You never liked to tell your middle name. Love, like a dirty word, like something hippies say, casual and meaningless. I never liked to tell mine either: Garnet, a family name, red-stone ridiculous. We both wanted something normal, like Lynn, Michelle, or Jennifer.
Normal is what we never had. We met because our younger brothers both have autism, and our wise mothers thought it would be good for us to know each other. I remember how hard it was to make eye contact with you that first afternoon. Once I did, though, we were inseparable.
You were the first person who understood what it was like to have a sibling with special needs. It was such a relief to not have to try to pass things off as ‘normal’ around you. I could invite you to my house, knowing that my brother Willie would be playing “Under the Sea” on repeat, singing along while typing out the long list of The Little Mermaid film credits from memory. And you’d smile without batting an eyelash, because you had Johnny, and you knew how it was.
We had interlocking yin-and-yang necklaces, a self-published newspaper, and a standing phone date. “Seven o’clock, on the dot. If you don’t call me, I’ll call you!” That was our mantra. I wonder which one of us stopped calling first. I think it was you, around the time you started experimenting with drugs. But I think I took off my necklace first, around the time I started trying harder to ‘fit in.’
It’s strange, the way memory works. Here I am, forgetting the how and why of the distance that grew between us, but remembering the tiniest details of our friendship.
For example, I remember these Chinese meditation balls that rested in a red velvet case in the small study where we worked on our newspaper. They were weighty, with yin and yang detailing, and I can still feel their exact heaviness in my hands. We used to each hold one as we worked on our newspaper, The Whippany News. You did the cartoons and layout, and I did the copy.
You had so many gifts and talents; iconoclasm, fierce stubbornness, and artistic skill. These things didn’t translate well to most classrooms. And you were cautious about sharing your abilities; people had to earn your trust first. You used to pass me sketches and comics in class; you’d draw when we were supposed to be conjugating French verbs. Those little scraps of paper made dull hours come alive.
Your friendship showed me that, when we judge people based on what they wear and how well they conform to one set of social norms, we’re the ones that miss out. We miss out on compassion. We miss out on true friendships. And we miss out on ourselves, on the people we would become.
Even when I was a crazily self-conscious teenager, desperate to ‘fit in,’ there was a part of me that never got sucked into the popularity trap. That part of me walked door to door with you, selling our paper for 25 cents (50 cents for special editions).
How did we do it, when we were both as shy and introverted as they come?
We could manage because we always went together.
The last time I saw you living was just before high school graduation. It was awkward and unremarkable, except that I felt old love shine beneath the surface of whatever casual words we spoke. It was the kind of conversation wherein we had to ignore the dialogue to understand what was being said.
In the end you walked away from me, up a ramp to rehab or elsewhere. And I stood staring after, knowing and not knowing, speechless for your sake.
This summer, it will be seven years since the funeral, seven years since we lost you to a heroin overdose. Then as now, it seems both unbearable and unreal.
On that dark day, I kept expecting to see you sneak in late, because you couldn’t be gone. I kept looking for you, for that timid wave / head-duck combo I knew so well.
That move carried over, you know, when you changed from girl to Goth-rock rebel. It was one of those little things that clued me in to the fact that, platform boots and heavy makeup and all, there was still a shy Holly with freckles underneath. You dressed to stand out and I dressed to fit in, but both of us were putting on a show for other people. I see that now. And I don’t want to do that anymore.
So I’m thinking about doing something crazy and attending this Carry On, Warrior book signing in Nashville. You know how I am, practical and frugal and I’d-rather-just-stay-home-with-a-book. It’s a four-hour round trip, so I keep thinking I can’t justify it, even though I really want to be there.
But then, traveling isn’t the issue, not when I close my eyes and listen in to what’s really going on. The fact is, I’m scared to go alone. I’m scared of getting lost, of crying my eyes out in a room of unfamiliar faces. (Both are very real possibilities.)
But now, writing this, I realize: I won’t be going by myself. You’ll be there in spirit.
I know this because, well, you would like Glennon. You’d like that she tells it like it is, that she understands about addiction. (And the fact that she’s been known to wear a red lace tutu is a definite plus.) But most of all, I know you’ll be at that signing because of this post. Because of these words, the ones that seemed to come through in your voice.
Please, please forgive me for being the lightning rod that I was. Celebrate my life and my freedom when you can. And YOU. Celebrate YOUR freedom now. You are free. Live your life. Lay mine down. It’s too heavy. You are still my Lobster, forever, and so you need to keep living.
What helps me to live into these words is the hope that I’ll see you again. You weren’t sure what to think about the whole ‘Jesus thing’ when last we spoke, but you’d always listen when I’d talk about Him … which is immensely to your credit, because I thought I knew a lot, and really, I knew so little.
You once said that you weren’t a ‘good’ person like me, so God probably wouldn’t be too interested in opening Her doors to you. That day, my ‘theology’ said one thing, and my heart said another. My ‘theology’ told me that you had some hoops to jump through and exact phrases to say before God would welcome you. But my heart said: honey, grace means you’re in. Grace means everybody’s in.
And I would bet my last dollar that you and Jesus are pretty tight now. I would bet everything I have that you are tearing up heaven together. A year after your funeral, I came upon Frederick Buechner’s words, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t be complete without you.” And I thought: Yes. That’s it exactly.
Holly, I hope it’s okay that I just told all these Monkees about you, about our friendship and your middle name. The shy girl I remember would have been hiding in the corner, tossing her wavy hair and saying, I can’t believe you! Caroline! Did you really have to tell them?!?!
To which I can only reply: Yes, my friend, I did have to. I had to tell the truth. Because your middle name … it’s who you are.
It’s what we have left.
And it’s how I remember you.
A brief bio: Caroline McGraw is a would-be childhood paleontologist turned writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. She writes about choosing love, losing fear, and finding home at A Wish Come Clear.