For Carmen

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I have a list of topics that I’ve meant to write about since last year. Every once in a while I hear them call out to me in my mother’s voice, “Have you done this yet?” And I have to sigh, roll my eyes, and say, “No.”

It’s not that the topics or the writing is a chore. I have this perfectionist mentality that the just-right moment has to arrive when I can sit down and compose from start to finish — because I know if I get started I won’t want to stop. I have the same relationship with popcorn (homemade, not the microwave crap).

Last December, my friend Carmen passed away. I had known her since second grade, maybe even first. She was one of the first friends I made after my family switched churches, but we didn’t go to the same school until high school.

I don’t remember many Sundays from our elementary school years. I suppose middle school was when we became friends — brought together through GA camps, youth group beach trips, and notes passed back and forth on church bulletins or offering envelopes.

She had brown hair and brown eyes, long elegant limbs, and one of those laughs that made you smile just to hear it. She never pretended to be anyone else just to fit in with the popular crowd, and when she became your friend, she would never leave you outside of her circle — something so hard to find in the fickle friendships of adolescence.

There were four of us who grouped together at church — sometimes five if M. showed up. We got matching T-shirts on a church youth group beach trip to Garden City — pastel teal green with a “Hunk Watchers” decal on the back. She had a knack for meeting new guys on any trip we took. While I always stood in the background, terrified and paralyzed to speak to boys I didn’t know, she navigated the waters of flirting like an expert. It didn’t necessarily translate into relationship bliss as an adult. By the end of her twenties, she had had two kids and two divorces, but she still believed in love.

We had fallen out of touch after I graduated from college; she started going to a different church and then moved to a neighboring county while my church attendance slowed to a stop. Then we saw each other at the mall about ten years ago, and while so many things had happened to us in our time apart, getting back in touch never really felt like catching up; it felt like we were back at school after a long weekend.

She told me during that time that she was done with marriage, and one night she admitted that she felt like she had failed to create the best environment for her family.

“You can’t compare yourself like that,” I said. “Look at what you’ve done so far. You’ve got two great kids as a single parent. That’s not easy to do.”

She paused for a split second before saying, “Thanks, Carla,” with a little surprise — as if she didn’t believe anyone thought that of her.

She had started dating an old boyfriend from high school, Steve, and they were together for the next ten years. She and I had not maintained the regular phone calls and visits, but we commented on each other’s Facebook photos and statuses.

Then she had an outpatient procedure done on the day before Thanksgiving last year. She took some medicine before going to bed that night and slipped into a coma before lunch on Thanksgiving. She never woke up.

After a week of refusing to leave her side, Steve conceded to go home and get some rest. He never made it home; he collapsed outside of the hospital from a heart attack and died that night. A week later, Carmen officially passed away.

Her death was surreal — one of those situations that just wasn’t supposed to happen, not after years of passing notes, secrets confided,  giggling in church about boys (and getting in trouble for it), slumber parties, late night car rides on the other side of town.

When my mom first told me that she was in a coma and not likely to wake up, my first thought was a memory from being at her house when we were in eighth, maybe ninth grade. We were sitting in a car parked in the driveway at her house — the car that would be hers when she got her driving permit. The car’s stereo included a cassette player, and she popped in a single of “Let the Music Play” by Shannon. We sat there in this parked car making plans about what we would do when we had the freedom to drive.

We lose touch with our friends and then think posting a comment on Facebook is a sufficient substitute, but it isn’t. When you’re sitting in a church sanctuary watching your friend’s short life pass in front of you on a PowerPoint presentation, you realize you have missed stuff. It’s a hard lesson to learn. I pray you don’t have to learn it the way I did.

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