Today would be your 36th birthday, which would make you (number-wise) the same age as me. Until March. Since we could talk and form human thoughts, our 5 months separation in age have made for intense debate. When we were very young, my 5 months on you was total justification for my know-it-all attitude. To you, my older-and-wiser self could conceivably take the heat when one of our hair-brained ideas went awry and we ended up in a spot of trouble. Once we reached 30, our age difference became a joke. You’d say “Well, you can understand that because you’re so much older than me” from March to August, and then starting August 19th I’d begin with the “Welcome to the old lady club, would you care for a prune juice?” bit.
This year is different, because you’re gone. I still can’t believe it. On July 29th the world stopped making very much sense.
On that day, Mom called me to tell me you were gone. On that day, she and I drove to West Virginia to pick up your Mam-Maw to take her to your funeral. At 11:12 PM that night, I wrote this in my journal:
“It’s funny that I would break out a journal now, since it is one of the few times in my life that I’ve been totally at a loss. For words. For a real grip on my feelings. For anything. I sit in this familiar house listening to my mom and your grandmother talk and for a few seconds at a time it is almost possible to ignore what has happened. That you, at 35 years old, have died of cancer. That tomorrow we’ll drive 9 hours to a cheap hotel in Rockford, Illinois to attend your funeral. You, who I have loved best, loved longest, loved so achingly and frustratingly for all my years. As long as I can remember. You are a piece of my heart, a chunk of my soul and you are gone. Part of me is gone.”
And thus began three days of intense scribbling, because if I didn’t keep my hands busy I’d go crazy. I remember all of it, the drive, your visitation, your funeral, the drive back, through a hyper-real filter of grief. And since then, I have tried to live life and do what I’m supposed to do but it will take some time, I think, before anything seems real or right again.
I know that during these times you’re supposed to talk about the big picture. You’re not supposed to focus on your own loss because there is a greater plan. A glorious and wonderful architecture to life that is not for us to understand. You believed that with all your heart, and you weren’t afraid to go. I admire you and am so proud of you for that.
And I want to be strong, and wise, and I don’t want to be selfish. But I feel selfish, and maybe that’s OK right now. Because right now I wish I could be waiting to call you to see if your birthday present got there yet. Right now I wish I was waiting until it was a decent hour in Illinois so I could call and leave a loud and ill-tuned recording of “Happy Birthday” in your voicemail. One so horrendous that you’d call me back laughing. I miss you. Every day.
But I’m not the only one. Your sweet husband, for one. Your sister. Your grandmother. My mother. Your mother-in-law. Your sister-in-law. The whole amazing family you married into. YOUR family. Your dad. Your dad’s family. Your aunt. Our whole family. And so, so many more.
Sitting in that little church, two emotions were prevalent. One, of course, was grief. The other, undoubtedly, was love. You were so loved. Fellow teachers, past and present students, past and present employers, church members, friends from high school, friends from college, friends from elementary school. They all adored you. You made a difference in their lives. You changed the world for them. I couldn’t have been more proud of you. I couldn’t have been more sure that you left this world after living the life you were absolutely supposed to live.
I wish I had a recording of Doug’s (speech? sermon? eulogy?) on the day of your funeral. To paraphrase, he reminded the group that had gathered (standing room only, just like at your mom’s) that J was crazy about you. And then he said that he was crazy about you too. And so were your students, your family, and everyone. He gave this heartbreakingly simple, very eloquent list of reasons to be crazy about you. Your smile, your mission, and your suffering. Your smile shows the world your heart. Your mission shows the world your devotion to God. Your suffering shows the world you were a hero. You were my hero. You still are.
So enough mumbling and moaning. It’s your birthday, after all, and I wanted to write something to express how much you mean to me and how much I miss you. I guess that’s the danger in waiting 22 whole days to write something. It all comes out. But, since this is my own little place that I carved out to write whatever I want, I feel totally justified in letting this first 880+ words serve as an introduction. Now I’ll take a cue from Doug and keep it simple.
We used to bug your Pap-Paw to take us to the store for candy or ice cream, and for some reason we loved the grocery store. Being that it was 1979 or 1980 and we were so very cute, we were pretty much allowed to go barefoot all the time, resulting in a vigorous foot washing from one of our grandmothers, mothers or aunts. I believe the above photo was post-foot washing. My grandmother may have destroyed the photos of our dirty feet to protect the family name. She didn’t get that we were trying to be “Blackfoot” Indian Princesses like her.
This was always one of my favorites of us.
I think we were 9 or 10 in this picture. Les and Ali are so little!
All grown up, we go to a “beautiful” mall in IL. This was before a big surgery, after which you graciously and cheerful rode the whole 10 hours back to WV with Mom, your Mam-Maw and me.
Last summer in Charleston. So glad that we had that time. So glad we had any time we had.
That same trip. Before or after we goofed around and both got in the hammock.
After the graveside portion of your service, the people from your old school and church brought two busfuls of balloons. Bright pink, light pink, white…and we all released them at the same time. It was a nice gesture (and hopefully not too destructive to the bird population of IL) and a few people caught pictures of it.
But part of us will always be those little girls. Best friends. And you will always be the Denier of Naps, Purveyor of Candy, Writer of Arms With Ballpoint Pens, and the first person to be excited to see me.
Happy Birthday, my sweet Lo Lo. I’ll get over this terrible bump of self pity soon, but today your Bethie misses you.