I lost a friend recently to a worst-nightmare automobile accident. She was thirty-six, too young to die. It only took a moment, decisions were made by others, a brief risk taken at her expense, and boom, lights out–her fate was sealed. Her death has changed me, not in some drastic way, but for the moment it has made me stop and think. Her death has meaning; for me it wasn’t just a lost cause, she taught me something. I was fortunate enough to attend the memorial service for her and heard the same lesson from someone else. I found comfort in my human frailties and weaknesses–my need to make sense of something so devastating–reiterated by the minister.
She was driving home minding her own business when a passing car set off a chain of events that knocked another car into her–subsequently pushing her in the path of an 18-wheeler. She didn’t have a chance. There was a fire. She was the only casualty; no one else was seriously injured in the accident. I keep rewinding the reverend’s message from her service. He said, “She was untouched.” He was referring to the fire, and her faith. I grabbed hold of his words for dear life.
My friend was the type of person who wore a silent armor of strength; with just one look anyone could see the solid stature behind her small build. She wore long braids and often pulled them back into one ponytail. I always wanted to pull on them, but knew better. (I learned never to touch a black girl’s hair from another friend.) My friend had a sensual beauty with a hint of adorable–from the specks of freckles that crossed the bridge of her nose and cheeks. K’s eyes were soulful-brown like looking into those of a horse. They told a story of things I didn’t know about her but could sense—pride, honor, courage and her love for the human race. However, it was her lips that really drew me in, they were just luscious, pink and perfect in every sense; and behind them was her smile, that sweet, calming, loving smile. It was one that made feel like everything was always going to be ok. It was safe.
She and I both went through a break-up around the same time. We shared similar pain over losing our loves’ but there was a difference between us, her faith was much stronger than mine. It was the first thing I really knew and understood about her—the girl was tight with God, and she believed with a beaming heart that God had her back even in the midst of her agony. I couldn’t say the same, but I watched her. She was finding peace, we were both smiling again, but she was more serene, she trusted God’s plan for her.
In the aftermath of her death I asked another one of our friend’s who was closer to K, “Tell me about some of the bright spots in her life. Tell me she died happy.” I was in a miserable place at the time. My friend said, “She was getting a lot of joy out of volunteering at an orphanage, and the girl’s basketball team she coached just won their championship game. In addition, she was working on finishing her last required course to be a court appointed guardian for children. So yeah, she had a lot of good in her life.”
She was also developing new friendships and changed attitudes. She was taking great care of herself and really trying to improve her life. She was someone I admired. I was relieved to hear that so many incredible things were happening for her. I just don’t think I could stand losing her knowing she was still suffering from a broken heart, and over other things that were out of her control. It made her death feel more palpable knowing she had found happiness again. I can’t imagine how awful it would have been to lose her knowing she was still sad. And this spoke to me, loud and clear. It was exactly what I needed to hear.
I met her at a low point in my life. I feel ashamed saying this but it’s true: I couldn’t really be a good friend to her because I was too stuck in my own stuff. She was just a mirror for me I couldn’t dare look in without feeling overwhelmed. She called me one day to talk about her ex. I listened to her, I squirmed in my seat; it was all I could do to keep my ear to the phone. I don’t think I had anything comforting to say. I was bitter and full of resentment about my own situation. I was useless to her other than being a warm body, that’s what I was, and I guess it was enough.
(Ironically, later than afternoon I saw her sitting alone on a park bench during a festival. I was there with another friend. I said, “ Hey, how are you feeling?” She just shook her head and said, “I’m ok.” I could tell she was hurting but I was too lost in my own pain to really care. I was suffocating. Being there was all I could do. The next time I saw her I hugged her and told her, “I’m sorry I didn’t ask you to walk around with us. I was in a daze. That wasn’t very nice of me.” I apologized for leaving her alone on the bench. But that’s me; sometimes I’m a selfish, self-centered person, I don’t mean any harm by it, it’s just how I protect myself. I’m aware of it, and it’s something I’ll be working on until I take my final nap.)
We weren’t the type of friends who talked all the time, but we knew the intimate details of one another’s lives by the nature of our friendship. The news of her death came at a pivotal moment in my life. I was feeling alone, vulnerable and scared. I was just recovering from a wicked virus, an eye wound that sent me to urgent care and another level of letting go of my ex-partner. I was at my bottom. I didn’t know how much lower God needed me before I surrendered. I pleaded with the Power greater than myself, “What else do you want from me? I give up, please just make this pain go away.” I kept thinking about my children, and how I had to keep myself together for them.
I was suffering. I was fighting to stay in the light and then I got the call, and almost instantly something inside shifted. My friend just died a freak, fucking accident and here I am miserable over another person, a virus and a damn cornea abrasion, get a grip. I told myself, “Listen up little girl, you better get your act together. You need to find something to be happy about every single day. You have your children to love and care for, and raising them is your primary purpose on this earth.”
K’s death reminds me just how powerless I am even over my own life in some circumstances. I have to make the best of my life; find joy, love and laughter in the small things, and in the hardships. I have to tell people I love them before it’s too late. I have to take that extra second of eye contact, you know the pause in the heartbeat of real connection, and not run away from true intimacy. I must be willing to pick myself up off the cold, hard floor of reality and take a look around at all the people, and things that are right in front of me that I have to be grateful for in my life.
Her death has meaning. She rescued me the same way her life and death saved many others that knew her. The minister said,” K’s faith kept her safe from the fire. She didn’t die alone. God was with her. She was untouched.”
I believe this on many levels, medical science alone says that our bodies go into a state of shock if we suffer too much pain. I was so fearful that my friend had burned alive, that she felt the flames on her skin, but I know, call it God, or science that she, or any of us never experience more than we can handle. We aren’t designed that way. There’s a built-in-mechanism to our make-up that protects us from extremes.
This goes for emotions as well, it’s how and why I’m able to see the beauty of her passing. My fragile human qualities require this type of thinking; it’s why I need to reconcile something so tragic. K’s sudden passing jerked me out of my stupor. She made me stand up on wobbly legs and take stock of my life: It has meaning, it’s important. I’m a mom, and I brought life into this world. She died so that I, and the rest of us that knew her could live a better life. She opened our eyes, if only for a brief moment, to possibly the most important time of our lives. More will be revealed.
At her service the reverend took the opportunity to ask if anyone needed to be saved. He said that faith kept her safe from harm and asked if any of us needed to draw on K’s faith. He said, “With your heads bowed and eyes closed raised your hand if you need to be saved today. K gave her life so that the rest of us could come together today to worship and praise. Raise your hand. I see you.” I nodded. I didn’t raise my actual hand but my heart made the connection.
I didn’t care that it was a religion of a certain God that was offering support. I’m not bigger than any definition of the universe. Universally, to most, it means the same thing: Something greater than ourselves, and in that moment I needed something and someone greater than myself to take my pain away.
I have been humbled and brought to my knees by events in my life. The minister said, “Every tongue shall confess, and every knee bend.” And I knew it to be true. He meant it in a certain sense but I felt it globally. He was referring to a certain God, but I was interpreting it as my powerlessness. I need something in my life that’s more powerful than the limits of my understanding. I need K’s faith in order to live a more balanced and harmonious life. This is the legacy she left behind for me, and I’m taking it one breath at a time by finding the positive whenever and wherever I can, this is my tribute to her.
(It turns out she was untouched from the fire. The coroner said she didn’t have smoke in her lungs, which meant she died before the fire. Hopefully she passed on impact, before she knew anything even hit her. Or perhaps she did go into shock and didn’t feel a thing. Either way, the universe took care of her up until her last breath. I have to believe that the same is true for me, and noticeably so when I choose to stop struggling.)
Take gentle care of yourself and your loved ones’.
With much love and gratitude, SJ
In memory of K, good night sweet, and strong friend, sleep well.