Wednesday, 4 April 2012

In my memory she's healthy...

This morning, as I prepared to set breakfast on the table for my two children, I caught sight of the date on my new phone: April 4th.  Whilst I'm fairly indifferent with most days, those otherwise non-holiday/non-birthdays/ non-anniversaries, this day, however, is special, but not a 'good' special.  Today, twenty-two years ago, I lost my very best friend, Jennie.

I met Jennie in the spring of 1989 in Allen, Texas at St Jude's Church.  My family and I have moved to Texas the previous summer, and we were having trouble finding a good church to attend.  Unfortunately, there weren't many Catholic churches to be found in North Texas then--I cannot say now, as I haven't returned to Texas since a visit in 1995.  That day, however, my mother, sister, brother, and I happened upon St Jude's, and here I met Jennie. 

My mother popped inside herself, back in the day when parents felt it safe enough to do so, and rushed back out minutes later to bring us inside.  Just inside the door I saw a girl a bit older than myself, in her early teens, with honey blond hair to her shoulders (though even now, I realise, it may have been a wig), wearing a blue and white checked dress.  Jennie greeted me warmly, taking both my hands in her own.  She was so excited to have met someone else with the same name as her and the same middle initial, hers Lou and mine Leigh.  Her family--mother, father, and brother--were devote attendees of St Jude's, and urged us to do so as well, which we did.

As the weeks went by, and we got to know others at the church, I came to learn an unsettling and disturbing fact about Jennie, the girl I'd come to idolize, the girl who'd become my de facto big sister: she had cancer, quite badly actually.  Each week, services asked the Lord to pray for her recovery, for her strength, and that of her family.  At eleven years old, I did not see the illness myself, for how could I?  Jennie, when I saw her, was always glowing, smiling her warm smile, surrounded by friends who didn't seem to see her illness either.  I knew what cancer meant at my age, and I knew people could die from it.  But such was my place still firmly set within the realm of childhood that I did not for one moment allow myself to consider her demise.  After all, children weren't supposed to die.  Okay, there were freak accidents like plane crashes and such, but God wouldn't allow a child to die.

I kept my eyes shielded from this very impossible path for my friend, despite seeing her grow thinner and thinner.  When I first read Little Women a few years later, I was very much reminded of Jennie in the passage about Beth's decline.  Though I can't remember it word for word, it was something like the, 'Mortal portion of her thinning away, and the immortal beginning to shine through.' 

That Easter of 1990 was April 3rd, and the last one I spent as a child for, the next day, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the phone rang.  I was out playing at the time, but something made me run inside when I saw my mother on the phone, crying.  The world seemed to stop, everything halted.  The prayer tree of St Jude's had phoned, she said, trying, though in vain, to make her words calm, reassuring, to say that Jennie had passed away.  I don't remember much after that.  I know I ran to my room and stayed there a very long time.  I vaguely recall my mother knocking with pleas for me to come to dinner, but there is a terrible haze over that day and those that followed.  Oddly, I am grateful for that haze, as I don't think I truly wish to relive them in anyway.

What I do take away from that week was her funeral, the first funeral I ever attended.  I remember the church packed beyond capacity, the vestibule even choked with attendees, the powerful scent of flowers, banked everywhere possible, and a small green casket, overlaid gently with a white pall.  Again, bits are hazy, but I do recall standing before her casket on the way to Communion, touching it to be close to her.  Though I don't remember it clearly (again, thankfully), I am told I stood there for some time, staring at the casket, whilst others had burned in their sight, the (I imagine) awful image of one child caressing the casket of another child. 

I can truthfully say that that week was the final chapter of my childhood, a childhood were children didn't die and others didn't go to their best friend's funerals.  I've been asked in the past, rather insensitively, how she could have been my best friend when I hardly knew her.  Yes, I never had Jennie over to our house, and I never went to hers.  No, we never gabbed over the phone to each other about New Kids on the Block and neon peace signs, and whether they were as popular at her school as at mine.  I've termed her my best friend because she was the best.  She became my friend, no questions asked, from the moment she met me, she smiled and laughed in the face of her illness and eventual killer, she was brave for her family and friends, all of whom helped her go with God. 

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