dear maggie: year three
[scene: this morning, on a walk, with her spirit]
did I ever tell you the first thing I noticed about you the day I met you? it was your laugh. we were at that grad school meet-and-greet on one of our first nights in Boone, and I was all in knots because I was having a hard time, feeling pretty lost and confused about where my life was headed. but then I heard your laugh, and it cut through all of that, and I just…relaxed.
I went through the journal I kept the summer that you died. It’s pretty awful in that thing. I was, again, pretty lost and confused. But then there are pages in it that just say “Christ my Comforter” over and over and over. I had no idea what to do without you, in the immediacy of your departure. We had no time to prepare for it, and on top of that, it was such an ugly thing that happened. Asking “why” was never useful, and still is not. God still gets an earful from me from time to time, don’t get me wrong. This is not a peaceful thing all the time; apologize to Him for me, will you? Like Anne Lamott says, “I’ve never thought Job was being unreasonable. Personally, I would like a lot more stuff around here to make sense.”
Is there meaning? Some days, and then others…not yet. I have to really work to find it. Your students are all growing up. They’re getting married and living these beautiful stories. There are so many people around these days who never got to meet you, but they remind me of you in flashes. When Ferrell laughs, when Colleen sings. The way the Claytons and Hansen are there for me make me wonder if you hand-selected them. It’s all nice, and that is not at all lost on me, but you are still not here, which is, well, such a nightmare. I have such good people in my life, a daily cast of characters that is truly incredible – so incredible that I wonder how I got such a good combination. Surely there is an algorithm that’s off somewhere. Don’t tell God.
I think something happened back in January. That’s when we all drove ourselves to watch the guy who did this be sentenced to life in prison. It was something of a day. I still do not want to talk about it, but we had justice. Everyone kept saying things to us like, “oh, well, you can move on now, finally” – it was a cute thought, from the mouths of babes, and a nice idea, to boot. But none of us will ever really move on. It just meant we didn’t need to worry about checking court dockets anymore, and that the person who took you from us was away forever; a nice step, but here we were still left with how to do things now that Inside Edition wasn’t going to call anymore. They were so incessant. I was about to go to Canyon Ranch and toss my phone in the ocean, I mean it.
Anyway, when I left the courthouse and drove back to my life in Greenville, I felt more…open to it. Does that even make sense, Mags? Somewhere along the way, I decided to actually participate in my own life again. I was newly single for the first time since you died because I finally stopped giving my energy to something that wasn’t growing (this is a nice way of saying it; I have been practicing). I did a photoshoot in the snow, which was a thing we equal parts loved and hated, whined about and ran away to the beach because of. And I felt free again in a way that hadn’t been true since, well, you were around.
A stranger sent me a message today and said that she could tell that my pain is still so visceral. This is also what my therapist says, even last week: “It’s like talking to you right after it happened.” The stranger also thanked me for living it out loud, because that it was helpful to her. I think it’s atypical to have such visceral pain this far out coupled with a life that is still so full of happy things. I think it surprises people, in a good way. You know? Like, grief can be a thing that’s just a part of the rest of it. It’s not bad it you never stop missing the person, it just means you loved ‘em that much.
I guess the most annoying part is that we weren’t done yet. Does that happen to you, too? I’m sure Heaven has a lot of activities. Good running trails, at minimum. Just wondering.
I’m still pissed off that you missed the newest Taylor Swift album, and that instead of listening to “Shake It Off” driving through the mountains on the way to Blowing Rock with you, I had to hear it while I crossed the finish line of your first memorial 5K.
I feel how good my life is, I really really do, and it’s very disorienting that I can feel such joy in your absence. It almost feels disrespectful to people like your family members, as they surely feel the loss more deeply than I do. After all, they had to deal with you trying to make bananas foster in a blender once. It’s an unfillable hole that you left, truly. We would have stopped trying a long time ago, but none of us even ever started.
But part of me…part of me wonders if I’d even have the good things at present if it weren’t for you. And I don’t mean that in a cosmic way, like you are up there telling God what to do, though I know you give him every single one of your ideas and suggestions.
What I mean is that you taught me how to be alive.
The world is a hard place. You had such pain in your life. You lost your dad too soon, and yet the few anniversaries of his death, and birthday, and Father’s Days that I spent with you, you weren’t curled up in your bed all day. There were moments, and you allowed yourself to feel the sadness when it came to you, but you were out doing things in his honor for the most part. You still had that huge smile on your face, even though you were hurting – but it was zero parts denial or platitude. It was always real.
My business coach/mostly friend Mei met me for coffee the other morning, and I told her what this week was. And so let me tell you a story. Mei said that before Nate Berkus (like the big deal interior designer with the gold dog staplers at Target) was a big deal, he went on a little vacation to Indonesia with his partner Fernando. And they got caught in that tsunami, and Nate was using one hand to hold onto a tree and the other hand to hold onto Fernando. This is a sad story, I hope that is okay. They held on, and they were so tired, and Nate was pulling Fernando in so he could hold onto the tree, but then another wave came, and Nate felt Fernando let go -- like, so that Nate would be saved. I know. It's a story. So Nate survives, comes home, goes to bed for like, two months. And then Oprah calls, to like, check in. And then he and Oprah become friends, and do friend stuff. I don't know, I wasn't there. And then months later, Oprah has this family on the show, and one of the children in the family had died not long ago from cancer (I told you it was sad, Maggie!), and she brings Nate out to talk to them. And Nate starts talking about how one day, he decided that he needed to channel his grief into celebration. The birthdays and the anniversaries of this and that great thing, they can be overridden by sadness. It's real easy, let me tell ya. So instead, he started using those days to commemorate how great his time with Fernando was. Isn't that fun? It doesn't erase the pain, but it sure helps.
So, when I heard that story, I decided to make a #MaggiesFavoriteThings hashtag and made a whole big list of stuff you liked to do. Sing Taylor Swift in the car, anything with a basketball, go for a run, grind your own peanut butter -- there's like 15 things on the list, and some of them are weird I guess, but hey, you loved them. And let me tell you, like 20 people had Chick'N Minis for breakfast today or spent time at the beach and thought about you, or sent me a picture of a pink sunrise. When the sky is pink, it's always you. Like I wasn't gonna figure that out eventually. And I have had such a sweet day because of it -- people getting your essence, and feeling like you've touched them, even though they never got to meet you. Isn't that the best. I know you are embarrassed and like, covering your face and all that, but I would think by now you'd see that you're worth the dang hype, okay?
When I get up to Heaven, I’m gonna walk up to those gates and be so excite to meet God, in person, finally. After all the talks He and I have had on various porches. I know you have told Him a million stories about me, and He listened and nodded and asked questions like He’d never heard them before. I’ll tell Him that I loved people with every bit of love that He ever loved me with, and He’ll nod and say, “I know.” He will be so proud of me, and also relieved that I am here, because you ask Him incessantly how much longer it’ll be.
We’ll get in his golf cart, and He’ll drop me off at your cloud apartment. The others will be there; your dad, and whoever else has gotten to the party in Heaven, but you will greet me like I’m the only one in the room. We will blow all of the breakers in Heaven and straight-up shut that place down with reunion joy.
But until then, I’ll just…be down here, doing what you taught me. Making people feel at ease when they are standing in the middle of something confusing, or even horrible. Teaching them that whatever they needed to do to get through it, that they were capable of it. Singing in the car on the good days, and knee-deep in sadness on the bad ones. Just being a ride or die.
I still don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but things seem to be going well. I’m getting to help a lot of people and love on a lot of people. I keep getting to find ways to use the crap I’ve been through to impact peoples’ lives in one way or another, like you did, and for that I feel truly lucky.
I gave up Diet Coke this year. It’s so bad for you, Mags, did anyone ever tell you? I’m sure they did, but I’m sure you didn’t listen. The most stubborn friend I ever had. I can see the grin on your face. And damn, that laugh…
I have a dinner to get to. MM with just O (just olives, I gotta translate), then a sunset walk like we used to. I have such good people. Sarah’s bringing the pink Starbs. They sell just the pink ones now, you know? Did you do that? You probably did that.
Talk soon. Same time tomorrow?
the original letter, written the week she died: dear maggie
if you want to learn more about what happened to sweet Maggie, she was murdered. It is very google-able, which I am letting you know because there are verbs in any further explanation that I just do not want to focus on today. You should also note that all of the things you can Google have the man who did it’s face all over them, and that is also not something I want to deal with. He is in jail forever, where he cannot hurt anyone anymore, and I was in the room when that was decided. The sky was pink all morning as I drove to the court house.
if you want to donate to her scholarship fund, or sponsor a runner in her annual 5K, you can contact me or a representative from Newton Conover County Schools.