(Pardon the length, brevity is not in my nature and this has been bottled far too long.)

 

The Notification

 

I was going to school at Kansas State, but that day had returned to Topeka to visit friends.  I rolled into my parents’ house about 3am on the 18th of October and went in to squeeze my mother’s foot, as was the custom to let them know I was home.  She came to, almost in a panic…Where had I been?  What did I know?  Am I okay?  They had been trying to reach me at school and at any friends that they knew the phone number for (well before the constant access allowed by cell phones).  I was half-baked still.  I knew nothing.  And about what?

Jennifer had died in a car accident that morning…

(Writing this sentence still brings uncontrolled tears to my eyes.)

What???  How?  Wait a minute…How do they know?  How could they know?  Did they even know Jennifer?  She went to High School on the other side of town!  This has to be mistake!  I’m in the wrong house.  I’m high.  It can’t be.  Someone else that they are thinking about!  They heard it wrong!  Jennifer is a common name!  Her last name is a common name!  NO!  Nooo!  No.

Jennifer was killed in a single vehicle accident on the morning of Oct 17, 1988 on her way to school.  She was a very close and dear friend, and if I am being honest, I loved her.  Being a teenager at the time, unable to competently deal with the devastation of the loss, I handled it poorly.  Sure, there was the initial shock.  I didn’t eat for three days.  Sleep was only NyQuil induced.  I went from smoking one or two cigarettes a day to a pack a day overnight.  I cried, and for so long.  I didn’t go back to K-State for at least 3 weeks.  Left alone…Left behind.  I was angry!  Betrayed by God!  My friends either didn’t understand the degree of our connection (and loss) or themselves were poorly equipped to help, or both.  I was numb, present but not functionally aware.  (I remember a girl approaching me at the funeral, throwing her arms around me and saying, “Oh Thad, I am so sorry!”  When she left us, my mom asked who it was and I didn’t know!  Couldn’t remember.  Completely dazed.)  But mostly, I stuffed it down, deep, so that I wouldn’t have to fully bear the loss.  Eventually, it seemed to work.  Life went on.  The holidays.  New school.  New girlfriend, that later became my wife.  Time passed and the daily reminder faded.

 

Fast forward 30 years, this past summer, I have two very vivid dreams…with Jennifer in them.  Why now?  In the first, she was very much present, but in more of a supporting actress role and not the focus of the story.  Could have been any number of people.  A few weeks later…BAMMM!  If it didn’t get my attention the first time, well this one was determined to.  I was laying down with a royal blue, shag afghan over me.  She was snuggled up with me, on top of the afghan, head resting on my leg.  We were talking.  We were close and comfortable and relaxed…and not real.

 

WTF?!?

 

Why now?  What triggered this?  What’s wrong with me?  All unanswered questions, but suddenly Jennifer was back in my thoughts, daily, hourly, all the time.

 

(Some details may be subject to memory fog caused by 30+ years of time…but my therapist thinks that it would be helpful to tell the story.  Problem is…30 years!  Very few of my friends from that time knew Jennifer, and have scattered into varying degrees of ‘lost contact’ status.  People that know me today, well, let’s face facts, it is not normal to be blubbering over something that happened that long ago.  Normal people process, adapt, then restore.  That leaves my still raw, unbelievable grief and the five or so folks that will stumble across this.  PLEASE!  Use this as an example of what not to do when grieving the loss of a loved one.  The process is inescapable.)

 

How We Met

 

Junior Achievement (JA) is an evening program that assembles high school students in a city to create and run a small business, thereby teaching entrepreneurship and business skills.  My parents had purchased a business outside of Topeka and we moved down earlier in the year.  I attended high school just outside of Topeka, KS, which coming from a larger city was a bit of a culture shock.  JA was going to be an opportunity to merge interests in business (my father used to call me Alex P Keaton, from the Family Ties show, if anyone is old enough to remember that gem) and be an opportunity to meet kids from other schools in the Topeka area.  This is where I met Jennifer, in the Fall semester of 1986, above the Wolfe Camera Shop, in downtown Topeka.

I must admit, at first, there was nothing indicating how my life was going to change over the coming months.  Just the faces of 20-25 kids that were all strangers to me.  Being new to the program and the group (many were returning JA’ers), not sure what I was getting into, and seeing that the leader position was, in essence, a popularity contest (with perhaps a bit of merit on the side), I knew that I did not want to run for the President position of the company that we were tasked to form.  However, a function VP, where the adult leaders interviewed and appointed these, seemed like it was going to be my best path.  I secured one of the four or five VP roles.  One of Jennifer’s debate or forensics friends (David, I think was his name) was appointed to one of these roles as well.  This was the connection that allowed us to meet.  At first, Jennifer was just another girl in the room…from a different high school, a couple years younger than me, cute (definitely), blonde, and maybe slightly goofy, but in a fun to be around way.  She loved to talk and laugh, playfully tease and torment, and cause laughter.  At first, my attention was directed at another one of the VP students that had piqued my romantic interest.  Because of this, Jennifer was initially just someone that hung out with David and a lot of noise was always around, talking and laughing.  But Jennifer had an energy about her that drew you in, not only of fun and laughter, but a strong radiance of being genuine, curious, honest, pure (a definite weakness/attraction for me), and positive.  When you talked with her, you could tell she was genuinely interested in you and what was going on.  As the weekly meetings went by, the laughter, fun, and her energy became too irresistible to not notice, and I wanted in.  We began talking during these JA meetings and became friends.  I wanted to be more than that, but the combination of teenage insecurity (mine) and the profession that her parents did not let her date yet, shut those ideas down.

I cannot remember how I got her phone number.  It could have been at the end of the program, as it wound down, to be able to stay in contact.  A fading memory seems to think it was a conversation during JA that was needing to continue and before we were going to meet for JA next week.  We began talking on the phone, and for hours on end.  The beauty of our friendship was that our social circles did not really intersect as much as they just touched at the point of each of us.  She went to a different high school than me, on the other side of town even.  The activities that she was involved with (debate and forensics) were not in my wheelhouse.  JA was our only commonality.  Over the weeks and months, we would be on the phone talking about our dreams, problems, successes, fears, hurts, and insecurities.  We were like each other’s therapists.  Since our social circles did not intersect, we did not have to concern ourselves with who would find out about what we were saying or feeling.  Judgement never crept in, using each other as a sounding board for solutions, and we did not hold back from each other…We were real with our feelings about what was happening in our lives, and could be because it wouldn’t come back and bite us in the ass (accidentally or otherwise).  She had ambition, confidence, determination, and lofty goals.  She said that she wanted to be President…Actually, I think it is more correct to say that she told me that she was going to be the first woman President.  Not only was she confident in this, I believed it too.  We both seriously believed that it would happen.

We were also opposites in the crowds we associated with.  I ran with a group that was a little more deviant and that partied a bit more.  As I would talk through situations and scenarios, Jennifer was able to expertly walk that fine line of purity and goodness, understanding without being condemning.  She would call me on my shit without being accusatory.  She would continue to listen and offer her opinions without being ‘judge-y’.  I am not sure how she pulled it off, but she would disagree with my activities without making me feel lectured to, and I would seriously listen and consider the arguments that she was presenting (must have been her abilities in debate).  And it wasn’t the case of just disapproving and then turning a blind eye!  Some things to this day are still off limits, because she insisted.

Other times our desires to do something (typically, more lawful) were in sync.  We had talked at length about going skydiving.  We decided that we were both fascinated, but scared, of the idea and ultimately talked ourselves into going together once she turned 18.  It was one of those conversations that changed me, but not until after she was gone.  It made me realize that people usually talk about doing something and then time passes with the 'great activity' left perpetually undone.  (I finally jumped in 1994, twice, once for each of us.  In a way, I had to.  To honor her memory, our plans, but mostly to prove that I was not going to fall into the ‘always talking about it’ trap.)  I couldn’t shock her with my deviance, or at least she never let on that it was a shock, all while letting me know her strong opinions on the activities that were not ‘approved’.  She never ran away in disgust…maybe she felt that she could fix me.

Over all those hours of talking, we became very close.  I considered her one of my best friends.  This was an odd dynamic within my existing social circle.  Here is this girl that I talk about when around my ‘regular’ friends, even to the point of declaring her a best friend.  The notion that she had somehow weaseled in and claimed this title from the two or three that felt this label was obviously theirs was…interesting.  It varied from dismissive to challenged, even reaching a point of injuring some of the connections within my ‘regular’ friends group.  I’ll admit, it was self-inflicted and sometimes even unconscious, like when I went to New York City and the only souvenir that I brought back was for her, a teddy bear from the Hard Rock Café.  I couldn’t explain it fully to them, that would require the depth of honesty that I had with Jennifer, and that developed from not having to worry about the ramifications and judgments that typically come with uncensored honesty with each other.  Not only did Jennifer accept me as-is, but she knew more about me and at a deeper level than they did.  Resentment and curiosity were typical anytime I talked about her, but at the same time, these friends could also sense that I was star-struck.

Now, thinking back to those days, I am sure that she too knew that I wanted to become more than friends well before I ever mustered the courage to bring up the subject directly.  Eventually, I did.  Do you want to go out?  On a date?  With me?  Memory gets foggy here.  I have to believe that the invitation was originally rebuffed.  “My parents, my dad, does not let me date yet.”  Was that true?  Was that even the real (or only) reason?  Not sure how I wore her down, or if she presented it to her parents as going out with friends, but eventually we were on.  I cannot remember where we went, or what we did (bowling perhaps).  It was all basically innocent.  I was giddy.  However, the conversation the next night turned darker, to something about her folks and then came the dreaded, “I just want to be friends.”

Devastation.

Oddly, I gave up.  Fine Jennifer.  I get it.  Catch ya on the flip side.

She was insistent that it wasn’t a blow off.  She said that she really did want to continue the relationship.

Whatever.  I know what those words are code for.  It’s over, good bye.  I get it.  You are trying to be nice, spare my feelings.  Thank you.  Fine.

Really!  It is not that way!  I will call you later she insisted.

I didn’t believe her, but whatever.  I wanted off the phone!  To hide my hurt, my rejection, and now my embarrassment.  At least I had tried, but it still hurt.

Two days later she called back…“See, you are not getting rid of me that easily.”  Oh, I was hooked.  Our conversations on the phone resumed, continued for hours on end, picking up right where they had left off.  But in the back of my mind, the door was still open.  It was at this point that I felt like this is the girl that I will marry someday.  I know that is audacious.  It presumes that she would go along with it, and everything that would need to happen just so, would flow as perfectly as it would need to.  (Where is she going to college?  What happens if it is a different school than me?  Was it the parents not allowing to date the real reason, or was she?  What about other guys that she would meet?)  But in my mind, we would figure it out.  You hear stories of couples that meet and just know that this is the person that they will marry.  It could happen…Problem is, the stories you hear are only the success stories.

Our conversations continued through the end of my high school.  Somehow, she had gotten to me, a silver framed poem for graduation, A Mile with Me, by Henry van Dyke.  (I still have it, tucked away in some box that has been moved from house to house to house.  What I don’t have are pictures!  Remember, these are the days before cell phones and selfies.)  I vaguely remember her coming to my graduation party.  She may have brought it during that event, sounds more plausible than mailing it.  As summer continued and plans for college developed (and I got a bit wilder in my escapades), contact dwindled.  When college began, it dwindled more.  I know some of the reason was to preserve my heart.  It was still hers.

Then Oct 17, 1988.  Driving down a gravel road on the way to pick up a friend for school, Jennifer lost control and went into the bar ditch beside the road.  There was a tree.  Unfortunately, due to the angle of the car in the ditch and the position of the tree, instead of starting at the front bumper, contact began at the windshield and peeled back the driver’s side.  She was declared dead 17 minutes later.  The rescue helicopter was in route!  I have pictured the scene in my mind thousands of times…On this side of being late for school, driving a little too fast on a gravel road.  I can envision a bunny or squirrel popping out in front of her.  Swerve to miss.  Control lost.  Life changed.  I remember reading the newspaper the next day and there was the comment that drugs and alcohol were not factors in the accident.  I was so PISSED!  How wrong to even say.  She would never!  But it was standard text.  The writer did not know her.  Normal questions to be answered in an investigation.  But still, so pissed!

When her accident occurred, then the cursed side of the structure of our relationship became so evident.  I felt so completely cut off from her world.  I did not know who to contact or how.  The internet was not available to offer suggestions, ideas, and examples of people that have navigated through it.  I was young and clueless.  I so desperately wanted to call her parents, but would always chicken out at some point while dialing the number.  Their daughter had just been stolen from them, how could this blubbering teenager that they did not know (and maybe met once) be of any comfort or use?  I couldn’t wrap my head around what was happening and where help could be offered to them.  I kick myself for not offering to be a pallbearer and it honestly did not even cross my mind until after the funeral that this could be a way to participate (again, no real experience to draw upon).  I remember wanting to ask for the Hard Rock teddy bear that I had given her, but couldn’t bring myself to even ask a grieving parent for any remaining part of their child.  The detachment was one of the reasons that I just buried the feelings and tried to move on.  Looking back now, this had to (unknowingly at the time) be one of the top reasons for trying to bury it.

 

Today-ish

 

For some unexplained reason, I have felt the draw to return to visit Jennifer’s grave.  So I find myself, exactly 30 years later, in Topeka, KS.  I am not sure what I was expecting to happen, the draw was more concentrated on the journey rather than the destination (my Dad would be so proud).  The weather at home has been very wet, rainy, and at minimum dark and cloudy for the past few weeks.  Here at the grave, the temperature is brisk, but the day is sunny!  I simply stand in the sunshine for hours.  Flowers that I left back in July remain, equally dead.  Heartbreaking.  I lay a blanket over Jennifer’s grave site.  I want to crawl inside the grave myself.  I sit down to read Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, a book about the author’s journey through the grief of suddenly losing her 5-year-old daughter.  It is refreshing to see the author say the exact same thing over and over in the book.  I can too easily relate to that need to repeat, and the burden of those that mistakenly inquire only to hear the same thing again.  The self-consciousness that you feel crazy in this verbal transaction, but the compelling need to repeat anyway.  I finish the book and start another.  It is peaceful, quiet…lonely.

Later, I go to her high school to see if they have any of the old yearbooks.  I am desperate for photos.  Jennifer’s image is blurring in my mind from the passage of time (I have about 95% aphantasia, that prevents my mind's eye from forming visuals).  They do, and I am able to photograph them.  They are black and white, 1980’s layout quality (heavily pixelated), but focus in my mind’s eye has sharpened.  I return to the grave site.  The flowers that I brought today are already withering from lack of water.  I continue to read until near dark.  Say good-bye, hoping that this somehow presents closure, but it doesn’t.  Memories, conversations, laughter, dreams, all surface each day still.  How does healing occur?  The wound does not scar.

Going Forward (with a historical sidebar)

 

Typically, overwhelming feelings will cause me even less sleep.  I can literally feel myself slipping into a darkness, I liken to a black fog.  The components of my turbulence rattle around in my head…at a constant velocity.  Writing usually gets the emotions out of my head, sometimes I can even stumble on an answer through the process.  Sometimes I even post the rantings.  Not sure why, as I don’t publicize the postings, seeking readers.  Just my nuggets, perhaps a prize left for someone to discover on a trip down their internet rabbit hole.  This one has been longer, deeper, and darker than episodes in the past.  At the strong encouragement of a couple friends that I have let into this current drama, I have gone back to see a therapist.  I feel silly walking in to talk about events of so long ago.  I declare that I must be batshit crazy.  As I describe the dumpster fire, I can tell the therapist is stumped.  There are normal paths for grieving, but this?  I tell the story over a couple sessions.  Go through a box of Kleenex.  I need an answer, more importantly a solution.  At least a roadmap.  That is not going to happen.

Verbally, I go forward from the time of the accident.  Looking at my life, Jennifer’s death completely changed my trajectory (and for the better).  Do I feel guilt from this?  In January of 1989, I had recently blown the engine in my car, was sitting in my parents’ house in Topeka, sulking.  Another great friend from the Kansas City area called and wanted me to come up and we would hang out.  Couldn’t.  Felt too sad, had no car available, wasn’t in the mood.  “Horseshit!  I’m coming to get you.”  He came to Topeka and brought me back to KC.  We hung out at his girlfriend’s house and it was here that I met Tammy.  We dated, married, have a family, a pretty awesome life.  None of this would have happened without the accident.  I wouldn’t have been down in the dumps.  I would have been at K-State, another 1.5 hours away from KC.  The round trip to come get me would have been close to 8 hours, if he could have even tracked me down.  Tammy, the woman I adore (Love is not either-or, it is infinite.  Similar to love for your children.  You do not stop loving the first one when the second comes along.), kiddos that I don’t just love, but really like and enjoy being a father to.  Bumps and struggles along the way, sure, but a pretty kick-ass situation.  This silver lining, I try to hide.  I am very reluctant to verbalize it.  If I don’t talk about it, then the connection is not real, but even Tammy has recognized this truism.  I truly believe that there is no way that my life falls into this perfect place without the accident.  WTF?  Is this God’s idea of trying to make up for the accident?  Did Jennifer have to die in order for me to have a kick-ass life?  Nonsense!  I am not that important.  I am okay with that too (not being that important).  Am I looking for a why, where there is none?  These questions of what-if keep rattling around in my head…

During the last therapy session, a writing assignment is given.  Goodie!  I like writing.  Talking about the writing task, the therapist (thinking aloud) focuses on the lack of closure, the relationship lost, and offers the idea of writing the story of what life looks like without the accident.  Ohhh!  I am intrigued.  What could have been?  As I roll this idea around in my head though, I sense that this exercise will go sideways fast.  In my ‘perfect’ (or delusional) scenario, am I doing anything other than swapping Tammy’s name for Jennifer’s?  The kids would be different…would I like them as much (love would be there of course, but liking them)?  Would there be more?  Less?  And then what about the significant number of ways that a non-accident reality could have gone sideways, down a pathway that was not perfect to me?  If I am being honest, while the world would be brighter (and better) with Jennifer alive and in it, there are so many ways that ‘we’ might not be 'we'.  One very narrow path for success and so many other less than ideal, even less than today, outcomes.  Why would I want to do this to myself?  Sure, I could have adjusted to a different path that could have had just an equally awesome outcome (perhaps just delayed a little) as my existing life…things work out.  If there are so many (personal) reasons the alternate reality would be bad for me, why do I keep wondering what-if the accident didn’t happen.  It seems beyond an intellectual curiosity.

I finally settle on the fact that I do not want to go down this path of what-if anymore, as there are too many negative outcomes compared to my perfection scenario, and I do not want to tarnish my memories.  Besides, none of these scenarios can happen, the accident made sure of it.  Why does my heart still break at the realization?

Now What

 

Well, stuffing the emotions down deep has not yielded good outcomes.  Now what can I do?  Can I ever get over it?  Is it even ‘right’ to try to reach that point?  The book that I am currently reading Life After Loss, suggests that in the grief journey, people that reach the other side either reach a point of restoration or transcendence.  Neither is better than the other, not good nor bad, just different (and unique to each grief journey).  Restoration suggests that life is a journey from point A to point B, along a straight line.  Loss and grief occur and knock you off this linear path (visually, placing a large dip along the line).  You grieve, adjust, and continue.  The grief event even changes you during the time in the dip.  As you work through the grief, you emerge on the other side of the grief valley placed in your path, continuing your former personality.  The loss is always there, but after working through it those core personality beliefs and values remain static.

In the transcendence model, the same line of life exists, as does the grief dip or valley.  But the experience changes you, your fundamental personality, your beliefs and values.  At the end, you emerge on the other side with the line continuing, albeit at a slightly higher level (I suppose it could also be at a lower level if negative personality changes occur).  The loss has foundationally changed your personality.

I am willfully trying for the transcendence outcome.  Not because it is better or somehow more noble.  I like the idea that this experience could somehow adjust my beliefs and thinking.  Jennifer was an incredible light and loved her friends (and even people generally) with such force and power.  We are all flawed, I more than most.  People are not my area of expertise.  I truly want this journey to adjust my relationship to people and the world.  The world lost something special with Jennifer’s accident!  While I will never fully be able to brighten the world as she could have, if I can harness a little bit of her within my personality, the world can be a touch bit brighter.  Not to say that this is what she would have wanted, but instead for me to show the world that it was better when she was here.  If I can increase the brightness just a little, then there will always be a tangible reminder that she was here.  Is missed.  Is loved.

Thanks (epilogue)


While my journey towards a tolerable resolution continues, there are those around my that deserve my eternal thanks for support and listening, guiding this moron through these situations not always understanding, but supporting and loving on me far more than I likely deserve.

  • Tammy - My ride or die!  For loving me with all my baggage.  For being patient and understanding.  For realizing that love is not an either-or and being secure with the fact that I love you.  Your wisdom teaches me everyday and your wholesomeness makes me smile equally as often.
  • Brett - From the time you said "Horseshit!  I'm coming to get you", changing my life's path for the better, to today, as you listen to me cry because you knew me the first time it unfolded.
  • Jennifer's Family (Dallas) - For being a sweetheart and gentle with someone that cared for Jennifer when I reached out, even if it took so long.  This could have been a tough conversation to have.  I never wanted to cause more sorrow and pain from asking to join the conversation.  Being gracious to someone so late to the party has been a blessing.
  • Rob - For understanding and being a human before a boss.
  • Everyone else that has had to endure me talking about something that happened so long ago!  Thanks for letting me relive an important and special time from so long ago.  Thanks for dropping the judgement (on my sanity in particular) at the door, even if you want to pick it back up on the way out.

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Tags: Accident, Best Friend, Death, Disenfranchised, Dreams, Friend, Grief, Grieving, Loss, Love, More…Prolonged, Relationships

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