“Fly free and happy, beyond birthdays and across forever, and we’ll meet now and then when we wish, in the midst of the one celebration that never can end.”
— “There’s No Such Place As Far Away”, Richard Bach
Today should have been my friend Jenny’s 38th birthday. It should have been, but it wasn’t. Instead it was the day I realized she will be 37 forever because we lost her last week. I say “lost” because people understand what that means, but it’s not the right word. She’s not lost, I know where she is. There are a lot of different ways to say it, but none of them are enough.
For over a week I have been writing, reading, re-writing, and re-reading this post. Those of you who didn’t know Jenny might feel sympathy for my pain, but you might not really feel the depth of it. I can’t say that nothing was left unsaid between us. There could never have been enough time to say it all.
She often told me that she loved my blogs and my cartoons and said she read them with her kids. Now that she’s gone, I don’t know if they will ever read my words or ask to see me again. Her daughter is a young woman now, working and living on her own in another city. Her son is a teenager, and I don’t really know his dad that well so I don’t know if I’ll ever hear from him again (though I hope I do). I’m just a friend of their mother so they don’t owe me anything, but I hope they both always remember I am here if they need me. The least I can do for them both is take some time to remember my old friend for them, and for myself.
When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Bismarck, ND to Fargo. I already knew someone at my new school, but I worried that I wouldn’t have any friends in my classes. In choir I sat next to a girl named Jenny. She shared my dry, sarcastic sense of humor and stubborn refusal to conform to societal definitions of what was “cool”. Obviously we were instant friends. Nerds of a feather, we used to say.
She invited me to her 16th birthday party, on January 16th. That’s right, her sweet 16 was her golden birthday. I was so happy she invited me, someone she’d only known a couple of months. It was the first time I really felt like I belonged in the new city. She made me feel welcome.
In high school we were pretty much inseparable. There was nothing we couldn’t talk about. We saw through each other’s BS. It’s such a cliche, but she really did know me better than I knew myself. More importantly, she put up with my mood swings and teenaged angst at a time when even my parents probably wanted to punch me in the face most days. I will always owe her for that.
We both loved to sing and could sit together for hours, just singing along with the radio. We enjoyed all different types of music but the best songs were ones with two vocalists. I usually took the melody, not because I was a better singer, just because she loved to harmonize. This was one of our favorites; no matter how many times I’ve heard and sung this song, I had never really felt it’s meaning quite like I do when I hear it now:
Several years ago (before the whole world had Facebook), we discovered a sort of karaoke website and spent the day singing together. That was a great day. We even recorded some videos on her camera so we could always remember. Mind you, this was before smartphones so we actually had to use a handheld camera. Barbaric, right? She always said she was going to put those videos on a DVD for me, but I don’t think she ever did get around to it. Now I guess I will never know.
Of course she wasn’t perfect; no one is. Everyone makes mistakes. I didn’t always agree with her choices or opinions. Sometimes she did or said things that made me want to scream. I’m sure she felt the same way about me sometimes too, but she rarely said so. Yes, we fought about things sometimes. It’s impossible for two people as stubborn as Jenny and me to be friends for 22 years without butting heads now and then. The important thing is that we got over it. We always got over it.
Over the years we lost touch and reconnected several times, as friends often do when their lives change course. Moving away, marriages, kids, career changes, health problems – all these things come along and force you and your relationships to evolve. However, whenever we saw each other it was just as if no time had passed. We didn’t have to see each other every day to know that we were friends. I have no doubt that she knew in her heart exactly how important she was to me.
When we were kids, we watched a lot of movies. Some movies will always remind me of Jenny. She saw the movie Backdraft so many times that she had the whole thing memorized. Because of that movie, she adopted the nickname “Shadow”. One year, she went as “Fire” for Halloween; she made the costume herself. I had forgotten about all of this until a few weeks ago when my husband turned on the TV and Backdraft was on. There are many other movies like this, of course, which will always remind me of Jenny. Wayne’s World, Beaches, Highlander, Flash Gordon, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, just to name a few. She knows why.
She loved music. During the last couple of years, she took great pleasure in going to local concerts. Every time I saw her, she told me of another great new band she had heard for the first time. She had old favorites too, of course. Once in high school, we drove all the way to Bismarck to see Def Leppard in concert, then back again the same night. At one time, she had an almost complete collection of Queen CDs and stored them all in order of release date. But I don’t think any band will ever remind me of Jenny more than Barenaked Ladies. I fell in love with the band my first year in college and introduced her to them immediately. I knew she would appreciate their humor and their sound, and I was right. Her love for their music eventually outstripped even my own. When my kids were little my passion for the band dwindled for a while, but Jenny’s never did. She revived it for me every time they released a new album. “Did you get the new album yet?” She’d say. “Well, why the hell not? It’s great.”
If I had to pick one favorite memory of Jenny, it would have to be the time we drove all the way to St Paul to see Barenaked Ladies. Through some miracle having something to do with Kevin Hearn and MySpace, Jenny had managed to get backstage passes to their concert. It was kind of a long drive, but when someone asks if you want to meet your favorite band, you don’t even think about it. You just say yes. Jenny, her husband, and I (along with about a dozen strangers) waited backstage to meet the band briefly before the concert while the opening act played. I might have geeked out just a little. When Steven Page introduced himself to me, I sort of accidentally shouted “I KNOW WHO YOU ARE” and then I felt like a total ass the whole rest of the time. I tried to explain that it was just the nerves and I’m normally much less terrifying, but it was obvious that he could not wait to move on to the next person in line. I can only imagine what went through his head at that moment. Jenny laughed at my outburst and quickly distracted everyone from my embarrassment by asking Jim if they were ever going to come and play Fargo. We suggested since it was so close to their native Canada, Fargo would be an ideal stop on their way to somewhere more impressive. Jim suggested that perhaps Canada should just swoop down and annex the eastern part of North Dakota, and we said as long as it meant more BNL concerts in Fargo, we would welcome our Canadian overlords with open arms. Ed asked her if she had any special requests for the concert. She asked for When I Fall, which has always been one of my favorites as well. He played it as the second encore, the final song of the night. He didn’t say her name out loud, but we knew it was for her. Jenny said she was glad he didn’t say her name, because then it was like our little secret.
Now that she’s gone, I feel that a link to my past is broken. All those memories we shared, the inside jokes that only we knew, and the secrets we kept between us feel less secure now that only one of us remains to hold onto them. So I guess that means I will have to hold on tighter than ever.