Clockwise from top:
Wendy, Me, Cathie, Sue Anne
The things we knew at fourteen...
Last night, I received a notification that a girl from high school had accepted my friend invitation on Facebook -- 24 hours after she'd died.
I wasn't surprised that it happened this way. I knew she was dying when I sent the request, hoping that someone in her family would add me to her list of friends so I would know that the end had finally come. I had included a message of encouragement, a promise of prayers. But I knew who would see them. And who wouldn't.
We knew each other, this girl and I, liked each other in that 'friend-in-law' way they talk about on television. Some of my dearest were her dearest, too, so we mattered to one another because we mattered to them.
After I learned of her death, I Googled the obituaries of other classmates, people I had laughed with and ditched with and cheated with on Spanish tests. Most of them I really only knew as kids. Reading about who they were, and who they'd left behind, was like meeting someone new, their faces familiar but older. Their parents' faces, perhaps. But not the faces I remembered.
Childhood friends are the keepers of brief and sacred chapters of our stories. Collectively, they hold stewardship over those years from our lives when everything was 'first.' First day of school, first kiss, first broken heart.
They were there the first time a boy I was certain I was in love with held my hand as we sang Christmas carols down his street. And they were in class the next day when, before the entire concert choir, that boy asked my best friend to the prom. I was at the piano, at the front of the room, and all 110 of them saw the look of shock, and shame, and betrayal on my face. Some knew what to say. Most just left me alone, a mercy, upon reflection. But they own that memory. The pain was mine, the picture, theirs.
I've known the girls in the above photograph since I moved to town in the second grade. All except Cathie, the latecomer, who arrived two years later. We know things about each other that no one in the world knows. Not just secrets, but millions of shared moments that came and went and left flecks of color on our young, clean canvases. We did the damnedest things together, things we would never talk about for fear that both our parents and our kids would overhear and never look at us the same way again.
We always wore dresses to school on Wednesdays, because we stopped at the church on the way home from Robert Frost Elementary to attend Primary. We took piano lessons together, hiding unpracticed music books in our teacher's milk box before ringing the bell, then sneaking back, commando-style, to retrieve them once we'd left her house. We cried with Wendy when her dad died suddenly, all of us too young to understand why or how a parent could just not be there any more. That was the first time I sang at a funeral, and I thought I would collapse under the weight of all that grief.
At times the friends of my youth and I were cruel and horrible, the way children often are when they're learning what it means to be human. Our mothers understood how hard childhood was, that 'innocence' was a two-edged sword, and usually loved us back to center. But they weren't there on the way home from school, when I decided to mimic one friend's walk simply because doing so made another friend laugh. No, I own that terrible mile -- I, and the other three girls on the road.
I watched a boy I'd grown up with and a boy who had tormented me for years beat each other half senseless outside the Junior High gym. I stood there in the crowd, appalled and mesmerized, witnessing my first out-and-out brawl. What no one knew, of course, was that I was silently cheering for my tormentor, as though he would know that I rooted for him and it would be enough to make him leave me alone.
This was also the first time I realized that sometimes boys felt so much free-floating anger that they lashed out brutally and with unchecked fierceness. And that sometimes, when exhaustion and pain finally muted whatever inner voice was crying for justice, they reached out and shook hands, declaring the issue done and forgotten. For reasons that were surely coincidental to everyone but me, the nastiness from the other boy stopped after that fight. I knew my friend wasn't defending me. He had no idea what had been going on for three long years between me and that boy. But somehow, in a fistfight over who-knew-what, my friend had defeated my enemy, and I knew I would love him for it forever.
Late night walks around the block often ended on one front lawn or another, as we talked and shared until the night breeze blew the last of the day's warmth away and we would head down the sidewalk to stand, back to back, in front of the house that was exactly equidistant from both of ours. One, two, three, we would say, then shout 'bye' as we each took off to run home in the dark.
These are images, pages and lines on pages that are held by so few. Kids grow up, and meet other grown-up kids whose childhoods are tucked safely in the memories of still others we will never know. For most of us, the relationship pool expands as spouses, children, extended families, co-workers, neighbors, and fellow parishioners become the company we keep, and will keep for the last many decades of our lives.
But the early years, those first years and years of firsts, are in the unique possession of our childhood friends, so that when one extends an invitation to remain friends even after she has died, the child within us understands, and accepts.