First day of autumn. Grey and chilly. A touch of wind. Everyone wearing an extra layer. I like fall. I like the spicy overtones. Went out this morning and did our weekly shop, bought a few warmer things, and smiling at the idea of merino wool and a scarf resting snugly against your throat. I had a fantasy about charcoal grey knitted boots with buttons on the side, and I found them…amid a sea of a rather dismal selection in the shopping center. Of course they are edging toward $200, and there’s a huge part of me that simply can’t justify that cost, even though my bare feet feel like a silky minx on a bear skin rug.
I had geared up for this big purchase, and in the end they didn’t have my size. When I was told I could order them, I just shrugged. I didn’t want to drop a couple hundred bucks on the idea of something. I wanted to leave bag in hand. Annoying. But, on the grand scale of bothersome things, its a mosquito among mountains. I had to actually creep down the hall to pluck the box of the tissue from the living room, to bring it into the office. I’m extremely aware that writing is going to open up a whole can of weepy whoop-ass. Ben was facing the television, doing god-knows-what on the X-Box, and so he didn’t notice me doing so. Not that he would care, it’s no secret that I like to resolve me things with a good sob. I cried at the end of “The Guilt Trip” last night, and it was just totally out of my control. So when it really counts, when it actually belongs to me, when I find it in my back yard, there will be tears.
It was my friend Shannon’s birthday the other day. Her thirtieth. Just days before marked the fourth anniversary of my moving to New Zealand. Four years…astounding. In a week or so it will be my third wedding anniversary. And it becomes a rather reflective time as the leaves begin to fall. I was in New Zealand for a few days when I got word that Shannon had been in a car accident, on the way home after a birthday holiday with her fabulous boyfriend. She was alive in a legal sense, but was in a coma, and her entire being was in great distress. And I felt like I was living a different planet.
Having moved to the other side of the world because of a broken heart and a cancelled wedding, I was already feeling jet-lagged and fragile. Learning this about one of my bridesmaids, one of my most favorite people in the world –was one of the worst moments of my life.
She’s still alive, but in a different form. I had only seen photographs before I met her for the first time last summer. When I went to see her, in a neighboring town, in a place that’s somewhere between a hospital and a home. I brought along my husband and my brother, and the plan was to drop me off, and then go out for dinner and bowling. It was my idea, for the fear that the sight of her would shatter something inside of me that I could not possibly piece back together, And bowling seemed like a suitable diversion. I went into the building alone, wanting to find a washroom to clean my hands and take one last calming breath. Of course, I went further than the directions I was given allowed, and I passed Shannon’s room. Her name on the partially opened door. I hear a fluster of activity, and so I slink past unnoticed. Well, it was more of a scatter, I bolted in the proper direction. I washed my hands, swallowed a grapefruit sized lump, went back outside and called her mother, who was expecting my call.
For those in her inner circle, most have adjusted to a point of normalcy, or at least routine. I had been so detached from the situation, that for me it was like it had just happened. I was freshly devastated. I loved this girl. She was like a slapstick comedienne, mixed with Lana Del Rey, and a healthy dose of the musical “Hair“. She was impossibly optimistic, active, beautiful, well traveled. Wasn’t the most exceptional dancer though. I remember going out to a bar with her, and watching her dance and feeling sort-of surprised. She rocked everything else, but she was never going to win “Dancing with the Stars“. Which I told her, which made her laugh. I knew her from university theatre, and we were in Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” together. She was the Marilyn type, and me the embittered first wife.
She taught me so much about the acting process, and her enthusiasm was deeply infectious. I lived with her one summer in this little holiday town. We waitressed in the same spot on the lake, and after busy nights, we would leap off the dock in our clothes and walk home soaking wet. We always had a good laugh and honest talks. When I was engaged, I asked her to be my bridesmaid, more specifically, my something blue. As a vivacious red head, she wore blue like nobodies business.
The night I first saw her was at a party. She was in a dark blue trench coat, and was terribly drunk. She kept leaning against walls and sliding down them dreamily. I remember thinking that if that were me doing so, that I was look like such a dick. On her, it looked strangely ethereal. When I came across that coat last summer, when I was organizing her clothes, I wept into the fabric. A few items of clothing got that treatment. Occasionally pausing to remember the ridiculous girl who tromped around in tasseled cowboy boots and wore impossibly tiny shorts. I took many things to the theatre, kept a few personal favorites, and shared the tinier sizes with the girls I was working with. Being such a clothes horse, I felt comforted at this fashion reincarnation, that they would continue on in some way.
Shannon always brought things back from trips for me. In that first week in New Zealand, the strap on the purse, the string on the colored wooden beads, and the pin of a peacock brooch, all things she gave me, they all broke in the days leading up to her accident. That bothered me. Tasting that bad omen like it was acid on my tongue. I’ve kept them, stored away with other trinkets and actually carried the peacock with me, along with a dime on the day I got married. She gave me many scarves, which I still wear. When I went to that psychic reading in Auckland, the medium was picking up on a very strong presence. “Did I know a person in a wheelchair”. ‘Nope, sure don’t’ was my first general response. “Are you sure? Because she’s with us in the room, and she’s holding a big bunch of wildflowers and they are for you”. I immediately think of my passport, more specifically of the picture I carry around in my passport, a snapshot of Shannon I kept tucked in the middle. Standing in a field wildflowers. She said she wanted to meet me and travel to Australia and Bali, and so when I went to these places, that is how I took her with me. ‘I guess I do know someone in a wheelchair’. Anyway, Shannon totally commandeered the reading, and the psychic was saying a whole bunch of stuff that made me sob uncontrollably. Then she looked at me, and said “When you dream of her, she’s dreaming of you too”. Ugh, I just cracked like an egg then. I would dream of her, and she would always be as she was when I knew her. She would never speak, but would sit serenely. And I would be crying because I was so happy to see her, alive and well. In the heat of emotion, I wrenched my pashmina, a raspberry color, another Shannon present, from my neck. Like fog, her presence lifted and then she was gone.
I was able to celebrate her birthday last year, in a large hotel room with her mother and other family and friends. What struck me while looking at the girls around me were their new last names, new babies, pregnancies, travels. Everyone was a little bit more grown up, a little more refined. Careers instead of jobs, mortgages instead of rent. We were all growing up and changing, and on that level Shannon’s journey has ended, though her heart keeps beating. And this was along the vein of thought that was choking me the morning of her birthday. I paid my Visa bill, folded my husband’s laundry, puttered around in my bare feet as I sipped coffee and listened to the radio before heading off to work. And it made me sad that she would never have these silly little things that we all take for granted now and again. The dignity of independence, the blessing of perfect health, the last days of summer. And so, as the fourth year passes by, and I am still no closer to knowing how to grieve for her. Though we are now in the same province, I still feel like on that different planet; missing someone terribly even though you could still sit across from each other, reach out and touch their hand.
Happy Birthday, my lovely friend. May you know in your heart just how much you are loved.