Every year, on May 1st, my 17-year old self shows up. She sits me down and starts asking me questions.
“Lori, you know what today is, right?”
Of course I do. How could I not remember? It’s the day my best friend, Brenda Jean Florian, died of cancer. We were juniors in high school.
“Well, you know what she requested of you, right?”
Yep. I remember. In the weeks prior to her death, Brenda understandably felt cheated of some of the Fun Things from Life. She would never marry. She would not have children. She wouldn’t be able to “Do all the things.”
She felt sad about that. So she made me promise her that I’d enter into my life in such a way that would be enough for both of us.
“So, how are you doing with that, Lori?”
Hmm. Great question. How am I doing with that? My mind flitters to the worldly sense of success. Have I made a mark in the world? Has that mark been big enough for two?
My 17-year old self shakes her head and says, “Girl, you are old enough to know that it’s not about that.”
I smile. Of course it’s not about that. But wow, it’s funny how that’s the First Place I Go. And I cling to this idea, even as I know it’s wrong.
“Okay, Bird, I'm gonna give you some help today. Let’s take a walk down Memory Lane.”
Wow. No one has called me by my high school nickname since, well, high school.
“Think back. Give me some of our favorite memories of Brenda.”
“Hmmm…okay, I used to love being at her house because we always made toast with peanut butter and honey. I had never had that taste combination before and it was awesome. I think every time I was over there, at some point, we’d have some toast with peanut butter and honey.”
“Great. What else do you remember?”
“When we were probably around 14 years old, we would go up into one of her siblings’ rooms and listen to their music.”
“What kind of music?”
“Oh my. Well, it was all on vinyl. We’d play ‘I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes,’ ‘Billy, Don’t Be A Hero,’ ‘The Night Chicago Died.’”
I can see us on her brother’s bedroom floor, playing the records over and over, memorizing the lyrics. “My daddy was a cop on the east side of Chicago. Back in the U.S.A. back in the bad old days.”
“How did you feel as you listened to the music?”
“It felt like we were discovering something almost sacred and gaining some coolness, I guess. Whenever I hear those songs, I am instantly brought back to that time.”
“Beautiful. Now what else do you remember?”
“We used to grill the best hamburgers in her backyard. Actually, her brother Brian would help set it up and sometimes Brenda would grill a little, but I mostly remember Brian doing the grilling. He always added some special spices, I am not sure if it was onion powder, or garlic salt, but he added some magic to those burgers.”
I smiled as I remembered how one or two added ingredients created the Wow Factor.
It didn’t hurt that I also had a little crush on Brian.
My younger self grins like a banshee. Of course she remembers that! She then prods, “Any other memories that come floating up?”
“Well, I do have an odd memory. I used to love being around the Florians because of the feeling of family I felt there. I remember Doris lovingly clipping her daughters’ toenails. It was such a simple act, really. She just did it in such a kind, gentle way.”
“Yeah, I remember that, too. Interesting. Okay, so, when Brenda got the cancer and had her leg amputated, what do you recall about those days?”
“Well, again, the familiar feeling of family. Her mom was always there, along with her siblings, Alan, Arlene, Brian and Missy. Knowing the intensity of everything, they showed up in big and little ways. It was gorgeous to be included in their lives."
"How was it when Brenda went back to school after having her leg amputated?"
"Oh my. Well, I didn’t want to treat her any differently, so once, when we were in school sitting in the commons area around a big table, I knew that her temporary prosthetic leg was attached with a big screw….so I simply unscrewed it. Yep, I detached her leg. I thought it was pretty funny.”
“How did she react?”
“Well, Brenda knew how to give as good as she got; when we were in the hallway in high school, she would sometimes trip on her prosthetic leg and fall. She began telling others that I pushed her.”
“What else do you remember about that time, maybe something less violent?”
“Ha. Well, we always wrote notes back and forth to each other, which was fun. And...wow, probably the best day was when she told me she was sad that she couldn’t drive a stick shift anymore.”
“Why was that the best day?”
“I told her we were going to drive one together.”
I smile at the memory. As you know, you need two feet to drive a stick. So she sat in the driver’s seat and threw her right leg over to my lap. I snaked my left leg under hers and I worked the gas pedal.
Two people. Driving a stick shift. It sounds so easy, doesn’t it?
We drove around Wilber, Nebraska, doing “the loop” from the Grocery store down to the Co-Op. Over and Over. We killed the car one zillion times, especially shifting around the corner/going up the slope on the grocery store.
We laughed and laughed.
My 17-year old self interrupts my thoughts, “So, let’s look at the end of her life. Any good remembrances there?”
“Well, we used to grab beer from her mom’s fridge and sit on her front porch and talk about anything and everything. We speculated about eternity. We wondered if she would be reunited with her dad, who had died from liver disease seven years before her. Those conversations were pretty intense, but I think the beer helped.”
My younger self reminds me that I had put our dad in a tough spot; I guess two 17-year old girls drinking beer in the middle of the afternoon on the Florian’s front porch wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. People saw us and reported us to the administration of our high school. My dad was on the school board. Bless, knowing Brenda was dying, they decided to turn a blind eye. I think they understood something much bigger was happening.
“Why do you think Brenda wanted you to be around so much?”
“Well, that’s easy. She told me that everyone who visited her acted like she was going to keel over any second. She hated how awkward it was.”
“And when you were around her?”
“Well, I just tried to make her laugh.”
“And she liked that?”
“Yeah, she told me she loved when I walked into her house, all loud and spazzy. She forgot that she was dying because I made her laugh. She told me that I brought the energy up in the room.”
“Okay, Lori, so let’s go back to the original question. Brenda wanted you to enter into life in a big way, big enough for both of you. Yet when you look at Brenda’s life, what memories stand out?”
They float through my mind. Eating peanut butter and honey toast. Enjoying hamburgers. Listening to music together. Being in a family setting. Creating silly memories. Making each other laugh. Talking about the real. Relaxing with a beer.
My 17-year old self looks at me and says, “Brenda understood. It was the little things that were important. Writing a note to a friend. Reaching out when someone was hurting. Being there. She knew that many adults around her sort of flat-lined their way through life, consumed with worry and anxiety and bills. She challenged you to think beyond that. So my question, dear girl, are you engaging in life? Are you making others laugh? Are you talking about the eternal?”
It cannot be that easy.
My 17-year old self looks me straight into our brown eyes and says, “Lori, it’s not about doing something big and jazzy ‘out there.’ It truly is not. It's about what happens in those intimate moments. For example, while you were playing that fast-paced card game with your two sons this week, what happened?”
I laughed and said, “Well, David got a little excited and knocked his coffee all over the table.”
“Was it a mess?”
“Oh my, yes. It was terrible.”
“And how did you react?”
“Lori, that’s all that’s needed. Just laugh. You threw those cards away, you cleaned up the mess and made a memory in the process.”
That seems like such a little thing.
“Yep, life is made up of a lot of little things. Stop chasing the big and flashy. To live life well is right in front of you.”
Brenda keeps giving me gifts.
Friends, it’s so easy to get off track. It’s so easy to forget what 's important.
It’s about holding your baby and inhaling the scent of innocence. It’s about sending your husband one of those texts. It’s about giving your teen a lot of room for failure. It’s about mercy. It’s about forgiving yourself when you lose your mind. It’s about asking for forgiveness.
And it’s about laughing.
You and I don’t have forever on this planet. Let’s make the most of it, shall we?
Love. It’s enough.
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