You can’t go through this life without experiencing loss. That is a cold, hard fact. Sooner or later, someone you love will die.
I attended my first funeral when I was four years old. It was for my great grandmother, my B-Mama. I don’t remember much, I just have a few frozen images from that day. Crying adults. A windy, dry, West Texas cemetery. Watching cars pass on the highway while everyone around me wept. I loved my B-Mama, but was far too young to really understand what had happened. Her death didn’t really upset my world.
The first time I remember being really rocked by a loss was when my childhood babysitter passed. Mrs. Irby had kept me for my parents since I was a baby. She was a sweet lady with dyed red hair, a cluttered house, and a passion for growing flowers. I adored her. Her death was unbelievable to me. She was frozen in my young brain, ageless and untouchable. She had been a constant in my life and to have her suddenly gone broke my heart.
I’ve said goodbye to far too many people over the years. I’ve gotten better at letting go of the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one. Most people have been claimed by age or illness. That makes letting go easier. You can can rationalize that sort of death. At least they’re no longer sick or frail or lonely. You can remind yourself that now, in Heaven, they’re free from illness, the trials of old age, and all the other earthly concerns that weigh us down.
There is one death, however, that I still carry grief over. One person who haunts me. One loss that is still a raw wound on my heart.
My friend Katy was amazing. I met her the summer before my senior year of high school. I was poised to become co-editor of the yearbook. She was an incoming staff writer. I was charged with getting her to and from a journalism camp by our advisor.
Katy was infectious. She was silly and kind. She was so much wiser than her years. She was a talented writer and photographer. She had something about her that drew you too her. She made you better simply by being your friend.
By the time I graduated we were as close as sisters. We’d see each other on weekends, going to both high school and college functions with each other. She was my anchor to my old life as I struggled in the overwhelming seas of college. I was her scout, bringing back information about life beyond high school.
The summer before her senior year, she was poised to become the yearbook editor. She was going to follow in my footsteps and soon join me at college. We had it all planned. Then she announced that she was going to a leadership camp in Wyoming for a month. From the first moment, it felt wrong to me. I told myself that I just didn’t want my friend to be gone so far away for so long. But that feeling of unease wouldn’t leave me. I tried several times to convince her to stay home. She left anyway.
On June 26, 1996 Katy died. She and another girl were crossing a river and were swept off their feet. The other girl was quickly rescued. Katy was swept further downstream and found later. She had drowned.
Her death destroyed me. It destroyed everyone who had known her. We were all poised, waiting, knowing that we were watching a person grow who was going to do great things. Having her ripped from the world was unbelievably painful.
I was 18 and totally incapable of dealing with such a painful loss. So I didn’t deal with it. I kept the newspaper clippings about the accident. I kept the police report her mother gave me. I kept her obit and the program from her funeral. I kept them tucked away and didn’t deal with it at all.
Last night, while looking for something, I came across a stack of newspaper clippings, photos, and other odds and ends from the past. I grabbed them and sat down to look through them. And I found all the items about Katy that I had saved. I decided that now, almost 20 years later, that it was time to deal with it. So I sat down with my stack and my computer and started looking up the details from that day.
I instantly found one thing that just wrecked me all over again. It was an article from a 2009 issue of National Geographic written by one of their travel writers (a man who is now one of their editors). He was writing about my Katy. It turns out he was one of her instructors and had been there the day she died. He shared details about that day that I had never heard. And more importantly, he shared memories about that day and about Katy. *
I am not going to lie, I sobbed through my first two readings of his story. And then I felt a little bit of my grief fade. I needed to hear what he said in that article. I just wasn’t ready to hear it until now.
I am still guilty. I will always wish I’d stopped her from going. I will always miss her. But today I’m a little more at peace with things.
Old grief is always the hardest grief to deal with. And the hardest grief to set aside. I haven’t let go of this grief yet. But I think I’m finally starting to heal. I’m trying to find a way to get to the spot she died by the 20 year anniversary. It is at least a two day hike from the nearest bit of civilization and probably beyond my RA riddled body. But I’d still like to try. I’d like to take a plaque or a cross up there and leave it. I’d like people to know that one of the best people I ever knew lost her life in those mountains in that river. I’d like people to take a moment and think of her. She would have liked that.
*If you’d like to read the article, here’s a link. And before you ask, yes, the author is that Andrew McCarthy. http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/2009/08/going-back-in-andrew-mccarthy-text