I have experienced loss before. And to me it feels just as Lemony Snicket describes: “It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
This is the part where I fall apart. When words fail me. When my awkward hugs and condolences no longer convey what I mean to say. When I return to my shell to live my inward life alone where I am invulnerable- where I am rubber and the pain bounces off me and onto you and I can look strong- feel inconquerable, laugh and reassure myself that I am water proof.
But I am not. Though the tears have trickled to a stop, the pain pools in a hollow in my heart, deep and still. There are some things you cannot fix. There are things you cannot hide from.
It has only been weeks since I looked out my window and saw John and Naomi playing with their kids at the park. Only weeks since we stopped by after our ski trip and talked in their kitchen while they prepared dinner together. Only weeks since we talked about vacations we wanted to take together. We chatted in the driveway like we’ve done a million times before- regardless of the cold- he told me my daughter was “Cheeky” and I grinned and told him that was the perfect word to describe her.
Only weeks ago I woke up to the police officer knocking on my door- one horribly beautiful morning frozen silent. This cannot happen. This cannot happen to people that I love.
How can I tell them now- how their friendship changed me? How I was only twenty-four when we moved in next door, married a little over three years with a toddler and no friends or family within 700 miles. I don’t know whether I was born shy or if my dysfunctional childhood caused my “I am an island” approach to relationships. Prone to depression, prone to cynicism. Prone to loneliness because I rarely allowed myself the luxury of vulnerability required to build lasting friendships. I bailed at the first sign of real emotion. I jumped if someone touched me. I smiled awkwardly and told myself to act normal when inside I writhed with the constant thought- the ever present fear of being weird and unlovable.
When John knocked on our door and introduced himself wearing his big smile and black-rimmed glasses, he was met with my guarded “hello”. When Naomi and John first invited us over for dinner we laughed over Seinfeld, went home and stayed there for months because I really liked them and I didn’t want to blow our positive first impression with too much interaction. But John was persistent in including and befriending us. John won over Andy with basketball and movie-lines. I knew Naomi and I would be friends the moment she mentioned her affinty for books and Tim Burton films. Our children (all the same ages) became best friends. Playgroups, Book Clubs, Soccer, Joy Schools, Game Nights, BBQs, Vacations, Basketball games, 4th of July Breakfasts, Fireworks, Camp-outs, Parties, the Zombie 5K. When Andy’s brother passed away John and Naomi were the first people we turned to. When one of our kids was sick and needed a blessing, when we needed a last-minute babysitter, someone to feed our cat, a free Friday night- it was always John and Naomi. Andy and John served in church callings together- Elder’s Quorum, Young Men’s, Primary. John could get Andy to agree to early-morning service projects like no one else could. After all, how do you say no to a man as enthusiastic in his selflessness as John Coons?
I don’t know the exact moment I started to think of John and Naomi as family- but I remember it occurring to me a few years back when we were sprawled across the grass at Murry Park watching the 4th of July fireworks- our yearly tradition- my older girls cuddled next to them, their youngest daughter cuddled with us. This friendship is for real. I don’t know which of our thousands of humor-laced conversations lead me to believe I didn’t have to hide behind my shyness anymore. I don’t remember the minute the Coons family became so dear to me that I swore we would never move until they did.
John- who ran laps around me- shouting encouragement as I trained for the 5K (yes, I had to train for a 5K), who asked about and encouraged me to write my zombie romance novel- suggesting I add La Chupacabra as a main character. John- who made a habit of scaring me on purpose, starting fights with me during Settlers of Catan (nick-named Catanger) by accusing me of cheating at every game (which I would totally never do…), starting random sarcastic conversation that I wasn’t always entirely sure was sarcastic. He took our kids sledding. He helped us install our wood floors. Our kids hand-prints are forever embedded in the concrete he poured last fall for the basketball court he always wanted. Loving, inclusive, shameless, happy, quirky, hilarious, selfless, awesome John.
When we moved in eight years ago we did not understand the meaning of “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. Eight years ago I did not believe I could overcome the past and become the person I wanted to be. Eight years ago I was an island. Now I am surrounded by love. And ghosts.
There is no describing the desperate helplessness of watching my beloved Naomi bury her best friend. And she was his. They are each others. And I cannot fix this. I cannot hide from this. I am not rubber. I am glue. And all the loss and guilt, fear, faith, love, and overwhelming sadness adhere to me. I am sewn to this. My heart knit to John and Naomi and their children. My heart shattered again and knit to Bryan and Katie and their children. I cannot fix this, but I can allow this to fix me. Make me better than I was before. Life is pain. Painful to live. Painful to lose. Painful to grow better. Painful to stay the same. There is only one choice for me.
When I look out my window I still see John and Naomi playing with their kids at the park. I still see him in his beanie, taking our trash-cans to the curb. I still hear him enthusiastically rallying our little soccer team, teasing Naomi and the children, bearing his testimony in church. And though its hard to see and hear with my heart flooded, I can catch distant glimpses of distorted light and happiness- a future day when this will be OK. I do believe in God. I do believe we will live again. Every feeling and instinct I have rejects the idea of permanent separation. This inexplicable desire to sacrifice myself for the good of another cannot be explained or proven. There is so much more to this story.
This is the part where I stand up again, broken and changed but better. More compassionate, more focused, softer, braver, stronger. More appreciative of the bittersweet gift of life. More capable of being a real friend. Even if I fall apart again a hundred times, knowing the grief will always mark me, I am still here. This pain has carved out a greater accommodation for joy. I feel the breath in my lungs more poignantly. Music is more moving. Holding hands more meaningful. My neighbor isn’t just my neighbor. My neighbor is my brother, my sister. My neighbors are my best friends.
God be with you my brothers, John and Bryan.
God be with Naomi and Katie.
I love you.