, because you feel it all the time but it's not always visible. And because sometimes, instead of "Can you make it on Saturday?" or "Would you pass the salt?" I would rather hear someone say, "You must really still miss her."
Last year at Parent Teacher Conferences I was asked about my belly. My big, protruding, scary belly with your little brother inside. "Congratulations! When are you due?"
And I must have hesitated a bit, because I found myself explaining the reluctance, my rather oddly purposeful distance from the normal excitement behind the answering of such a question, to this kind set of parents I barely knew.
"I'm sorry if this is awkward, my daughter passed suddenly last year a month before her due date. One day at a time, right?!"
Smile. Change the subject. Don't cry. Don't cry. Don't cry.
They looked at each other and the father set down the progress report.
"Our son was stillborn," he said. "Eighteen years ago."
And everything changed then.
Because the bright, beautiful swim-team standout in my Biology class had lost an older brother. And because these parents, these near-strangers knew something about me that needn't an explanation. Their eyes became softer and their postures, a little more inviting, and for a moment the missing homework seemed all too secondary.
Before leaving, both of them hugged me as if we were old friends. I had to excuse myself for a moment because it was so amazing. This immediate commiseration. This beautiful, hopeful couple and their unexpected understanding, lifting me from the gymnasium floor.
Because I don't know a thing about them.
But I know they won't forget.