I suppose it is beyond time that I stop putting off writing about this time in my life. My words will pale in comparison, but what happened, shaped me into who I am. What follows is just a fraction of what I can spell out about a friend who made me see life in a whole new light.
The moments in my mind are unforgettable glimpses - the road back home as we wrote what would be my very first song; her last hug; the phone call; the way a room that is filled with so many familiar faces can feel so empty.
One summer, I had the opportunity to work at my church with my friends. I would hardly call it work. We went on trips, played music together and just hung out like life was carefree. My friend, Jessica, was a major part of that group. She's easily the most compassionate person that I have ever known. No one was ever left out with her around. Her unique style and laugh were unmistakeable. She was a classic case of someone who's personality makes them completely irreplaceable in your life.
This particular summer, I had begun trying to write songs of my own and find who I was as a musician. Since she had been a singer for most of her life, Jessica liked to help me work on songs and encourage me to write what I truly felt. It's hard to stay too serious in the writing mode when you are laughing at a rhyme scheme that includes the words "on that shore" and "oh, we're poor". Those first few attempts were pretty ridiculous, but they made me a better person, or at least one who doesn't have to take himself too seriously.
On my birthday, my friends threw me a pretty awesome party. Nothing too fancy, just a few of us hanging out and laughing by the lake. I remember the mood changing when Jessica handed me my birthday card. In her normal fashion, it was painstakingly handmade. She had cut out all these tiny words and placed them all over the front of an orange piece of construction paper. Each word was a defining characteristic of me. It's truly an eye-opening moment when someone knows you better than you do yourself. I still carry the card around with me to this day in my guitar case.
The sad part, in the words of Robert Frost, is that nothing gold can stay. I have often thought that some people reach beyond what they were meant to do on this earth, so their absence is a catalyst for others to stop relying on them and spread their wings. That's how this feels anyway.
We were returning from a trip - singing, laughing, telling stories and creating memories by the second. As we neared home, I put the finishing touches on the lyrics to a song, my first full composition. I remember excitedly playing it for a small group once we arrived. Jessica came over and hugged me and told me how proud she was. Others applauded, but I think I valued her praise the most. That moment felt like the beginning of something great and maybe it was. After that, she got in her car, waved and disappeared on the horizon.
I was physically and emotionally drained from the week-long trip and just wanted to relax. Once I got home, the 'rents were curious of my travels, but I was content to indulge in a few moments of sloth. Those moments were short-lived. The phone interrupted any chance of rest I had. On the other end of the line, my youth minister's voice trembled under the weight of his words. The only ones I remember were "There was an accident and Jessica's in the hospital." My dad immediately sensed my distress and loaded me in the car. Simultaneously, the drive felt like it took forever, but we were there before I could think too much. When we arrived, the waiting room was already half-full of familiar faces, all wearing their unease on their sleeves. No one really said much, just hugged each other and offered up feigned words of encouragement. In moments like that, there is nothing you can say.
Jessica had suffered a severe head trauma and only her brain stem maintained activity. That first night, several of us slept on the floor of the ICU waiting room. I remember holding myself together pretty well until I had a moment to speak with her dad. Given the circumstances that his only daughter lay helplessly clinging to a fraction of life, he could still manage to remind you where Jessica got her compassion from. He placed his hands on my shoulders and tried to reassure me. "No matter what happens, it is meant to happen." What calm from a man who stood to lose more than any of us.
Once Jessica's dad and I had shared some words and some sincere silence, I made my way back down the seemingly endless hallway to the waiting room. Some of our friends were quietly sitting around talking, waiting, reminiscing. My composure was gone. I had to get away and get away fast. I locked the door to the ICU bathroom. As I slid down the wall, I could feel the warm tears fill my eyes. I think I knew right then how this was all going to end.
The thing about our hearts is that they want so badly to control the ebb and flow of our world. For some fleeting moments, we almost feel like we can. We convince ourselves that everything will be alright. If something bad happens, it will undo itself and place our hearts back to rest. Unfortunately, the moments that we can not control - the moments that our hearts break - those are the times where we are made the most complete. Not that we are made to endure awful times, but because in the weakness of losing control, we learn who we really are.
After two weeks of restless nights sleeping on the ICU waiting room floor, Jessica's parents made the difficult decision of taking her off of life support. Every doctor that they consulted had told them the machines that she was on were the only things that were keeping her alive. She would never be that lovable, free-spirited person again.
The night I was allowed in to say goodbye was one of the most difficult nights of my life. She laid there so peaceful and quiet - almost as if she would awake from rest at any moment. Her golden hair resting as a crown on her head. Her every breath ticking on a screen in the corner. As I took my seat next to her, I took hold of her hand. Every second and every breath felt surreal. I was not myself and my selfish heart wanted to believe in none of the passing moments. I wanted her to stay, for everything to go back to the way it was before. Maybe that's why each moment is so precious - there will never be another one like it again, so we should cherish each and every one of them. I sat engulfed in my own silence as the nurses and doctors carried on in their normal fashion. The awareness of my own beating heart, driving forward each moment of my life, was weighing heavy in my throat. Her dainty hand sat in mine as her heartbeat faintly held on. All that I could do was think about what used to be.
A friend of mine - who am I kidding, he's my brother - has a sign that hangs in his kitchen with the Dr. Seuss quote, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." If we could all approach life like that, we would all be happier people.
The next week, we gathered around to say goodbye to Jessica. The wind whipped through the trees as we watched what remained of our friend lowered into the earth. In my own little world, I stood for a while as the crowd dwindled down, reflecting on the whirlwind my life had become. A few weeks ago, none of this would even have been a faint flicker in my mind, but here I stood replaying moments that passed too quickly. That late summer breeze was my reminder that I still had things to accomplish and that no matter what came next, I was to push forward.
The harsh reality of life is sometimes we lose exactly what we need so that we will rise to be better than we were. Somewhere along the way, we become complacent and movement is needed. As much as it breaks our hearts, our walls must come down.
Jessica taught me to love everyone, no matter the cost - something that I am constantly wrestling with. She also taught me that, no matter where you are in life, you can change the world.
Thank you for the lesson. I love you and, one day, I hope we share the dance I promised you when I said goodbye.