Some kids seem to skip that whole awkward phase.
Recently I was looking through pictures from middle and high school and I see my every flaw – puffy hair, questionable fashion choices – but beside me in so many of those pictures, there she is. Her hair is blonde and feathered back perfectly, her skin is tanned and flawless in the way that only young people are able to execute, she’s often wearing purple, her favorite color. Her nails are gorgeous and intricately decorated (mine are bitten to the quick). Her perfection admittedly annoyed me at times back then, but I think that’s what happens with girls.
Somehow the awkward adolescence that held me firmly in its grip seems to have passed her by completely.
The author, circa 1990.
In nearly every photo she has a dazzling smile and she's smart and funny and impetuous in the harmless way we are as teenagers. We lost touch when I moved away from our hometown after high school and while I heard about her life from our mothers and mutual friends, we only chatted in person once at a mutual friend’s wedding decades ago. Later I heard she’d married and divorced and married again, as had I. By all accounts was doing well back then. She was entrepreneurial and was quite well respected in her profession and she ran her own successful business for years.
Last week she died.
I don’t know all the details of what happened to that smiling girl in those old pictures, but it seems her adult life, while full of achievement and people who loved her, was also filled with pain. The kind of pain that she could no longer handle. And she took her own life.
As her friends and family came together on Facebook (which she avoided), it’s clear that most of us remember her as I do: The beautiful, sweet girl from the yearbook photos. From the dance team. From the Homecoming dances and chorus concerts and sleepovers and parties and all those moments that compose the quilt of our lives.
I’m in those moments, too, impossibly young and hopeful. Standing by her, I’m clearly the sparrow in a peacock’s shadow. Our whole lives are ahead of us. We are bright-eyed and sparkling. But nobody sparkled like she did.
In the aftermath of several recent celebrity suicides, information about mental health and suicide prevention resources have been widely shared. We look at those public lives cut short and we wonder from afar: What happened? They had so much money and power and fame. But when it’s someone close to us, we question our own role, or lack thereof. It’s scary because they are like us, and we are like them.
I don’t have very many close friends. While I’m very social and effusive, I can count my most intimate confidants on one hand, maybe two. I don’t see this as a negative thing, it’s just my reality and I consider myself wealthy in all the ways that really matter. In recent years I have taken to telling those closest to me, “I love you,” as frequently as I can.
I want them to know that they are loved. By me; by many. While it sometimes becomes rote to say it to our spouses and family members (even if it’s sincere), I don’t think we say this enough to our closest friends.
I don’t mean to imply that an expression of my love for my friend could have saved her, or that anyone could have done anything to change the tragic ending she put on her own life. But it never hurts to try.
In this case I can’t help thinking that we were more alike than different in those pictures from nearly 30 years ago, and I’m heartsick about her premature death. What I wouldn’t give to be able to tell her that I love you, my old, silly friend.
In a few days I’ll travel home for a vacation with my sons, and a memorial for my friend coincides with this trip. I almost didn’t book these flights a few weeks ago, but something made me feel like it was important to be there. I couldn’t place it but it seemed like where we should be. I feel lucky to be able to honor her memory and see others who knew and loved her, too.
In that same spirit, I was thinking of other old friends who I have lost touch with through the years. In particular, a few friendships that I severed myself. It got me to thinking that it was a mistake to let politics get in the way of the gift of friends who Knew Me When. When my hair was so very big, and our dreams were, too. When class elections and Prom Court nominations were the most divisive issues in our lives.
So I’ve reached out with an apology to those old friends in an effort to repair what I shattered a few years ago. They may not forgive me, and that’s understandable.
But it never hurts to try.