To say I was blindsided the day you died last year would be an understatement, and fittingly would be exactly how you died. (Somehow the impact it had on me was more important than the one that took you out? This is what grief does to us.)
It was first thing in the morning when I saw the news story on Facebook, the bearer of bad news as it has become. But this had to be a freak fatal accident involving a different Janet Wilson in your city, in an area you frequented. I mean, surely you would have given me a heads up or something, right? (You and I were grieving buddies. You dying was not part of the plan.) Things sort of froze around me. There was a momentary pause of everything except my fingers scrolling and cross-referencing. I saw more and more mutual friends sharing the story with commentary and my heart began to beat faster. Dan wanted to know what was wrong as I tried to put the puzzle pieces together. I think I just started saying no over and over again. Was I being Punk’d? In the Twilight Zone? My surroundings were very real and familiar, but I felt the physical sensation of being lost. Disoriented is the word, I guess. I called Stacey and feel like maybe I was screaming into the phone. I didn’t recognize myself. I was in my body and not, panting, voice quivering, my heartbeat racing in my ears. Her voice was low and broken, and I was re-traumatizing her by asking her to confirm that it was you and your sister who had been killed in that crash. I sat down on the stairs and sobbed. I tried to cover my hideous face with my hands, to protect my family from my breakdown without pretending I was OK when I wasn’t, to allow myself to be vulnerable, to hide in plain sight…but this just soaked my entire face, hairline to chin. Tears, sweat, snot, spit. And I scared my son anyway. Instead of asking, why did you take her, God? as I suppose “normal” people ask, I just wondered, why the fuck do we keep on doing this to ourselves? Why (and how) do we keep living when we know how it ends?
I had already been through the grief gauntlet, which meant I really did understand the fragility of life and maybe should have been better prepared, but also…I was- am- just really tired. Do you mean to tell me that as soon as I find my footing, someone else is going to die? Testing, testing…And over and over until I go, too?
I consulted with my aunts who have seen untold death and are, by outward appearances, relatively unscathed. I asked how they could keep going through life with this profound and depressing knowledge. Were they on prescriptions? What sorcery is this?! They were supportive, but basically said it was a generational thing: they were raised to just keep going. I need a little more in my handbook and this is precisely when I used to commiserate with you, Janet!
Our text messages to each other were akin to an addict needing her sponsor. Very few people that either of us knew had experienced the depths of grief like we had (or at least, they didn’t do it openly). We shared our dark sense of humor through memes, links, and random gifts. We knew that life is not to be taken seriously exactly because it is so serious. We told each other the truth. We obsessed over cats and kittens to make the pain go away. We joked about our lives’ trajectories in comparison to our childhood dreams. We talked hair color and boy problems, work dilemmas and politics, art and travel and nonprofits we loved. And death. Though neither of us was naive to death, there is something about losing one’s mother that people cannot understand until they experience it for themselves, so that was just one more way that we were kindred souls.
I knew how dark things had become for you and vice versa, so the thought definitely crossed my mind that you had lucked out. You had been taken quickly. And, lady, you would have hated the year 2020!
Some people remember the deceased with rose-colored glasses, and after your death, Facebook was full of commentary from every “best friend” you ever had, but hold that thought. When I first met you, I thought you were loud, obnoxious, and annoying. (Anyone who says they never had those thoughts about you is full of shit.) But I was self-centered so there’s that. Why did you have my back? I think that comedy in the chaos of the newsroom brought us together, and that same philosophy proved to be our shared outlook on life, which kept us together. You loved to gossip, and I’m sure I personally gave you plenty of ammunition, but I never heard you say anything untrue. As far as I was concerned, you were one of the truest friends I have ever had. And it turns out, everyone felt this way about you. In the days that followed, people came out of the woodwork, sharing stories on social media about you. Quite frankly, you were the popular girl and everyone wanted to prove that they were your friend. You would have loved it! But some probably would have pissed you off just as much as they irritated me. Ultimately, none of us were special; you were.
I think you you often, not just when I wish I had someone to process grief with, but when I foster or snuggle or even see a cat online; when I spot fantastic Day of the Dead artwork, beautiful seashells, or drink cherry Cokes; whenever a Kenny Rogers reference is made or whenever I see a station wagon. We were supposed to be stuck together in the back of a retro station wagon on the longest road trip ever, but you hopped out and now there’s no one to hassle me. Are we there yet? We used to jokingly ask each other, “Where did we go wrong in life to end up here?” until I went off and lived happily ever after with my shiny new husband. I know you had many unfulfilled plans, but I also know you’re now with your parents, your sister, your beloved cats, and that nothing even matters anymore.
The last text you sent me said, “F’ed up peeps are the best friends to have.” A motto to live by.
Love and miss you,