My friend is dead but I’m bring her back to life (or Voodoo)
My friend is dead but I’m bringing her back to life (or Voodoo)
For Susan Parker–“Slow down, you crazy child…”
And thanks for “fucking” loving me.
On Saturday, a former student emailed me at 2 am to say she’s leaving for Colorado State University in a few hours and can’t find her Creative Writing final, a 40 page collection of poetry and personal essays she wrote in my class, and is hoping I still had her project and, if I did, could share it to her.
She says for the final project she wrote her heart out. Shared parts of her heart she hide from others. She wrote about love, friendship, leaving her hometown, and about her classmate who died 5 days before the senior prom.
She says she misses writing.
She thanks me for teaching her about writing and about life. Like a toothbrush or pillow, she says she’s bringing my lessons with her.
I close her email, find her final project in my files, and send it to her.
A few hours later she thanks me with a lot of exclamation points and wishes me luck with the upcoming school year.
On Tuesday, my friend with cancer died.
She’s the one I told you about a few months ago. The one with the big laugh that came from somewhere deep inside her lungs– a laugh I secretly wished I had.
Hours before I learned of her death, I stepped onto my porch to toss chicken on the BBQ grill for dinner. It was bright and sunny and raining. A summer sun shower. I stood watching the rain fall and — as it so often does–memory took over and I lost my attachment to the present world. It’s now January and I’m leaning against a granite kitchen counter. My friend with cancer stands before me. Shaved head, paper-thin face, and a pair of electric eyes that danced like a pair of candle flames. My children are there, behind her, sitting at the kitchen table, staring at me as I try not to cry. I could sense the real world around me. The heat from the BBQ grill. The rain falling on leaves. But I wasn’t on the porch. I was in memory. Like using an empty beer bottle as a lens to see into the past, the kitchen was amber and blurry at its edges, but my friend with cancer is standing there. She is close and clear and serious and cups my cheeks with her hands, looks into my eyes, and says, “I fucking love you.”
I cry. My children watch. They don’t ask questions, they just know things are serious when dad cries.
I hug my friend. I can feel her bones shift under her skin. I feel her lungs work hard for air. She’s in my arms and she’s alive. Fiercely and forever alive. We let go of each other and say goodbye. That was the last time I ever held my friend.
I’ve been teaching writing for 15 years. By my own assessment I’ve only been teaching writing well for the last 6 years. For the first 9 years, I didn’t know what I was doing. I taught writing the way you read instructions for assembling cheap furniture. Dispassionate. Indifferent. Rushed.
I respect and understand, for some of us, writing is just something thing you have to do. A requirement. A chore. A nuisance. A waste of time.
But for others, writing is as essential as a pillow or a toothbrush. Writing comforts us when were far from home or when our friend dies. Writing offers peace and perspective and reminds you that you’re fully alive. And writing, real writing, takes guts and thought and imagination as if you’re responsible for inventing the furniture that will decorate your living room.
My friend was special. An energetic and fiery woman who loved people. Never shy, never afraid to laugh, she held joy in a martini glass and was eager to share with anyone sitting at the table. She was a master of ceremonies, always game for a good time. She grew up with my mom and became my adopted aunt. She took me to concerts and baseball games. She had a husband, a son, and a dog and it was difficult to tell which one she loved most. A free-spirit, she once hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to California. She told me how she loved being on the open road. Driving into the unknown with the windows down and the radio on. Freedom. Possibility. Aliveness. Doctors gave her four months. She lived for fifteen months. And even in her final weeks, when breathing and eating were hard, she still roared with laughter and laughed as if she would never die. Her body simply couldn’t hold her spirit any longer.
She was, and still is, all heart.
Windows down just driving into the unknown.
School doesn’t teach you that writing is a form of voodoo. But it is. See, I’m writing this because I want my friend to be alive again. So by telling you about her she’s suddenly breathing on the page, she’s cupping your cheeks and you can feel her bony fingers against your face. She calls you “doll” and is looking at you as if your the most important person in the room. Because when my friend talked to you, you were.
Writing allows you to resurrect the dead–something public education frowns upon. Something I don’t.
In our final conversation my friend encouraged me to keep writing. “Keep writing stories. People need stories,” she said.
And this is why I’m writing you today. Because my friend is dead and she told me to keep writing and by writing I can make her talk again. Make her sip a Lemon Drop martini again. Make her laugh until she loses her breath again. And I can make my dead friend hug me when I miss her, when tears fill my eyes. Like right now.
My friend loved people. People gave her hope and comfort and purpose. And even in her last days she wanted to be with people.
My friend believed in people more than most. And it’s only in people, both the living and the dead, where you will find the joy you’re looking for.
Because as heartbreaking as it is, leaving your hometown or leaving your earthly existence, my dead friend taught us life is meant to be shared.
Rest in peace “Aunt” Susan.
Here are some things I wrote this summer:
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death, life, life lessons, love, personal growth, self-improvement, vulnerability, writeonfighton, writing