This would have been my dear friend’s 33rd birthday. But she never lived to see 18.
Her name was Kirsten. We met in 9th grade math class. We started smiling at each other before either of us were brave enough to speak a word, and from the first hello we were friends. She was tall, lanky, wore her long brown hair in two swirled buns at the side of her head, and dressed a little bit like Janis Joplin in flowing, mismatched layers from the thrift store. She had a deep, throaty voice that somehow would rise above the din of a high school class.
She was a poet. She played viola. She loved the Beatles, Tracey Chapman, and the Mammas and the Pappas. She loved animals, and like me she became a vegetarian at 10 but unlike me she stuck with it. She spoke her truth even if it made others feel uncomfortable. She would come at you in a flurry of skinny arms and legs and wrap you in the biggest hug you’d ever experienced, pressing her warm cheek into yours.
She was special.
My favorite memories of her were from our time at her family’s cabin, outside of Bemidji, MN. Minnesotans usually visit cabins during the summer, but for some reason I only went with her during the wintertime. We gathered water through a small hole in the frozen lake, gathered pieces of birch bark on which to write poems and letters. We marched through the silent, snowy woods on snowshoes, singing songs and laughing.
I walked beside her after her father died when she was only 16. Her family mourned with a three-day vigil in their home. Their anthroposophic beliefs taught that the soul left the body slowly, over a three-day period. He was not embalmed. His wife, Kirsten’s mother, with the help of her dearest friends washed the body and kept him in a wooden coffin on dry ice, which smoked slightly in the summer humidity.
I came to the vigil gripping a container of tabbouleh to share with other mourners. I held my friend’s hand as she saw her father for the first time since his death. He looked as if he was taking a very relaxing nap. We burned incense and listened to music. I didn’t know then what it was like to lose a parent, but it seemed profoundly wrong that this brilliant, sunny individual should plunge into a world of pain. But she was a survivor. She became even more creative and productive after his death, filling her journals with poems and pictures that helped her process her loss. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was modeling for me how to grieve. In only a year and some months, I too would learn what it was like to lose someone I loved.
She died at 17, on a two lane road in upstate New York. The car she was driving hit a patch of ice, and slid in front of a semi trailer. She died instantly, along with her best friend since childhood. Her lovely mother was gravely injured in the crash, but her body recovered after many weeks in the hospital.
When she died, I was at a Thanksgiving family gathering in Virginia. The night of the accident I dreamed that she and her mother got into a small car and drove away. I fell to my knees, devastated I never had the chance to say goodbye. It was 1996, before everyone was connected by the Internet, so I didn’t find out that she had passed away for a few days.
Her death gutted me. At an age of adolescent invincibility, I learned how life can be snatched from you in a terrible instant. I felt estranged from those that I loved and struggled to find meaning in the unimaginable, unexplainable. Like Kirsten, I filled notebooks with poems. It helped.
There are moments when life changes fundamentally, and that cold day in November, 1996 inexorably altered me. I grew greatly from her friendship while she was alive, but it was her death that altered the course of my life. In only a few short years, while I was still a teenager I had a part-time job holding the hands of women who were losing their pregnancies. From that point on, my work has been the service of those who are experiencing, or have experienced loss. And I needed to know loss in order to serve others experiencing loss. Losing my beloved friend was the first step in meeting my destiny.
I wish Kirsten was still alive. The world would be a better place for it. Yet on this birthday, I am both grateful for the gifts of her life and the gifts of her death.