Holidays and Grieving: Like Fine Wine, It’s Gets Better with Time

Holidays and Grieving: Like Fine Wine, It’s Gets Better with Time

I still think of her often.

But she did not cross my mind once on June 9, 2012.

My mind’s preoccupation with other events of the day marked a tremendous milestone in the decade- long grieving process over the loss of my best friend.  I was not sad and did not have to remind myself to be sad.   I felt no guilt because of my lack of sorrow on the day which commemorated the ten year anniversary of her death.

I just was.

…and for that reason I believe that she would have been proud.

Yet today, one day preceding what would have been her 32nd birthday, I once again find myself thinking of her.  I wonder what she is doing in heaven.  I wonder if she thinks I’m a good mother.  I wonder if she would like Scandal or Game of Thrones.  I wonder what she would tell me if I could ask her all the questions I’ve ever wanted to ask or say all the things that I would want to say if given another day with her.

It was one week after I turned 21 years old and I had just driven home from college for summer break.  She had arrived back in Chicago a few days prior to my arrival after spending a year studying abroad in Ghana. I couldn’t wait to spend time with her.  We tried writing letters to each other during the first few months while she was there but postage to Africa was out of my budget.  We had tried maintaining contact over email but the inconsistency of her internet access made it unreliable.  Months had passed since we had last communicated. It was the longest that I had gone without seeing her since I was in 3rd grade.

She was my best friend; however, I never told her that.  At that stage in life, I thought putting emphasis on the “best” in “best friend” was pretty lame. She was my closest friend.  She was my oldest friend.  She was the type of friend who I’d sit in the car with for hours as we talked about boys, God, traveling the world, our future kids, and whether New Jack Swing music was ever coming back in style.  She lived on a tough street on the south side of Chicago, one mentioned only in rap songs and when looking for a Currency Exchange, but that didn’t matter.  She was like my sister, and anytime she needed me (or vice versa) I did what I needed to do to get to her.

For that reason, it was apropos that we were together on that fateful day, as I had just broken up with a boyfriend and she needed to get out of her house for other reasons.  Once together, I cried about my broken heart and waited for her to provide some words of comfort.  For the first time ever, she had none to provide which struck me as odd.  In retrospect, I suspect that she didn’t have the heart to tell me that the relationship that I was mourning was ultimately doomed.

Instead she told me about her travels throughout Africa, the beauty and the tragedy of the things that she saw and experienced.  Her words, though completely unrelated to things that I wanted to hear, took away the pain of what I was feeling.  Though she talked for hours, I did not want her to stop and I suspected that she didn’t want to either. It seemed as if she was determined to pour out everything about her time away and how her experiences made her realize her true dreams and her feelings for the young man whom she was dating.

I was excited for her.  She was beginning to live her dreams and was in love.  As she spoke, I remember having the very specific thought that she seemed to be in a place of utter perfect peace.  A part of me was jealous.  When she spoke about her experiences and her feelings of being in love, she appeared to be the happiest that I had ever seen her in her life.  I remember that that made me very happy.

Then unexpectedly, she became tired.

I told her to lie down in my bed so that she could get some rest.  As she went upstairs she gave me a hug. I turned my attention back to the trauma of my recent breakup and cuddled with a bag of chips on my parents couch.  Moments later, a friend called and said that he had a feeling that he needed to check on me.  The timeliness of his call was a welcomed distraction and we spoke for an hour as she continued to sleep.

I had no idea until her mother called for a second time and told me to wake her up that she had had a grand mal seizure.   I had no idea that she had cerebral malaria. I had no idea that as she slept that she had slipped into a coma and that I would never talk to her again.

The months that followed her death will forever remain a haze.  I recall the two times that I cried and I remember all of the marijuana I smoked.  I remember pitifully trying to get back with the guy who (justifiably) dumped me that fateful morning because in my mind, he was the only thing that I could get back from that day.

I remember the comic relief of my parents finding out that I had lost my virginity as I sat in the front row of her funeral in all white.  I remember the partying that I did my last year of college because I was fairly certain that I was going to die from a random strain of influenza, the mumps, or tuberculosis before I turned twenty-five.

Thankfully, it took years before I understood the partial responsibility that I could have borne from her death.   I was well into my adulthood before I began to carry the guilt of her being gone and me still living.  She was a church girl and on the Dean’s list.  She had even become a vegetarian.  I, on the other hand were none of those things.  I could most closely be defined as a heathen.

In what world did it make sense for her to die and for me to live?  I imagined those were the thoughts her family had whenever they saw me.  To this day, I am grateful for the invisible force that kept me from losing my mind.

Many years passed before I would let myself think through the events that transpired around her passing.  Yet to my surprise, once I did, I found God present throughout that painful time.   It took many years for me to see that even through the pain of her death, I was afforded blessings that I did not deserve.

I thank God that of all the people she could have been with on the day she died he passed, He allowed her to be with me.

I thank God that he distracted me with the temporary pain of a breakup until I could fully deal with the permanent pain of losing my best friend.

I thank God for the friend who called me as she slept, because seven years later he became my husband.

I thank God for the ten years that it took for grief to transform from pain to guilt to anger to peace as I know that nothing could have been done to change the culmination of events of that day.

I thank God that our friendship feels as real today as it did the day it began.

I thank God because since her death I have experienced the palpable presence of her spirit long after she left this physical plane.

I thank God that the vividness of her memory reminds me of the finite time that we all have on this Earth and it pushes me to live in the moment, to love deeply, to protect those I love ferociously, and  to experience as much as life has to offer, today.

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    Kay S

    Kay Smith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and blogger who focuses on race, politics and urban culture. Having worked on public policy at the state, regional, city and community level, her opinions have been featured in the Chicago SunTimes and a host of news websites (under very mysterious sounding pseudonyms). Follow her on Twitter @kaywillsmith or contact her at kaywillsmith@gmail.com.

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