Something people in their fifties and sixties are not always psychologically prepared for is the death of friends. Maybe nobody is prepared for that.
My Wednesday started with news that an old girlfriend died last week. Even
though I had not seen her in thirty years and had not been in contact for more
than ten years, I was still in shock.
Part of the shock is that someone who was barely into her 60s can die, part of
it is that someone who made a huge impact on my life is gone. No future
contact, no new chapters in her unique life, no more catching-up stories to
share. It's another reminder of how fragile and short life is. That scares the
shit out of me. And I learned while
writing this that her cause of death was a brain tumor, discovered less than
six months ago.
Melanie was a phone company sales rep when I met her. That job, with its
conservative expectations, dress code and behavioral requirements, was a
complete mismatch for her personality. The off-hours Melanie I met was a
regular customer at the pizza parlor where I was a DJ. I can still clearly see
her and her friends doing the oddest 1960s-era hippie dancing to the 1950s-era
oldies I was playing in the mid-1970s. She was a total free-spirit, a mismatch
for my then shy, rigid, 'paint inside the lines' personality. I was a
free-spirit wannabe and she eventually helped me move in that direction.
Our relationship ended when I left Louisiana to chase my career dream. It ended
badly, which was mostly my fault because I didn't discuss my discussion to
leave with her; I made the decision, accepted the job offer a thousand miles
away, packed and left. Our relationship was destined to end anyway because
ultimately we were a mismatch, but I know I could have handled it better and
with more respect for her feelings.
She made an interesting decision a few years later. She left the sales job,
finished college and became a high school English teacher in a small town
outside New Orleans. Based on everything I've read about her online, her
personality was perfect for inspiring students in a subject that usually scares
or bores them.
Continuing her free-spirit nature, combined with a missionary sense of purpose
I didn't see during my time with her, she gave up that fairly cushy job to
teach in an inner-city New Orleans high school. She saw something in her
students there that their own parents and peers didn't see, and uncovered some
incredible story-telling and writing skills in many of her students. She even
published some of their work in her blog and began work on a book that, sadly,
was never completed.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed that school and it was never rebuilt. She
eventually accepted a teaching job at the college back in the small town,
helped create a national creative writing project and travelled to Europe with
her now-grown up son. She even travelled alone to an Eastern European country
several years ago (I forget which one) and wrote and published a book about the
Melanie is one of the people in my life who helped me break out of my own
self-imposed barriers. Our relationship was a temporary stop on my life
journey but it has lasting impact and significance. We were in touch off and on
over the decades but totally off since Katrina. At some point in her life she
admitted her alcoholism and maybe wanted to disconnect with some parts of her
past; that is a possible reason she didn't respond to my attempts to
reestablish contact with her. Or maybe I just didn't have that much impact on
I will say this: she told me in a letter a few years after I left that some
people in that small town where we lived together still asked about me. That
letter, which I still have in a box of things buried in a closet, opened my
eyes to the possibility that I might have a positive impact on some of the
people I've met during my own life journey. She helped give me the
courage to accept that possibility without any ego attached.
I'm writing this two days after receiving the sad news and maybe only now
accepting that I'm grieving a little. I'll never see her again, never share
stories or memories, never catch up. I won't be able to tell her about the
incredible, wonderful life I have now, the special people who share my journey,
one in particular. I can't tell her that the dreams I left her for have all
come true as well as many more I could not have imagined. I can't tell her that
she impacts my life to this day.
Sometimes the past crashing into the present is a bad thing. Sometimes,
like this time, it is a cause for celebration of a unique life.
Another dream I've had is to write a book. This week I figured out the title
and theme. This blog post will likely be one of the chapters.