I heard a date the other night and I know my face flinched as a cloud of dark memories surrounded me. I tried to pretend that it didn’t to everyone around me. I left it unexplained as I often do. There are only 365 days in a year and only one date makes my skin crawl.
Like a dark looming cloud this date approaches me. This last year I tried to skim by the day, but I knew it was coming in the calmness of the storm that defined so many dark moments for me for the ten years that this cloud had followed me previously.
In the fall of 2000, I was a sophomore at Radford University. I was taking full-time classes and living in Bolling Hall on the second floor. My roommate April and I had picked the room, because it had two large windows that faced the quad that was lined with large magnolia trees. To make ends meet I had applied for a work study at Dalton the closest dining hall. I wore these ridiculous polo style shirts in multiple shades of pastel on different days. Everyones favorite combination was the pink day and a green hat. My friends still joke that I looked like a strawberry. I worked the food line slopping food on serving trays and take out bins.
::slop:: ::slop:: ::slop::
It was a job… a greasy, filthy job, and one that I should have hated but I loved in retrospect. This was a different kind of work study. This job you worked side by side the local blue collar types that were not students. Just your average single moms and the chef that ran the kitchen had a serious power trip. There were cooks and line ladies… I was a line lady and this was where I met one of my dearest friends, Sally. She was tall with long brown hair and a big vibrant smile. We spent hours and hours standing slopping food together. We had a blast popping those trays from the warmer station, that looked like big stainless steel refrigerators, and slamming them into the warming stations. Stirring the contents up with spoons larger than three quarters of my arm. We told all kinds of stories during the slow times leaning up against those large warmers. There were countless hours of gabbing about our nieces and nephews while wiping down the lines and joking about how we were at risk for the recent meningitis outbreak. We chatted about our career hopes and our interest in the deaf community. Also discussing my future husband and her single life. One of the local line ladies, whose name escapes me now, kept telling Sally that Phil, a cook in the back, was “checking her out”. We would giggle like school girls when he would bring us a fresh tray of slop. Eventually, the two of them fell madly in love. I wish I had photographs of these moments, but instead I have warm silly memories of being young and carefree.
steam burns and laughter
It’s funny the things your memory gives you. Sally’s hands were strong and unique. Hands you would want a caretaker to have. Like a nurse with strong and gentle hands she worked diligently with a fun attitude. We worked most of that year together and she was always easy going and she and Phil were so in love. At one point, I remember her coming in with a glum look on her face. I wasn’t sure how to take it… this was very uncharacteristic of her. Her parents had gone on a horseback riding trip to Ireland. Her mother, Patricia, had been in a terrible accident. She took phone calls in the kitchen that night. Over the next few months, Sally was not the same. Her mother was transferred back to the United States and continued her rehabilitation here after surgery to her brain. Slowly, Sally left that semester without any explanation to me, but I knew she was caring for her grandfather and later her mother. I had no number and no e-mail. Nothing, but Phil’s updates. I kept in touch with the line ladies too over time. The following year I was offered a position in work study as an assistant to the Dean of the College Health and Human Services. I spent the summer in silence from Sally.
distance and loneliness
In August of 2001, I was taking European Geography that semester. I was psyched about it. I walked to the building for my first class and there was a little brick circle out front that was filled with flowers. As luck would have it Sally was sitting on the brick circle out front waving at me. We gave each other a big hug and she explained to me that she finished up her courses early and had somethings waved from the previous semester because of her family emergency. She had spent a good amount of time caring for her mother. Who had still been in a mostly vegetative state. The doctors had said she would never talk, walk or much of anything again. Sally looked more settled than the person I remember seeing before she had left the semester before. She and Phil were doing great. In the weeks that passed she and I would meet out front and walk and talk since by luck her class was next to mine. In the weeks that followed school became very chaotic. This same class that I was going into is the same class that I watched the second plane go into the second tower on September 11, 2001. My memories of this time are blurry. One thing I distinctly remember was standing out on that circle and her interrupting me to take a cell phone call. I knew it was important as she sat pulling it out of her pocket sitting at that same brick circle. She instantly shot up… smiling and crying all at the same time. Then she moved to nervous giggling and pacing. She hung up the phone and hugged me. It was her mother. Her mother had picked up the phone, called and spoke with her all on her own. What great strides Patricia had made….
In the spring of 2002 we had a class called Teaching Writing together. We traveled to Blacksburg HS and taught a creative writing unit together. We did a lesson on writing poetry with your senses and they ate candy blindfolded and then wrote about different kinds. It was fun. I didn’t have a car so Sally and I road together in her car to go observing and teaching. These half hour trips to another town just filled with endless conversation and lots of laughing. It was a fun year.. she and I. We didn’t do much outside of school related things. I would go to her place and work on lessons or writing. The next summer we lost track a little bit, but by August we were both middle school teaching majors and all of our classes were together. There were seventeen of us in our cohort and two professors. This time riding together was just normal and routine. We’d been friends for two years and were very close in conversation. Although, she went on and on about how she detested Hillary Clinton and I rather like her. Other than Sally’s republican talk and my democratic perspectives our conversations flowed like water and if they didn’t we were still having a blast. Music was always a topic of conversation. This was one of her favorites.
My boyfriend at the time and I had decided to get married and were ready to have the serious talks with our families. Phil and Sally had decided they were moving in that direction too, but it was very important to Sally that she marry a Catholic man. In her strength and her fathers they brought Phil to their faith and he moved towards a conversion to the Catholicism with Sally’s father as Phil’s mentor. Sally’s father a lawyer was a devote Catholic. Sally said once that her dad had mentioned with all of the struggles that Patricia had gone through that if he lost her he would just move forward with becoming a priest. It was very important to her to have Phil move forward and was just awestruck by her father’s dedication to the man with which she was so in love. Sally and I were seeing each other every day driving to class and work at Blacksburg Middle. Life was busy, but John and I had decided we were going to take this whole marriage thing to another level and we were prepared to organize our wedding for right after graduation. Sally and I talked about how I was going to tell my parents and worried how that was going to go and my parents were stopping by on the way to West Virginia so I took the opportunity to tell them. They were very excited…. I couldn’t wait to fill Sally in on all the conversation…
my parents… her parents
Sally stopped by afterwards to see my new mice. What possessed me to own pet mice I have no idea, but they had had babies and Sally just had to come see. I remember the baby mice sitting in Sally’s large and gentle hands. We were talking wedding plans and she just gently held the mice smiling. Sally’s connection with animals was amazing especially with horses. Her apartment bedroom was filled with ribbons and awards from her riding events. We talked about many things related to the animals, weddings, family, faith, and teaching too.
The next hurdle for us was to tell John’s parents we were getting married. I was nervous, more nervous, about this one. Our families were so different and yet we were so in love. I was leaving for the weekend after my Friday afternoon class. Sally had a big weekend too. It was her mother’s birthday weekend and they were traveling to Fredericksburg. This was a big weekend for their family and she wasn’t about to miss it. See Patricia had made bigger strides than calling Sally on the phone. As a surprise for her family Patricia went to the party to show her friends and relatives she had regained the ability to walk. Sally was so excited as she walked out the door of the class with her hair down and sunglasses on her head as usual. She said, “Good Luck!” and I said, “You too. Have fun. Travel Carefully.” She turned and said while flashing a big smile, “You too!”
sunglasses, smiles, and salutations
Telling his parents went as smoothly as one could anticipate. I was so excited a date was in place and things were coming together. He had his father, his best man, lined up while my sisters and his sister were ready to stand with us. We were ready to pick colors and bridesmaid gowns. We were filled with excitement. I was elated and excited the whole way back home to the apartment. I had to observe in Blacksburg the next day and I was ready to go now that all my plans were in place with my life. I got up that morning and couldn’t wait for Sally to get there to take me the 30 minutes into town. I waited and waited and waited…. she didn’t show. She would never just not show. No call nothing. So I called her cell and got the voicemail… I begged John to drive me to Blacksburg. I was upset I was late, but I wasn’t mad at her. I was worried to pieces. Before I left, I put a note on the front door worried she was just on her way. I left her a voicemail urging her to call me and let me know she was alright.
John rushed me to the school and I felt awful. Showing up late… setting my things down in a hurry when I reached the classroom. The teacher I worked with, Sharon, looked at me oddly and I told her I was frantically worried about my friend. She assured me that it would be fine although it was out of character for my friend. Oddly, the door opened and a lady from the office, looking solemn and displeased, told Sharon that all student teachers were to gather their belongings and come to the conference room. I grabbed my things knowing that there was a cloud. My knees were shaking and I asked the office lady what was wrong and she said she wasn’t sure. I knew right then and should have stopped, but I walked into the storm. When I arrived to the room it was almost empty except the two professors were there. I just looked them in the eyes and said “This is about Sally. Tell me this is not about Sally.” I fell back into a chair as she responded… Yes. They weren’t expecting my meltdown. I should have been alone or the last one to arrive, but they were not anticipating this closeness between Sally and I as they had only known us for a few short weeks. Instead the other fifteen cohort members followed in behind me. I could not hold myself up and I could not cope. They went on to tell us that Sally, Patricia and Sally’s father were traveling home after her big birthday party on Sunday when a drunk driver drove over into their lane plunging into the passenger side. Patricia and Sally died instantly and her father had managed to survive with some scrapes and an injured arm.
Sunday September 22, 2002
My mind racing… her voicemail message.. the note.. all the things I couldn’t wait to hear about their trip… all the things I wanted to tell her about my weekend… my friend. not. my. friend. The last time she spoke to me… the travel carefully’s the look over her shoulder the sunglasses the smile. Patricia… this is so unfair… so unfair.
Monday September 23, 2002
I had never experienced pain like this… A loss this close….A friend so dear. No matter our conversations or what we talked about or what came of it then I had lost a special person in my life. I was falling apart right there with the cohort and my professors in that conference room. Simply falling apart… To grieve in such a manner in retrospect is almost embarrassing to realize how many people saw me so raw and in the moment of despair. Nothing had hurt so badly as that moment right there.
One of the cohort members walked me outside for air and loaned me her phone. I called John… all I could say was “Sally’s gone… she’s gone.” He didn’t understand, but he came to get me. We talked in the conference room and the group eventually dispersed and then came back together at Kelly’s house. Kelly was in the cohort and also quite close with Sally, but she was much wiser and experienced in grief than me and held it together. Our professors had agreed we would head back to teaching the next day and although we had all lived through September 11th and the “return quickly to routine” process… there was no way we could. Especially me… it wasn’t going to happen.
My friends were quick to move into action. Sally’s note was taken off the door and ripped into pieces and hidden. They were all there or around ready to take care of me. I remember grieving so badly I couldn’t stand in the shower or walk the distance of the short hall without holding onto a door frame. I had so many family members and friends come to see me and call me. Those first few weeks were the most raw. We attended the visitation, the funeral, and held a memorial service for her. We raised money in her honor and had a display put up at a nearby horseback riding facility with her name on it and bought her a brick on the memorial path at the university. Mostly, I just missed her… the years of conversation… the laughter… the smiles.. raw is the best way to describe it. In the coming months, my professor urged me to seek counseling or a local church. I just wanted my friends and family. My professor said I lacked faith and she was right, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I worked and worked to get through student teaching and pushed myself hard. I planned the wedding and worked as a student teacher full-time. The professor and I were what felt like head to head. She gave me good reviews but she pushed me hard. I have been bitter about that relationship for some time… I think she simply didn’t know how to handle me.
I graduated the following May. We were set to marry in July. So right before graduation… I decided to get a dog. I needed a companion for the upcoming journey I was headed on. It sounds silly, but I wanted a male yellow lab. It was what I had hoped for, but I went from shelter to shelter looking for this new companion. None of the animals we came across were the right fit. We went to a place nearby to look at a dog not meeting the description, but we went anyways. I wasn’t impressed with the dog and found myself very disappointed. The fence rattled and shook behind me with a loud bark. I turned to see a very happy male yellow lab mix standing on his hind legs onto the fence. A one year old guy named Luke. Instantly, he had my heart.
If you know me, you know that Luke is a staple in my life even now, but many don’t know why. As this dark cloud still hovered over me I cried raindrops into Luke’s coat. He was my therapy. The best I had had yet. In the months that followed from May to our wedding in July, Luke was beside me all the way… I walked him daily, cuddled with him on sofa, and took him almost everywhere. I would just sob and hold him as I finally was able to work through my grief. I was so damaged by my experience and exhausted that I could not teach. I didn’t even know if I wanted to teach anymore. I had lost a lot of strength. Looking back it was a lot of surviver’s guilt mentality.
I graduated. She didn’t. I was in love. She was in love. I was getting married. Phil was alone. Her father was alone. She wanted to teach and I had lost the desire to do it. Patricia had worked so hard to walk and lost everything so quickly. My thoughts overwhelmed me.
By December, with Luke’s help, I was ready to try teaching so I started with substituting. By April, I had a job contract for the following year and the rest of my sulking is in the history books. Luke had managed to pull me out of my depths of despair and I gained confidence and strength. I’m not sure what happened to Phil, but Sally’s dad did just as she said he would and is now a priest in North Carolina. I have been unable to contact him or any of her other family… ever. I just could not do it and still remain unable to own my grief and feel as though I had any inclination as to the pain they must have felt. My professors and I have not spoken since my graduation. I have been unable to get beyond some of my bitterness with that situation.
Sally is not gone from my mind. I’m certain that when I meet someone named Sally I have a tinge the falls over my face and it takes some time for me to call those persons by name. When I first saw my new principal, Stephanie, at my new job I didn’t see her… I saw Sally… I have to gulp and swallow that down even as I type it… Her vibrant smile and the dark hair. My cousins’ wife- her hands look just like Sally’s. My friend Jenna’s equestrian awards in her guest room reminds me of Sally’s bedroom. When I hear September 22nd… it’s raw emotion… full rawness and I remember myself in that conference room falling apart completely. In the shower unable to stand and countless other memories.
I used to think it was strange when someone remembered a date when someone had passed away. Oh how naive I was… I know that cloud is visible mid conversation when her name is said or the date. Sometimes I can’t even explain why she came into my mind.