Mandi looked so young, so vibrant, so awake with possibilities yesterday. When she walked across that stage, I was as proud of her as if she'd been my own daughter. In fact, I often called her my Colorado daughter, and she called me her Maryland mommy. Of course I had complicated emotions wrapped around that central feeling of pride. It occurred to me that I would never see Stephanie cross any stage to accept any diploma -- ever. And I never had.
Stephanie dropped out of high school and opted for a GED instead of a high school diploma. She went to a community college to be trained as a surgical technician. Before she finished that program, she decided to move to Baltimore and pursue a pre-med program at a four-year university. She certainly had the intelligence and the aptitude to be a physician, but she was her own worst enemy. She would fall into depression or agoraphobia. Her anxiety levels would skyrocket and result in her cutting or attempting suicide. She would sometimes end up in a psychiatric ward, going back on the medications that she often chose to just quit. By the time she was 25, I wasn't sure she would ever complete a college degree, but I still had hope. All hope died along with her, of course, on April 3, 2009.
Mandi and I will always have a bond, because she was a part of my life at that moment, when everything changed. She sat next to me in my first class of my first semester in the master's of thanatology program. I'd been drawn to a friendship with her for several reasons. She was quirky and friendly, and she had that goth-rocker look that Stephanie often went for. What we didn't expect was that we would develop a bond over something deeper than a shared class or similarities. We would bond over unexpected, tragic deaths.
Mandi and I were in that class in March when her life took a turn. One night I showed up for class and found her seat empty. At that time, we had not yet exchanged phone numbers, so I assumed she was out sick. Classes were on Tuesday and Thursday nights. She was also absent from the next class meeting.
When she returned the following week, i learned that she had lost her cousin Jake, a young man whom she described as being like a brother to her, to a train accident. His car had been struck by a train car that was being illegally moved at night, without the proper lights and safety signals engaged. His family gathered around him before the decision was made to discontinue life support on March 4, 2009. His parents honored his wish to be an organ donor. (His mother, Judy, has since become an activist for organ donation. She's an incredible woman.)
Our friendship deepened as I offered her support and a shoulder to lean on in her grief. We were both aiming to become grief counselors, so it simply made sense for us to talk freely and openly about her experience of grief in order to both process it and to learn from it, certainly more so than if we had been in - say - a biochemistry program.
So when Stephanie died a month later, the first person I could think to call was ... Mandi. I had recently added her phone numbers to the contacts in my cell phone, so as soon as the detective and deputy left to go retrieve Sean from work, I called Mandi.
For the first few minutes, I just cried. She knew it was me, but she had no idea what had happened. I kept trying to speak, and finally what came out was, "Stephanie's dead!" Mandi got me through those first few minutes, and she got me through telling the news for the first time. I will always be grateful to her for hanging on the phone with me through those awful moments. It further bonded us in a powerful way.
After graduation I finally met her parents. They were lovely people. Down to earth and sweet, just like their daughter. I handed Mandi an envelope. A card and gift card for a bookstore were tucked inside. I hoped she would get herself a good fat novel with it, something non-academic after her many years of hard work, research, and term papers.
I tried to talk to her parents about how Mandi had been there for me when Stephanie died, how she had been the person I had called. I could feel my throat closing up and my eyes welling up with tears. Oh no, I thought, you can't do this here. This is Mandi's day and you WILL NOT detract from it by losing it.
I composed myself and prepared to leave, saying I had to go let my dogs out.
"Oh, wait!" Mandi said. She placed a little gold box in my hand. "This is from my Aunt Judy. You'll love it."
Judy is Jake's mother, and we have become friends through Mandi (and through Facebook). The gift box was tasteful. The kind of box you see in movies, tied with a gold, silk ribbon. A little card with my name on it was taped to the top. I promised Mandi I would open it as soon as I got home, because between the heat, the sun, and my emotions, I was about to collapse.
When I came home, I untied the ribbon and opened the box. It held a silver necklace with a pendant and two charms. On one side of the pendant, it says, "Love Life," and on the other side, it says, "Be Brave." One charm is flowers, and the other is a butterfly. How incredibly appropriate. I was and am so touched by her incredible kindness and generosity. She is one of two incredible women in my life who have both lost sons, while I've lost a daughter. We each began our grieving process in 2009. Such a sad thing bonds us. Such a sad thing is the biggest reason for my friendship with Mandi. But we were all meant to know each other and to be of comfort to each other in the darkest of days.
In addition to being an activist for organ donation, Judy also started the "Take Jake Project," in which people take Jake's photograph all over the world and send back pictures to the project. It helps raise awareness for organ donation, and it is a neat thing for Jake's family. Recently, Jake's photograph went into space on the Shuttle Discovery, on its final mission. You can hear about it at the link below and see my friend Judy on the news story:
I'm awfully proud of the work she does, and I'm even more proud to call her a friend. What a special gift that is!
The pockets of emotions I hit during yesterday's events were like pockets of gas in a mine. The deeper you drill and the further you go, the more likely it is that you'll hit one of those pockets, risking an explosion. Several times during the ceremony, I felt my throat tightening. I felt like I needed to run from my seat beneath the tent. It was in the way I felt, seeing Mandi march across the stage. It was in the way I felt, watching children playing among the shade trees -- one little girl so like Stephanie at that age -- gangly, bespectacled, and a little bossy. it was in the way I felt, knowing that I have many more difficult days ahead before I can walk across the same stage to receive my master's. I should have been crossing the stage with them, but Stephanie died and I became unhinged. Yesterday, it was all I could do to stay in my seat and wait for the end so that I could give Mandi my congratulations and the card. She need not know how close I came to losing it, to weeping openly during the whole thing.
You never know when those pockets are going to explode. As a bereaved parent, you can only know that the pockets are there. You can deal with them, but they will always be lurking, ready to take you by surprise. Fortunately, time teaches you control. You will be able to get a hold on yourself before you "lose it" and appear foolish. You will be able to navigate the pain and place the emphasis where it belongs. You will become tempered by time and practice.
Yesterday a lovely young woman graduated with her master's degree, her sights set on being the person people come to in their grief. I know she will be a huge success because she was already there for me in my grief, two years ago. I wish her nothing but the best, and I plan to follow in her footsteps - soon.
Peace - D