A friend of mine passed away last December. Her name was Anna. I hesitate to call her my friend because I hadn’t spoken with her face to face in well over twenty years, maybe twenty-five, and there were so many other people who were so much closer to her. But there’s a way that you know someone when you went to elementary school together. There are only so many people with you in those grade school class photos – the ones with the library bookcases in the background with the black plaque in front with the moveable white lettering that says Mrs. Williams, Fourth Grade, French Road Elementary School.
The people with whom you went through childhood are afforded a special place in your memory, framed like a picture. For those of us who pretty much stayed put throughout childhood, your whole world can seem like your house and your classroom. As an adult, people come in and out of your expanded world often so you forget what it’s like to be in that crucible of childhood. You may not speak to those childhood friends but there’s a connection there and it can only be created early in your life.
Anna was always a talented actress. I remember she did a voice over commercial and got paid a hundred dollars for it. My fourth grade mind was blown. She wrote a play about drugs and cast me in the role of a doctor informing parents of her daughter’s OD. Yeah, in the fourth grade. As I recall, I criticized the script as bearing too much resemblence to a recent episode of Punky Brewster about peer pressure. Maybe I was jealous. Maybe I was just being a little jerk. Probably a bit of both. I was in Bye Bye Birdie with her in the seventh grade. She played Mama. I remember her getting a really long applause break. She directed Our Town in her senior year of high school. We were going to different high schools at that point but I still went to see it and the friends that I still had in the production.
I didn’t hear anything about her until we were both in our thirties and, even then, it was only through facebook. She had grown up, gotten married, had children. She posted about The Office, wondering if Pam was conflicted giving up art the same way she was about essentially giving up performance. She seemed to be doing fine for a while, though, great even. She was enrolled in school and pursuing a masters. She was getting good grades.
I know all of this because, frankly, she was an over-sharer. I knew more about her days than my closest friends in New York. Hell, I knew more about the health of her children than the co-workers I sat next to every day. It was annoying but if you can’t handle it, stay off of social media.
Then things started taking a turn. I don’t know how or why these things happened because, again, we didn’t really know each other anymore. School couldn’t continue. Her marriage was ending. She was having health problems.
I actually complained about the oversharing to a friend who was also on facebook with her “dude, are you reading these posts? My God.” “Yeah, it’s sad what she’s going through.” I’m ashamed to admit that I was just annoyed.
And then I saw all of the notes on facebook, all of the RIPs.
I honestly never considered that she would die. For everything that she had been through, she was still here to talk about it and share it. Lately, as I go through times that I perceive to be hard, I remind myself of a platitude that actually does help: just focus on the twenty-fours hours you have in front of you. I guess I just thought that she would keep getting her twenty-four hours to keep pushing through.
A few times it occurred to me to write her a note but I never did. I just wanted to say, you’re a smart, talented person, I remember. I thought it would have been too random, too forward. Sometimes you withhold even the nice stuff you have to say to people because it makes you feel so vulnerable. I wanted to remind her of this one thing that I remembered. I can’t do that anymore, so, I’ll tell you.
In the fourth grade, our desks were clustered in groups of four. We were little pods. Two girls, two boys. Matt Alpaugh sat next to me and we bickered a lot. It annoyed Anna. One day she turned to the girl next to her and started saying “it’s working”. “What’s working?” I asked. “Yeah, what’s working?” asked Matt. “It’s working,” she said. She had a grin on her face, too. The grin pissed me off. She did it for weeks (though, I was in the fourth grade, so, it could have been an afternoon). “It’s working.” What’s working? Yeah, what’s working? Matt and I were so annoyed at her saying “it’s working” that it united us against Anna. It was enough to get us to stop fighting. I think I had even figured out the trick. “Are you just saying that so Matt and I won’t fight anymore?” She shrugged. “It’s working.”
Matt and I stopped fighting. Anna figured that out in the fourth grade. I always thought that was so damn smart. She was so damn smart.
When you say you’ll never forget someone, it always sounds so built up. Never forget. Like it’s some force of will or some display of fortitude. But some things are easy never to forget: the people and places and things in your life that came along long before you had any choice in how to live. There are a lot of people I’ll never forget. Anna is one of them.