I delivered a speech at Baccalaureate today. When I finished writing it yesterday, I started sobbing; I didn’t realize how much I mourned my friend’s death. I thought that I was past the pain. Today, when I read the speech, I managed to get through it with only a few blinks past the sadness. When I sat down, though, I bit my tongue and forced myself not to start weeping. I teared up. But I didn’t want to cry beyond a couple of tears.
I’m tired, though. So I’m cheating. Here’s the speech…..
Proverbs 17:17: “A friend loves at all times.”
I love jigsaw puzzles. I love teasing out the image from the scattered tiles that seem to have no relationship. This year, Mrs. Rose gave me a Cinderella puzzle because I covered her class. During Snowmageddon, I completed that puzzle at least three times.
One thing I learned about puzzles is that if the pieces don’t naturally fit, there’s no point in forcing them. They don’t match. Which is frustrating when the colors are perfect matches and the lines seem to intersect. Somewhere, in the box or on the table or, in my case, on the floor, the perfect match is waiting.
Life is a huge jigsaw puzzle. By starting at the edges and working my way in, I learn about the edges of who I am. When I tackle a specific section like a forest, the sky, or a mountain, I scrutinize the pieces for specific colors, shapes, or textures. And as I run my hands across the pieces, it’s not unlike how I sort through my memories, run my fingers over the texture of my personality, or rifle through a box of dreams and wishes.
As I look across the audience, I see an assortment of puzzle pieces, small clusters of people who fit with one another. Your edges have conformed to one another; you can predict each other’s moods. You know what triggers a maelstrom of anger or tears. You know how to tease out a smile even on the worst day.
The friendships you forged are bonding; in the last two weeks, as you have received your yearbooks, I watched how you inscribe something on the pages or under pictures. At the same time, I also observed the new tenuousness as you step around one another.
Your years in high school are ending, and you can sense that the same bonds that you forged might be thinning. Your lives’ paths are about to diverge, and you are preparing for those good-byes which might last a couple of days or perhaps a decade until the first of the reunions arrive and you go through the “do you remembers?”
I attended two high schools, the first in Northern Virginia, the second (and the one from which I graduated) in Germany. I have not attended a single class reunion. My American high school in Germany closed two years after I graduated. My peers and I are a bunch of jigsaw pieces scattered around the world.
In the twenty-six years since I graduated from Munich American High School, I have kept in touch with one friend. And yesterday morning, she and I reconnected after a long hiatus that was primarily broken by Facebook posts, the occasional message, a “like” on one another’s wall. Her son graduated from high school two days ago. Her son was in my wedding by accident because she was my matron of honor and he refused to be with anyone else. So she traded out her bouquet and she held him throughout my wedding. I met her son when he was hours old. When I learned she was in labor, I drove three hours to visit her in the hospital.
We were that close.
Time and distance are barriers. The busyness of adult living, careers, raising children, and caring for a family become anchors that held us in place. They are also tethers which keep us from getting in a car and driving three hours to visit once more.
But, yesterday morning, while I was brainstorming this speech and trying to write something meaningful, I read my friend’s post about her son. I reached out to her and she called me. We talked for ninety minutes and the years and distance fell away. It was like we were still in high school. We swapped the same jokes. We laughed at the same things.
Our edges are different, but our pieces still match. Regardless of the brutality of time and the exhaustion that comes with having grown apart, we slide together and become a part of a much greater puzzle.
This speech is not intended to be auspicious, a foreboding omen that you, too, will leave the boundaries of high school, enter the world, and immediately lose touch with your friends.
On the contrary, despite the fact that you will go your separate ways and will collect new stories, you will still find yourself driving the old roads. The memories of your adolescence will coalesce and it will be like you are driving with a ghostly twin, an almost concrete reminder of who you were. You and your friends will still come together and the pieces will still fit. Only soon, you will find that your edges will gradually take on new shapes, new partners, new beginnings, and new endings.
In my senior year at Longwood College, I became close friends with Michelle Simone. Together, we attended English education classes and student taught. A year later, we both started working as Graduate Teaching Assistants at Longwood’s English department. For years, we spent hours usually perched on a wall just outside the English department, chatting. And as our friendship developed, we started calling each other “sister.”
But, despite our best efforts, when we graduated and moved to separate poles on the Virginia map, Michelle and I lost touch. Our friendship became a victim of time and distance. Once, in 2002, I ran into her at McDonald’s. I went there to attend a prayer group. She was meeting a friend for a day-long shopping trip.
For five minutes, Michelle and I chatted. We exchanged email addresses, laughed, hugged. We went our separate ways and, once more, time and distance pecked away at our friendship.
And then, this year, on March 21st, Michelle contacted me. In her heart-warming email, she recalled our friendship and mourned the years that had pulled us apart. She called me sister. She asked me to email her so that we could reconnect.
Enthusiastically, I did. I told her about my children, my career, the creative writing club that she, to a degree, had inspired. I sent the email and went home and told my husband about Michelle. Together, we fondly remembered her, laughed over shared memories. And then I waited.
I didn’t hear back from Michelle. For a while, I figured that since she was a teacher that she was swamped with papers and state-required exams. Then I worried that I had upset her. I pulled up our emails and analyzed every word. I couldn’t find where I might have been offensive.
The week after spring break, Michelle’s husband, Michael, emailed me, asking me to call, which I did. I left a message, and then, at the end of the week, Michael called me.
He explained that the day after Michelle had emailed me, she drove home from a conference. She was excited about new classroom exercises she was going to implement. She was eagerly anticipating the positive effects she was going to see in her students’ lives. She had also told Michael about our emails and her excitement in reconstructing our friendship.
That day, on March 22nd, while driving home, Michelle was rear-ended by a dump truck; her entire car collapsed around her as the truck crushed her vehicle. Instantly, my former best friend died.
Michelle was one of the only English majors with whom I built a strong friendship. She pulled me into the department and helped me feel like I belonged. For those of you who know me, my weird sense of humor and unique approach at life can be rather humorous. It also causes me to stand on the periphery of the world and watch. Social awkwardness means that making friends is difficult. I am constantly saying the wrong thing which means that I’m constantly apologizing. It’s easier just to hide.
Michelle accepted me for who I was and gave me the courage and strength to be myself. She drew me out of my nautilus shell and encouraged me to share my poetry. Through her, I participated in department events, met professional writers, and gained the confidence that had been absent for most of my life.
This speech is dedicated to the memory of Michelle Simone Barlow, a fantastic teacher who loved her students, her husband, her two children. This speech is dedicated to a person who edited my masters’ thesis, loved my poetry, and gave me a voice. This speech is dedicated to a beloved but missing puzzle piece.
I challenge you to be like Michelle. To think of others first. To be the jigsaw puzzle piece that will pull in others and give them a sense of home, a friendship that transcends time and outlives death. She is the ultimate symbol of the fact that, regardless of who we are and what separate us, something pulls us together. I was the odd one out in the Longwood English Department. But Michelle was my link to a group of people who were strangers but became my friends because of her.
Seniors, I pray that your future is filled with joy. I pray that your futures are saturated with accomplished dreams. I pray that your jigsaw puzzle pieces will continue to match one another’s as they have in the last four years, even as you match your pieces to new people and make new friends. I pray that you will have a Michelle in your lives. I pray that you will be a Michelle to someone else.
Life’s jigsaw puzzle can terrifying when looking at a pile of pieces that seem random and broken. But with patience, compassion, and time, you will accomplish great things. You can be the force to make great change in the world. Do not forget that. And, if anything, never forget “Love you. Mean it.”