Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Farewell, old friend

Things just aren't normal anymore (or perhaps any less, maybe I just notice it more these days?). I'm unsure how to proceed. I've applied for some more jobs, but not heard anything back. Strange thoughts and sensations still occur, Fibromyalgia related or otherwise. So many directions at once, and I'm spinning in the whirlwind of nothing and everything at the same time. Perhaps that's just the peculiar nature of existence.

Jackie DeLong died, unexpectedly, earlier this week. Strange thoughts formed about the nature of what precipitated it. I don't know the details, but I have vague suspicions that it shouldn't have happened. An unhappy aberration. She was young! My age. 41. She just lost her husband, her children's father, less than 2 months ago to an equally sudden calamity. He was hit and killed by a car, just before Thanksgiving. Two young teens now orphaned in such a heinous way.

I think back on our interactions, and I wonder how things could have played out differently, better, for her. The notion that, had she never known me, things could have been better for her, perhaps. When she moved away, it was hard to be close friends with anyone new, the way I had with her.

When my mom moved us over the mountain to State College, in 6th grade, Jackie was kind to me, and didn't make fun of me the way kids back in my hometown had. She lived up the road, in Cooper's Pond townhouse with her mom, dad, and younger sister. Somehow, we just seemed to get along, and it was nice. I had my first friend who was my friend both outside of school, as well as in school. Something I hadn't experienced; no one had done that before. Jackie was a genuinely kind person.

We had escapades of all kinds: goofing off in the State Game Lands corn fields behind our neighborhood getting muddy and riding bikes, trying to learn to skateboard (and neither one of us being all that adept at it, though she was better at it than I was), helping me with babysitting a local terror-tot who could make herself vomit on cue when she was upset, boyfriends, hanging out at friends' houses coloring our hair, spending lazy summer days at the PSU Natatorium outside pool and jumping off the platforms, wandering around downtown, finding lost golf balls in the brush along the links that ran through our neighborhood... Just being... normal kids.

I introduced her to people, she introduced me, though some I regret ever getting her mixed-up with, like Matt Reyes. She dated him and he ended up being a complete jerk. When she was in 8th grade, he convinced her to sneak out one night and let him drive her mother's Pontiac. He totaled the car and wasn't even old enough to have a driver's license. I was angry. I was relieved that she was alive and unharmed, but so upset that she had gone out and let Matt take the car. I was also upset that I hadn't been able to protect her, that the whole episode happened at all. It was shortly after that incident that her dad decided to move the family to Florida. I blamed myself. I still do, in many ways.

Even before the family moved away, after the that car incident things weren't quite the same between us. Mostly I felt like I failed her.

My mom managed to somehow scrape up enough money for me to fly (by myself!!) to Tampa the summer between 9th & 10th grade, after she moved to Plant City. Making the connecting flight at Dulles wasn't as hard as I thought, and the Tampa airport was breathtaking in its colors, noises and energy. Two whole weeks in August in Tampa area with Jackie! I remember with surprise Tampa being smaller and not as tall as I expected, as the plane flew over it. Once her family got me back to their house, I remember thinking how strange it all felt. The front door had a gap at the bottom (wtf?! Bugs could just walk in!?) The grasshoppers in her front yard were enormous (the size of small birds) that could barely perch on your finger. It rained like clockwork in the late afternoons; huge, billowing thunderstorms that arrived with torrential down-bursts, then generally petered out just as quickly. Frogs hatched while I was there. The roads in her neighborhood were carpeted in tiny, fully formed frogs the size of a fingernail. It was rather heartbreaking driving because of the swaths of dead frogs car tires left in their wake.

I had anoles, tiny greenish brown lizards, as pets back home. Every so often, I would take them out of their aquarium home, and let them crawl around. They had jumped into Jackie's hair one day. We both screamed and laughed at the unexpected panic of tiny lizards tangled in her hair. Now she had anoles living wild in her new neighborhood. I remember being amazed at the little lizards crawling along fences, just hanging out in the sun. 

The time there was short, 2 weeks, and also long, because somehow we did so much, even when it didn't feel like we were doing much of anything. A trip to Busch Gardens and riding on a hanging roller-coaster; Tampa Bay beach (which was more of a narrow strip of sand hugging a shallow, warm expanse of water... I recall wading out for what seemed like a quarter mile, and the bathtub warm water never went past my waist); driving somewhere (Daytona?) with her and her friend, and marveling that the roads were paved with crushed seashells instead of gravel; watching some soap opera; going to a Southern Baptist church with cushions on the pews and women who would jump up and yell "hallelujah" or "amen" during the sermon (that was VERY strange to me!); the enormous palmetto bug (flying cockroach) that literally wouldn't die after being smashed with a book, and then moved the ceramic bowl placed over top of it; hours soaking up sun while swimming in her neighbor's pool...

After that trip, she drifted her way and I drifted mine. We would write each other occasionally and send photos, but our time connecting was mostly just abbreviated snippets of distant pen-pals.

The next time I heard from her was 1992 or 1993; she was to have been getting married, but her fiance left her at the alter so he could be with another guy (of all things). I can remember being torn apart. I wanted to go to her and be there to help and comfort her, but... for some reason, I had excuses. I had no money saved so no way to get there, Jeff was in college and I recall him dismissing the idea or dissuading me from trying to get to her. Maybe I was projecting? I'm not exactly sure why I didn't go, but it made me feel shitty, like I was abandoning her all over again.

Ironically, when shit fell apart between Jeff and me years later, she had somehow found my number and called me out of the blue. I remember talking with her while on the couch at the house on Leawood, Jeff sitting next to me. I was afraid to say much of anything real about what was happening, even though it was bad, and not long afterward, I overdosed to kill myself. I couldn't bring myself to drag her into my drama. She had problems of her own and I didn't want to add mine to hers. Some of it was guilt; I didn't expect her to be there to help me when I hadn't been there to help her. Again, I drifted away somewhere and lost touch with her.

Fast forward a number of years, and we reconnect again, via Facebook, this time. Tiny glimpses of her life through status updates and photos. She was beautiful and vibrant as always. Pangs of wistful voyeurism that her life seemed ok.

June of this past year, I uploaded photos of her that she had left with me all those years ago before she moved to Florida. Baby photos, toddler photos, young elementary school days, long before I knew her, or she even lived in Pennsylvania (her dad had been in the Marines, so they traveled frequently). It was like uploading pieces of her past, her memories, to flow through the Internet and hopefully, just maybe, pieces of happiness could find their way home to her.

Months later, her husband died. Now, shortly after that, she's gone, too.

A lifetime of memories are there, good, bad, happy, sad, angry, and melancholy. An entirety that cannot be adequately enumerated.

Be well, old friend. You were always beautiful starstuff, even if I lacked a way to tell you.

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