March 21st, three weeks ago, I received an email from an old friend of mine, Michelle. We were in college together, and during our senior year, we started to become close. Then, we both completed our grad work together, working as graduate teaching assistants for our college’s English department.
For two years, we lived across the street from one another. Daily, we met for classes, edited papers, talked about students and lesson plans, encouraged one another when our respective relationships went through various (normal) relationship issues. We talked about wedding planning, wrote resumes and cover letters together, tried to do Bible studies, and just stay afloat during financially lean times.
I remember many nights hanging out in her apartments, trying to coax one of her cats into my lap, especially when my fiancee spent a semester abroad in Salzburg, Austria and I was lonely. Just outside the English department was a long brick wall where Michelle and I used to sit and smoke cigarettes, laughing about something, making jokes, reading poetry.
Michelle created the creative writing club at our school, a Writers’ Guild that was the basis for the creative writing club I sponsor at my high school. She organized poetry reads professional writers attended. She made me see beyond myself, made me read poetry that I had written that she loved but I didn’t even understand myself. I found a great opening line and just followed where the words led. But she loved that poem.
Just before March 21st, I found myself thinking about Michelle. The last time I had seen her was maybe thirteen or fourteen years before. I had gone to McDonald’s to attend my weekly prayer/accountability group meeting. I went in, and just as I was about to walk to the back, I saw her. Smoking a cigarette, hanging out with a friend, staring at me in amazed bewilderment. At that point, we hadn’t seen each other in nearly five..six years.
But we recognized each other without question. And we hugged and laughed and quickly compared our lives and she gave me her email address.
I don’t know that I ever really emailed her. I might have. I think we exchanged a couple of emails.
But life did that normal intervening and we fell back into our respective routines and Michelle became a bit of a fleeting memory. A moment in my mind that would coalesce and then disappear.
Michelle was a huge (and I mean HUGE) Jeff Gordon fan, and every time I heard about him, saw his car, heard about Nascar, I would remember her apartment’s kitchen and the Jeff Gordon fan-shrine-wall she had. She collected everything Jeff Gordon and my sister-in-law, Sharon, was kind enough to get a Jeff Gordon autograph for Michelle.
A couple of days before March 20th, I suddenly started thinking about Michelle, remembered once more the hours of laughter and tears we shared while smoking cigarettes and watching the way the world spinned around us. And then she emailed me and it was like God gave me something special.
Her first email was just a question, wondering if the person attached to the name was me and if I was the person she knew twenty years ago.
And without thinking I emailed her back, marveling that a day or two before I had been thinking about her.
Minutes passed and she had replied. A couple of paragraphs. Her husband was in seminary. She was teaching high school. She had a son and a daughter, both the same ages as my own children.
She called me sister.
She hinted that she and her husband had gone through a powerful conversion experience and that she really wanted to share it with me. She wanted to talk, to come back together.
The years fell away and I was thrilled. Immediately, I replied, encouraged her to share her story with me.
The rest of the day passed and I didn’t receive an email from Michelle. More days elapsed and I mused at her silence. I worried that I might have offended her. But then I realized that maybe her nine weeks was ending. She is a teacher like myself and her days must be as filled as mine.
I fretted, thought about emailing her again but worried about annoying her. I read and re-read my email to her and finally decided not to worry. At least, that was what I told myself.
The next week, the Girl and I did our Disney trip. I had my oral surgery. I went back to school and found the quote wall.
And then, I received an email from Michelle’s husband, Michael. I knew Michael back from Michelle’s and my college days, when he was her boyfriend. I was overjoyed to see that they had married and had stayed together. They were perfect for one another twenty years ago, and the picture she had on her Google account showed the powerful love they still had for one another.
Micheal had asked me to call him, which I thought was odd. But, on Tuesday of this week, I called him. Got his voice mail. Left him a friendly message. Went back to pain killers and grading.
Wednesday and Thursday passed without a return phone call and I returned to anxiety and wondering what I must have done to really have ticked off this family.
This afternoon, the phone rang and I recognized the area code to think that it might be Michael. I answered. It was him.
The first thing he asked me about was if I still did my legendary burps (yes…they’re a great way to get a distracted group of children’s attention). We shared a laugh. And then Micheal sobered.
Michelle hadn’t called me because on March 22nd, a day after she had emailed me, she was killed in a car accident.
As I sat in my recliner and felt the shock fill me, I turned on my computer and typed in her name, the city where she lived. And within a moment, I was reading her obituary.
One of my best friends from college, someone who helped edit my master’s thesis, a person with whom I shared many cigarettes and bad jokes.
And now, she just exists in this suspended timelessness. She is in Heaven. I believe that. But I’m here. And I’m aging, even as I write this, I feel this sense of age pulling itself across me. I don’t usually feel old. I don’t even usually feel middle-aged. But, right now, I feel grey and limp and saddened.
So many of the stories that I was looking forward to sharing just sit in my throat. Michelle is gone. A friend who I had planned on having in my wedding.
She was killed in a horrific accident. A truck rear-ended her, crushed the van, essentially drove up and over the van.
Her husband is a widower. Her children will never hear her voice again, even if they listen to a recording, it will never be the same.
And I sit here and keep on thinking about the pictures that were on the news videos. Michelle, her face in a mischievous grin, a sardonic smile as she stares at whomever is holding the camera and giving them one of her classic expressions. She was fearless, strong, saturated with life.
And now, she is ash. Per her final wishes (she and her husband had talked about it three months earlier), she was cremated and I have her voice in my head, her words living in my email.
We never reconnected like I wanted, like she wanted. Because Micheal told me about her excitement at having found me, at the opportunity for us to find one another and regain our old friendship.
I prayed with Michael and we agreed that we would maintain our friendship. And someday, I will go to his home and will tell his children about their mother, about the way she laughed. About the way she always had a cigarette on a bad day, a comforting hug when needed.
About the way she would hold my hands when we would pray and how she could offer me comfort when I didn’t know how to ask for help.
In twenty minutes, I will have to leave to pick up the Girl at her school dance. And as we drive home, I am going to happily listen to her as she describes her evening to me. And then, when I get home, I might take some time and look through my old picture albums. Michelle might be hiding in there.
It’s time to reconnect.