I like those few days in the south when the snow or ice leads schools to cancel and affords some of us lucky ones to work from home in our pajamas. It’s God’s way of saying “Slow down. You need the rest.”
A few weeks ago I was gifted such a day. We didn’t get a lot of snow, but there was just enough of the white stuff to cancel school. Pajama’d, with hair fashioned by a pillow and hands warmed by a cup of hot, black coffee, I welcomed the day and all of its productivity. No joke.
On this particular day, I took a short break from the computer, books, and stacks of papers, to refill my coffee cup. As I scooted through the family room, my attention was drawn to a missing knob on one of the entertainment cabinet drawers. The drawer was pushed in too far, calling me to put down my empty coffee mug, retrieve my favorite dull-edged butter knife, and coax the drawer out of its hole. Being a bottom drawer and having probably lacked its shiny black pull for quite some time, I wasn’t even sure of its contents.
Indeed it had long been shuttered from daylight as it held old VHS tapes. There were recorded TV interviews from my days working as a student health counselor in college and later as a public health clinical social worker and educator. There was the 1993 Peach Bowl, which was the final chapter to my senior year UNC football tour. And then there were the early ultrasound recordings of Kid #1 and Kid #2. I recalled watching those little fuzzy shadows and imagining what they would look like at 20 years old. I have loved unwrapping the gift of my imagination as Kid #1 is now twenty.
Yet it was the cassette labeled “1988 Prom Tape” that made the coffee re-fill not as urgent.
I turned on the TV and the VCR I simply keep for occasions such as these.
My classmates welcomed me back to 1988 as I was reminded how we, as the Junior Class, worked to fully transform our 25-year-old gym into the south of France for the “Tender Is The Night” themed prom.
I smiled back at those Southern-voiced faces framed by perms, big bangs, and braces. I laughed at the acid-washed, high-waisted jeans. I chuckled at the white tennis shoes, the baggy, pleated shorts, and tucked-in t-shirts. The 80s fashions were so much fun and I hadn’t even gotten to prom night yet!
And then I stopped laughing.
There he was…. smack-dab in the middle of the South Stokes High School gym floor.
Talking. Smiling. Laughing. Breathing. Reeling my heart in with every move.
I pressed Rewind and watched again.
And again. And again. And yet again.
I paused the TV screen as my heart ached to have been able to press a pause button for life.
Wiping the wells of water from my eyes, I pressed Play and kept going. It wasn’t the first time.
The video transitioned to prom night with all of its lace and hoops, bowties and coattails. As I was watching this glitzy flashback, my daughters sashayed through the room. They paused too, but for a very different reason. Let me just say that Kleinfeld Bridal in New York City may want to hire these girls one day for their brutally honest fashion commentary.
I silently kept watching and looking for more glimpses of him. Sadly, one never came.
I took a deep breath, returned the videocassette to the now repaired drawer, and heavy-heartedly returned to my workspace. The afternoon went on, but my thoughts kept returning to those days some 30 years ago.
Our high school was a melting pot for a few schools planted across the county.
I first met John during my sophomore year when he filled the seat behind me in Mrs. Cockerham’s AG English class. He was from Walnut Cove. I grew up in King.
We were friends at first sight.
John offered to carry my books. He’d wait at my locker to walk me to class. We’d share conversations about homework, music, football and soccer, hookups and breakups. Our long phone conversations were documented well on each month’s phone bill. And when we were not talking, we were exchanging those sweet little, beloved notes written on blue-lined notebook paper and folded with creased-precision. I still have every one.
My friend was deeply introspective. John pondered the musings of great writers, philosophers, and scientists. He loved a good song too. He often quoted favorite lyrics in his notes and even signed a few “ John, Paul, George and Ringo.” He had such a gift with words and wrote poetry to work through some of the things that weighed heaviest on his heart. When words between two people failed him, his words on paper spoke volumes.
Physically John was tall and strong and looked every bit the part of the All-American football team captain that he was. Yet to those who knew him best, he was a teddy bear. His big, brown eyes helped a lot. I was always greeted with a tremendous hug; the kind of hug that left my feet dangling two feet in the air. I, for brief moments, relished in the treetop view of the world that John shared with me.
Each day at mid-morning break I would search the hot sea of letter jackets and mini-skirts to find him. On a daily basis I packed either a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a Poptart just to give to him. Every. Single. Day. The sea always parted a distance down the sidewalk as John cleared a path to find me first. He never failed.
Friday afternoons we would meet at the local McDonald’s because John’s favorite pre-game fuel was a Big Mac and fries. My favorite pre-game fuel was WATCHING him eat. His appetite was one to behold.
Yet I knew that he would have skipped the Big Mac’s if I had ever asked. John was always there to listen, to offer advice, and to share hugs when no words were needed. He patiently listened to the trials and tribulations of many of my first and last dates. On the occasion of my 16thbirthday, when I was grounded at home for what I am sure was some sort of deserving deed, John pulled up in my driveway to simply give me a hug. He couldn’t have wrapped a better gift.
John turned eighteen just before Christmas of our senior year.
Yet exactly a month later, on a rain-soaked Monday morning, my beloved friend, the one who had always been there for me, breathed his last breath.
What was first thought to be the flu, turned out to be meningitis. The horrible illness struck quickly, unexpectedly, and tragically. His mom and dad were filled with grief. His two brothers were shaken with sadness. His family, friends, church, coaches, and teachers felt the deep, deep sorrow from the passing of someone so young.
For all of my 17-year-old understanding, John’s death paved a trail of endless questions, what-ifs, should haves, could haves, and would haves….
He was just at my house on Friday night.
He ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich sitting right there beside me on the couch.
He was so excited about the Wake Forest basketball game.
He hugged me in the doorway.
I wished I had hugged him a little longer.
And it was from this very dark and uncertain place that I came very close to God and God came very close to me.
John’s dad was a Baptist preacher and his mother an accomplished teacher, and I learned a lot from both. In their own grief and sorrow, they shared faith, hope and love. It didn’t take long for me to see the roots of all I loved in their son.
Thirty years have passed since that Monday morning. John’s dad passed away just a few short months after his son. John’s mother made sure I had sweet little notes in my mailbox as I began my freshmen year of college. We have since reconnected all these years later and even enjoyed a family cookout last summer. One of John’s older brothers was a classmate of my husband’s and they shared great stories of their years on the soccer team. Our children played together in their grandmother’s backyard.
That would have made John happy.
Did he ever have a first kiss? Would he have played college football? Would he have taught English or history? Would he have cried on his wedding day? What books would he have read to his children?
Some questions are left for dreams to color.
Last week I once again unpacked my scrapbook of John’s photos, cards, letters, and poems. These pieces of paper, some very well worn, have always comforted me; yet now I see them with different lenses… from the view of a 47-year-old wife and mother. I see a young man who played hard and loved harder. I see a human being who respected all that was fair, and just, and right in the world. I see a person who saw such infinite beauty in things so small. I see a teenager, who like me and so many others, grappled with self-worth on the inside. I see a guy who deeply loved a girl, but just couldn’t give voice to the words on the paper.
Perhaps the girl was just too 17-years-old to really hear the words so beautifully written, yet left unspoken.
But she hears them now.
There are just some things that take thirty years to figure out.
So say I love you openly, freely, and with complete abandon. Should your voice ever fail you, write the words down. See the beauty in old bridges. Listen for whispers on the wind and in old Beatles tunes. Sow seeds of kindness and goodness and gentleness everywhere you go. Enjoy good food with friends, even if it is just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And believe in something much greater than you or me.
Believe it with all of your heart and soul and mind.
And so my friend….