I watched Love Happens today, with Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart. It took me long enough to see it, but I was avoiding it. At first I thought it was a romantic comedy, but when I found out it was about an Author/Speaker whose niche was grief, I decided to pass. Apparently it didn’t do very well in the box office, probably because of the reason why I didn’t want to see it. Who wants to be reminded of the grief we’re suppressing? But I thought it was a really good film. To me a good film makes you feel something, perhaps reflect on your own life.
So I’m reflecting on a subject that I suppress everyday. I’ve talked about it before. I’ve used reason and logic to let myself off the hook, but it’s never worked. I’ve never gotten rid of the guilt and I doubt I ever will. I can logically say, “It was not my fault,” but when you’re 14, and make a decision that it was your fault, perhaps it gets wired into your brain differently than a rationally thinking adult.
I had the starring role in my school play. The play was one weekend only, and happened to fall on the weekend that my best friend spent with her father. At the time she was my only friend whose parents were divorced. So she spent every other weekend with her dad. Being my best friend, my play was a big deal for her. She switched weekends so she could make it.
Instead of being with her dad the weekend of my play, she went to be with him the weekend before. That weekend, as her dad was driving her brother, her friend, and my best friend, somewhere I’ll never know, the car went over a cliff. She had been in the back seat without a seat belt and flew through the windshield. She was the only one killed.
I was in shock when I got the news, so much so, that I called everyone to tell them as if I were calling to tell them I got an A on a French test. Friends called my mom with concern for how I was handling it. My mom said with pride that I was fine, that I was strong. I don’t know how strong I was, just because I didn’t cry didn’t mean I wasn’t strong. I certainly wasn’t fine. A hug would have probably helped, maybe someone talking to me about death, and grief. But there was no need for that because I was ‘strong.’
It didn’t take me long to decide it was my fault, after all, she wasn’t supposed to be with her dad that weekend. She changed her schedule because of me. Because of me. I know it was her choice, I know, I know, I know all the logical arguments, but guess what? They don’t make me feel any better!
I still think of her every day. It’s been over twenty years, that’s longer than she was alive. I remember the birthday when it had been 15 years, a year longer than she lived. I wonder, if my best friend were alive, who would she be now? A wife and mom? What job would she have wound up in? What would she look like now? Where would she live?
All I have is a picture in it’s original 1980’s frame with her huge grin and perfectly winged-back hair… and she’s stuck like that forever. Whenever I drop my keys as I walk to the car I thank her, out loud, because I believe that she pushed them out of my hand to postpone my journey for 4 seconds and those 4 seconds were the difference between a safe journey and tragedy. But it’s still the 14-year-old face that I speak to. I talk to her as if she were my age, and like she gets my problems, well I talk to her ‘in my head’ not out loud. But she answers me in the voice that I remember. I wonder if her voice would have changed as she got older.
At least she answers me. She’s not mad at me, she doesn’t blame me, and I know that somewhere it hurts her that I still blame myself, but she sticks by me… if only as a figment of my imagination. I wonder if there’s a heaven and I go there when I’m 92 if she’ll still be 14. That freaks me out. My heart hurts writing about her. The movie triggered this… this reminder of guilt that can still make me sick to my stomach and cry.
It’s strange how the feelings don’t change as I get older. I don’t dwell on them so I’m not experiencing them on a regular basis, but like now, writing about her, I just don’t understand how the feelings can feel so fresh. Maybe because I’m not as strong as I used to be. Maybe because I didn’t feel them back when I was 14 because I thought it would mean I was weak. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral, because it was raining, and my mom didn’t want me on the roads (irony at its worst). Maybe it’s because not going to the funeral made it so it wasn’t truly real for me, I didn’t see it so I didn’t have to believe it. I actually went through a phase where after a dream I had about her, which I took as a “message” I was convinced for 3 years that she was in the witness protection program. This idea, encouraged by the cover model on a Seventeen Magazine cover I saw 2 years later, who I was convinced was her. In fact I still see women I think could be her. In fact I think a part of me still wants to believe she’s in the witness protection program. A part of me still wants to believe it wasn’t my fault, but I suppose I’ll never believe that and I’ll just go on wondering what she’d be doing now, with every milestone I hit, and every celebration she misses, and every success she’ll never share with me, I’ll keep wondering how it would be different if she was still alive..
In loving memory of JR