Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Life Outside The Box

Likely one of the most profoundly moving experiences we encounter as human beings is the death of someone we love. Even when the hour and time it’s likely to occur are known, there is never really any way to prepare oneself for such a moment. It brings out the worst in us.....anger, resentment, bitterness......while simultaneously pulling from us the magnificent......compassion, empathy, and kindness. Its total emotional upheaval, and at any given moment you aren’t sure just which side is winning the war.

The world lost an amazing young man a few days ago by the name of Nathan Smith. I’ve known Nathan and his family for the better part of my time on this planet. And while I haven’t actually spent time with him in years, it saddened me to hear of his passing. We were never extremely close because I was several years older than he with just enough gap in our ages to prevent us from ever being at the same school at the same time or in one another's peer group. But, I knew his older brothers and even spent some time traveling with his mother on a trip abroad where she acted as a translator for the expedition. Our lives circled over one another's in many ways and I would certainly never have hesitated to call him friend. When I think of him, it’s likely the first thing I will always remember is his extremely warm smile. He was incredibly bright and sometimes goofy which made him all the more endearing. He faced many challenges in this life and he seemed to meet them all with a great deal of grace and perseverance which made him all the more admirable. He spent his relatively short time on this planet involved in the field of medicine and healing which will make him all the more unforgettable.

I suppose its only natural when someone with whom you are somehow connected leaves this world for the next that it ushers in memories of all those whom we have cared about and have lost before. And in the hours since I have heard of Nathan's departure, ive been overwhelmed with thoughts of an old friend. It’s surprising even to me that I haven’t written of her before now. Being that I am prone to pouring my heart out via the written word, that is very interesting indeed. Perhaps it just took this long for me to find the courage. Her name was Samantha and she actually suffered from the same disease as Nathan (Cystic Fibrosis) though she lost her battle at a much earlier age than he.

I will never forget the day we met. Granted, I was young......4 years old actually.......but its one of those moments that lives like a leaf encased in amber.....perfectly frozen in time and etched in my mind. It was day 1 of Kindergarten. I bounced in positively electrified with excitement. Keep in mind I come from a small town and even though this was a private institution there were several children in that room whose mothers were friends with mine and with whom Id played with before on more than one occasion. I said hello to my friends, compared new shoes and the joys of owning my first Trapper Keeper and started looking for a place to put my Cabbage Patch lunch box. She was sitting next to the table by the bookshelves wearing a polka dot dress with lady bugs on it. Her hair was split into two thick braids that fell clear to her waist and were tied neatly with red ribbon. Id never seen her before and from the look on her face she didn’t know a soul in the room. Her eyes were a soft brown and seemed terribly large in her small pale face. I began to feel something very strange and new......she looked at me like one of my precious dollies come to life and I just wanted to wrap her up and put her in my pocket. I’ve had that feeling several times since as I have grown into adulthood and I see it as a real gift, because ive come to recognize it as my heart speaking directly to me. Now, because I don’t possess a completely perfect memory, im not sure just exactly what was spoken, but I imagine the conversation to have gone a little something like this:

Me: Hi
Sam: Hi
Me: I like your hair. Wanna see what my mom made me for lunch?
Sam: Sure

And that was it. The bonds of sisterhood we forged.

I’ve come to believe that there are certain people in this life with whom we just instantly share a connection......its indefinable, unpredictable and absolutely one of the best parts about being human. Even though in many ways we could not have been more different, I saw something in her that I instantly recognized as familiar and she seemed to feel the same. Its relationships like these that I believe led Aristotle to define friendship as a single soul inhabiting two separate bodies. In fact, I never really noticed that not only was she different from me, she was different from everyone else as well. I would later learn that wasn’t only true of her health but also of that brilliant mind behind those brown eyes too big for that small sweet face. By the end of that day, I swear, it was as though we known each other two full lifetimes and then some.

From then on, we took on Kindergarten and the World together. Her disease while ever present in things like daily routine somehow seemed removed to me. We made games out of swallowing her pills......with age they increased in size and number and the goal was to see how many she could swallow at once without gagging. When she was too weak for that, id break open the capsules and pour them into applesauce.....we'd see if she could eat the whole bowl in less than 5 spoonfuls. I became familiar with the ins and outs of the local pediatric ward of the hospital where she routinely went for treatment and therapy. When illness would extend her stay to more than a day or two, id sleep overnight curled up on the vinyl couch in the corner or directly in the bed next to her. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand her life was fragile......myself probably more than anyone knew that she suffered and struggled in ways many of us will never comprehend. But, we chose not to focus on that and instead plotted a strategy to become doctors when we grew up and fix this mess of a disease the current grown up population couldn’t seem to figure out. We certainly thought we were bright enough that’s for sure.....in confidence we were far from lacking. I look back on photographs of us over the years......together we were nothing but a mess of long thick hair, skinny gangly appendages and optimism.

We learned to ride bikes together.....went to summer camp....bought our first bras and discovered the wildly intense pleasure of falling for a boy. We taught each other sign language to communicate secrets while sitting in the same room with our parents.....and eventually as a way to speak to one another when tubes down her throat made using her voice impossible. But we would both learn that sometimes volumes can be spoken without either words or symbols when in junior high I became the victim of sexual assault. I melodramatically refer to that era of my life as the dark night of the soul. There were so many voices swirling around in my head it was impossible for me to single out the one that was my own and speak of these things. But when I couldn’t hear myself, Sam could because she knew my voice as well as she did her own. We'd lie side by side under the cottony pink gauze of her canopy bed and just BE. Sometimes we wouldn’t say a word for hours but id walk away feeling like she'd really heard me. And it was Sam who pushed me to work thru things on paper.....let my fingers say the words my tongue seemed to find so thick and difficult. And thus a writer was born.....

The summer before high school the fabulous Make a Wish Foundation granted Sam a wish. She asked for a vacation in Hawaii and they complied. For two weeks she and I and our crazy mothers traveled the islands. We saw active volcanoes and dipped our toes in the tide on the beautiful black beaches. We snorkeled and rode boats and even tried to learn how to surf. We stayed in fancy hotels, rode around in flashy convertibles and had every bit of our inner princesses pampered. Thanks to my mother who saw most of the scenery through the lens of an 18 lbs video camera, I have 10 hours worth of recorded viewing pleasure. We returned home tan and exhausted but ridiculously happy.

A few months later Sam landed in the hospital with an infection. In accordance with routine procedure, I gathered together the survival kit: contraband chocolate, fashion magazines, nail polish, my walkman and my headphones.....and had my mom drop me at the hospital. We'd paint our toenails and then lying with our heads super close together on the pillow we would stretch the headphones apart until one pad was on her left ear and the other was on my right. We'd crank up the music (more often than not Bon Jovi) and thumb thru the magazines wiggling our toenails till they were dry. How silly we must have looked with two heads squeezed between one headset......it never occurred to us to just take turns or buy a walkman that had a port for more than one pair. Mom picked me up at dinner time and I told Sam Id be back the next day after school. It was a Monday night. Tuesday it was raining and cold. I was in the cafeteria eating a nutritionally packed lunch of powdered donuts and mountain dew when I heard my name being called to come to the office. Mom was there to check me out and I knew then something was wrong. It seemed Sam had endured a pretty rough night and asked for me several times. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when we arrived at the hospital. It seemed like a nano second since id last seen her but she'd shriveled away to bones. Her eyes were shrunken and set off by ugly shades of purple bruising. I remember thinking how shocking that shade of indigo seemed next to the paleness of the rest of her. Tubes snaked out her nose and mouth and ran down her body to lie across the sheets. It was as though she were a small flower resting on a wild vine. She lifted her hands to sign but fatigue and the massive amounts of narcotics made it difficult. So I just crawled up next to her, made myself very still and said....."It’s ok. I hear you. Let’s just BE."

After some time she fell asleep and they made me get out of the bed. The doctors informed me she was more stable than she had been in hours and that i should go home and rest. We'd just gotten home when they called to tell me she was gone. I'd had her for almost a decade.....she died just 8 days shy of my 14th birthday.

To say Sam was my "friend" seems almost ridiculous when she was SO much more than that......she could evolve from playmate to teacher to co-conspirator and back again all in the span of a day. She inspired me and challenged me and heard me when no one else could. You know, as adults we seek to harness the relationships in our lives.....to define them, give them boundaries, labels and absolutes. Oh but that we could learn to not put people into boxes stamped with titles....we just might see that parents that teach might also challenge and inspire.....that those we mentor may actually have lessons for us to learn.....or that the person we call best friend could actually be the love of a lifetime we have been waiting for.

I miss you, Sam. Hug Nathan for me and you two try to stay out of trouble up there.


  • At 11:28 AM , Blogger Jenn said...

    I love this. I miss him dearly, but I'm glad he's with old friends!


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