Work in our small office was relaxed as we prepared for the annual company shutdown between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It was my first year with the company, and after a couple of years in the fast-paced retail environment, this seemed far too easy. I embarked on some last-minute shopping after leaving work that day, only to realize that my wallet was missing when I approached the registers at TJ Maxx. I didn’t panic as I recalled my late afternoon coffee run after which I placed my wallet on my desk and not in my purse. I was more aggravated than anything as it meant a return trip the next day to pick up the items I had taken the time to choose. However, it wasn’t worth running back to the office and then back to the store, given the time of day and the traffic situation. Tomorrow was another day.
I got home and my youngest son told me that a woman I hadn’t spoken to in ages had called me and asked me to call her back. It seemed urgent, although I can’t recall exactly what my son said to make me think that. Before starting dinner, I picked up the phone and made the call. Again, I blur on the conversation that transpired, but I do know that I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. She eventually caught on and said something to the effect of, “Oh my god, you don’t know.”
And no, I didn’t.
What she said next I will never forget. A very close friend of mine, someone I had known for almost twenty years and communicated with sometimes several times a day, died earlier that day, quite suddenly. The woman I was speaking with lived across the street from my friend and she just assumed I knew.
But I didn’t. And I couldn’t believe it. In many ways, I still don’t.
Sure, I know Cheryl has passed. I know she’s gone, although I sometimes forget. I forget that I can’t call her or email her, or ask her what’s the latest with her daughters, both of whom she was immensely proud of.
I read books and wonder what she would have thought of them or think about the plans we had to do the walking tour of NYC, taking in all of the landmarks associated with children’s authors and books. Then there was the next African-themed artist-in-residence event at the school she served as the librarian for that she couldn’t wait for me to be attend. I say ‘served’ because it was far more than a job for her; in fact, I’d hazard a guess that she wouldn’t have even called it work because she loved being a librarian at an elementary school so much. She invited me to the school as a guest reader, encouraged me to bring authors from Barnes & Noble (where I worked in community relations for a couple of years) to the school and she built special events around their visits. She had a passion for books, for learning, for adventures and for children in particular.
I watched her over the years, as she went from being a steadfast community volunteer immersed in any number of organizations to a librarian at a private school and then a public elementary school and still, a community volunteer. She thrived in the positions and each school was better for her presence. Libraries were a source of special joy for her and her enthusiasm for book-related projects and programs was completely contagious and one of the deepest bonds we shared.
Cheryl had returned to school to obtain her master’s degree in library science (I believe that’s the correct term) and although the workload was often overwhelming, she also reveled in her new experiences. She absolutely loved all of it, even the hard stuff.
I met Cheryl many years before, never dreaming what a significant role she would play in my life. She had recently moved to town and was determined to start a women’s organization, one which would pick up where a then defunct club had left off. A neighbor invited me to a meeting about the would-be club and I couldn’t imagine wanting to be in something like she was proposing. Women’s Clubs were for, I don’t know. . .older women perhaps? I was all of 27 or so and that seemed like something girls my age (I had no clue I was really grown up at that point) wouldn’t be interested in doing.
But because I said I’d go to a meeting, I did and I kept going because she kept asking and making it seem important that I’d be a part of it. And it was. Although I had been involved in service initiatives throughout my life, this was a turning point and community service became more of a focal point and one in which my family became more involved in as well. (The story of the club’s inception and how I initially got involved is detailed here. P.S. Lest you become worried that the club is not up and running at this point after reading that post, fear not—I’m actually co-president this year and we have some wonderful new energy and members.)
Throughout the years, our friendship grew beyond the scope of what we did in the Litchfield Women’s Club, particularly since we had daughters of similar ages. We also were very involved with our public library in town and were founding members of a Friends organization. We were in book club together and Cheryl often helped with my Girl Scout troop. We walked our dogs together, and emailed back and forth several times a day, sharing family news, commiserating over frustrations or issues we were wrestling with, and giving each other encouragement.
Cheryl was an amazing sounding board, and she was a resource on many things for me as well as a thoughtful friend who I could look to for support when times were tough. She would show up at the door, a funny card or book in hand and more often than not, with chocolate, another shared delight. When I had cancer and had no idea what my ultimate prognosis would be, she invited me to an event many, many months ahead, silently assuring me that I’d be there to use my ticket.
Every now and then we’d hang out and do some sort of craft project, go out for breakfast or coffee, the movies or a casual dinner. Our lives, which were once kid-centric, became freer as our children grew older, and we started doing many of the ‘someday’ things together that were often hard to pin down plans for when we running, running, running to keep up with the activities our families were involved with. We started to make some concrete plans.
Cheryl had some health issues, but none of them seemed overly serious, or at least not life-threatening. She was so on top of her health, always following up with doctor visits, tending to matters that were pressing. She had to bow out of one of the last excursions we planned, to a lovely spot called Pickity Place for a five-course herbal luncheon with my mom and another close friend, when a health issue cropped up. Just a week later though, she was well enough to go to a special Irish Christmas show at a nearby college with my mother and me and to a wonderful dinner out just prior to that. We talked about the upcoming movie release of “Charlotte’s Web” (a book we both loved) and decided to go see it together during her Christmas school vacation. My mom would be up for the week (during my company shutdown) and she would join us.
Cheryl brought me a gift that night, a lovely set of Crabtree and Evelyn hand care products; an exfoliant cream cleanser and thick emollient creams, a perfect match against the winter’s harsh elements. It was a belated birthday gift, and I can still see the two of us giggling at the show when I realized why the cream I applied to my hands as the curtain opened on the stage would not rub in. It was the coarse exfoliant, not a cream, and it would simply not rub in. Ridiculous. That was December 1st.
Twenty days later, Cheryl would be gone. Gone.
This is what I remember. I remember turning to my son as I got off the phone. He had hovered nearby when he heard the tone in my voice and my disbelief. I remember him just holding me as I started to cry and I remember thinking how adult he seemed at that moment at barely fourteen. I remember calling my kids and my mother, all of whom were shocked and tearful. My mother, who was just starting to really know Cheryl, was profoundly upset. I remember my oldest son going to TJ Maxx and picking up the items that were being held there, without being asked.
I remember calling friends, and Cheryl’s husband, a man that I had known as long as I had known Cheryl, although not especially well but had always liked. We had served as library trustees together for a period of time, and their devotion to each other was evident. I emailed the newspaper I write for and let them know that Cheryl had died. Given the impact she had on our own community and community at large in neighboring towns, particularly in the schools she worked at, I figured they would want to write an article about her passing.
I remember wondering if I felt this bad, then how in the world did her husband and daughters feel, her parents, her siblings, and all of her other friends. I lost my father five years before after a valiant battle with cancer, and found that immeasurably painful, even though I knew it was imminent. This, however, came out of left field and I was stunned.
Four days before Christmas. I didn’t get it at all. Each day, I thought about what her family was going through, what it must feel like, although I knew I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the extent of their grief.
Then there was my own grief, and although I wanted to be in the Christmas spirit for my family, my heart just was not in it that year at all. I went through the motions. I smiled. I cooked. I finished up the gift wrapping and distributed presents. Mostly I wondered how we would all get through the next few days and then the wake and funeral.
I have a handful of friends that I exchange gifts with each year, and look forward with great anticipation to putting together something fun and specifically tailored to each person. I had been to Gatlinburg on business for a week earlier in November and had been a part of a big trade show geared toward zoos, museums and aquariums. I met a woman who represented an organization called Global Mamas and she had some of the most wonderful products made by women in Ghana. I bought many items from her, some of which were travel charms made of colorful handmade beads in varying hues and designs. I chose each to suit the personality of the intended recipient and of course, I would not be giving Cheryl hers. I remember feeling this intense need to have it placed in her casket to somehow usher her safely to wherever she might eventually land, and asked at the wake if this could be done. I believe it was.
At Cheryl’s funeral Mass, instead of feeling devastated, a great feeling of calm came over me because I felt that Cheryl somehow was with us still; that she had passed on to somewhere even more wonderful and that her biggest regret (beyond leaving her family) was that she couldn’t share it with all of us. Her sense of adventure, her enthusiasm and her thirst for new experiences would propel her further into the universe, beyond what any of us might comprehend. She wasn’t truly gone.
In a Catholic Mass, there is a tradition of extending a sign of peace to one’s neighbor at the service. Usually, parishioners turn to their immediate counterparts and hug or shake hands and offer a message of peace. Several rows in front of me at the funeral were a group of nuns. One was very tiny and quite old. At the ‘peace’ portion of the Mass, she had no one close by on her left to extend a hand to, so she turned and displayed a mischievous smile to all those behind her and simply put up her two fingers in a peace sign, her smile broadening as she did. I couldn’t help but think what a kick Cheryl would have gotten out of that, and that made me smile, too.
I often write when I’m upset, but when I’m very upset, I find the words don’t often come. It’s too fresh, too hard to write about. Eventually the words came and when they did, they came in a rush, much like the emotions I felt. Generally I’d try to reformat, to clear out the space, give the words some room to breathe, but this time I didn’t. I wanted to remember what I had felt exactly as it felt. The poem, which I simply called “Grief,” can be found here, along with a second poem which I wrote almost a year later. There’s a marked contrast between the two.
I visit Cheryl’s grave. I try to keep up with her daughters, and keep in touch with her husband. I love who her girls have become. I see her incredible curiosity and drive in both of them. I went to the dedication of the outdoor classroom at the last school she served as the librarian at, appreciating that they really got how special Cheryl was and created something lasting and memorable in her name. I spoke at the dedication of a beautiful bush planted at our town’s library in her honor and memory. I remember having a very hard time getting the words out that day.
Sometimes, I clutch a book involuntarily after reading it, thinking what a great discussion we would have had on the subject matter. I see funky little restaurants and various shows that we might have gone to. I see how talented and smart Cheryl’s daughters are; think about how much they must miss their mom and how remarkable she would have found all of the things they are doing with their lives.
There are times when I’m stumbling, not sure of whether I’m up for a challenge and I hear her telling me that I most certainly am. I know she would have been. Five years gone and I still marvel at the impact one person can make.
As I wrote this time last year in remembering Cheryl: