Part 1: Sand Dollars & Sermons

“Not friends, not enemies — just strangers with some memories”

The church was cold. Outside was a sub-zero Upstate, New York winter day, and the open space inside the church was drafty. I wore the only black dress I own— my dress for chaperoning formal school dances. I had my coat with me, but even though I was shivering I was somehow sweating at the same time, so I wore only a light sweater over the dress.

My family was never a big church family. I vaguely remember attending a few sermons when I was little. But nodding off during a service once a year on Christmas for the first handful of years did not leave me with a great understanding of the ways of church-going. I’m aware now that we sometimes attended the Presbyterian church of my mother’s mother and sometimes the Catholic church of my father’s mother, but, quite honestly, back then I had no idea there was a difference.

At any rate, I escaped childhood with relatively little church exposure— something for which I was grateful. Little-kid-me was stoked I didn’t have to get dressed up just to be bored, but as I grew, young-me was happy I didn’t have to attend lessons at the church like so many of my classmates (although there was a time this made me feel secluded). Teenage-me was happy I had the freedom to explore my beliefs on my own, without having something shoved down my throat. Adult-me is still happy for the same reasons, but also because I’ve had some years to question, think and reflect, and I have determined that while I am spiritual, I am not religious.

Yet there I sat. And then stood. And then sat. And then stood again. And then sat again (realizing too late that everyone else was actually kneeling). I was in the very back between Flint and his mother, feeling very out of place.

Weddings and funerals. Beginnings and endings. That’s when I find myself in already uncomfortable situations made even worse by my ignorance of the setting. As it is, I am not one of those people who can easily handle these things with grace and refinement. Add to it the fact that they often occur in religious institutions and you have a recipe for deep discomfort and extreme awkwardness on my part.

Like the time I was Maid-of-Honor in a wedding. I say a wedding and not my best friend’s wedding or Penny’s wedding, because the first no longer describes us and the second sounds too familiar— it’s too casual a reference. I was, however, her maid of honor, so there was a time either of those would have been a suitable description.

I had been excited for her— after all, I had helped her fiance, Marc, get his first date with her spring semester of freshman year. She had been hung up on someone else and I was sitting in Marc’s corner. Marc and I had been friends since the first day of college. Of course, Penny and I had been friends since the fifth grade, so ultimately I was on her side no matter what, but I enjoyed Marc and could see how thoroughly he was captivated by her.

Fast forward five years and there I was, standing by her side while they tied the proverbial knot. At the rehearsal, the priest had told me what my one main responsibility would be during the service; I, along with the best man, was to retrieve “the gifts” from the table at the appropriate time and bring them forward so he could give them to the bride and groom. He told me what he would say right before “the gifts” were required and assured me he would nod to both of us as a cue to turn and grab said “gifts.”

Apparently bitter wine and stale pieces of bread are considered gifts in the Catholic church. Gifts that only the most devout are privy to. I had learned this in middle school when I was away at a soccer tournament. My parents couldn’t get off work, so they sent me with a teammate’s family. The girl’s mother was very religious and forced us to attend a service at a church she had found in whatever suburb we were in. She even made me walk up with them during the “offering of the gifts” but put her hand on my shoulder to signal to the priest that I had not earned the bread or the wine. So I just stood there awkwardly while he blessed me or something instead. While it was then that I learned what were considered gifts, I wasn’t paying them very close attention. I was too confused by the whole thing— and embarrassed in front of everyone— to concentrate on anything other than the moment I’d get to sit back down. For this reason, when I was Maid-of-Honor in this wedding, I didn’t know what the gifts were going to look like.

At the rehearsal, the bread and wine weren’t out because we were just going through the motions. When my big moment came during the actual ceremony, I turned to carefully walk down the steps to the table. Marc’s brother beat me to it. Bastard didn’t have to navigate stairs in heels. He grabbed the wine, and I thought: Uh oh. Damn him! I thought he was just as confused as I was and just as panicky, so I interpreted his grabbing the wine as him taking the easy way out and getting the hell out of the spotlight while I was left to deliver the uncomfortable news that someone had forgotten to put the bread out with the wine.

In my moment of panic, I decided, I guess I’ll just grab this plate of sand dollars?

Random picture found online of the bread sacraments offered in the Catholic Church.

It gave me something to do, and then I could turn my back on the crowd and look to the priest for guidance. Maybe he’d motion to one of his people to bring the bread that had been forgotten, or maybe he’d send me to get it. I began to gingerly walk back up the steps, not wanting to have the sand dollars fall and break.

I should pause here to explain that, yes, a second look revealed that these were not the same things my family and I had spent an entire day collecting on the coast of Maine on a vacation so many years previously. We were so thrilled that day to discover the beaches covered with sand dollars washed up on the shores. I remember finding only one that my mom said we should throw back into the ocean. When I asked why, she explained that it was still alive; the others were dead. We could keep them and cherish them, but the live ones should be returned to the sea. It struck me as odd then that we had been so excited to find so many dead creatures, but I did as she said; I kept them and cherished them because they reminded me of that day.

No— these were not sand dollars. But what were they? Certainly not bread.

I glanced at Penny with questioning eyes, and somehow she knew what I was thinking— or at least that I was unsure if I should have grabbed what I did. She nodded at me with a smile that I took to mean I had done the right thing. She sort-of half giggled and looked back at the priest, who continued the ceremony none-the-wiser.

That was a good day. Our friendship was filled with lots of good days… Until it wasn’t. Until I found myself sitting in my conflicted emotions in the back of a church— the same church of the aforementioned sand dollar confusion— after six years of silence between us.

The life and death of a friendship is a difficult tale to tell. How do you convey what you felt without falling prey to cliches? How do you share the experience of the friendship— tell its story— when it isn’t actually one story, but hundreds of little ones? Friendship is in the little moments. And how do you tell of those— of the things that made you smile— without tainting those memories with the pain and bitterness of the end? It’s the job of a better writer than me. All I can think to do is share what I know to be true: Penny and Michelle were my two closest friends in school. And I have neither of them now.

Part 2: The Meet-Cute

When you’re in elementary school, who you’re friends with depends in large part on who you’re in class with. I didn’t meet Michelle until fourth grade nor Penny until fifth, by which time groups had started to emerge. I was kind-of on my own. There were plenty of people I talked to and people I considered friends, but I didn’t really have a group. I remember Michelle asking me to sit with her at lunch one day in fourth grade. It was a kindness for which I will be forever grateful.

The following year, Penny and I officially met in “The Quiet Zone.” This was where you were sent when you were misbehaving. There’s irony in this meet-cute.

Penny had never been in trouble before and would never be again. I, on the other hand, was well-versed in the ways of “The Quiet Zone.” You had to, as the name suggests, be quiet. You had to quietly reflect on what you’d done wrong and write a “plan” for how you would proceed. On the day in question, I was writing a plan about how not to start a food fight in the cafeteria. So was Penny. Only I hadn’t had anything to do with it and Penny had.

It was a pretty pathetic food fight, if you ask me. Definitely not movie scene worthy. A lone pea had left Penny’s spoon and flown across the table at a friend of hers. Which prompted this friend toss it back. About the same time this exchange was happening, another food product was being aimed by a boy at a neighboring table, and as the lunch monitor was making her way through the tables toward Penny, this boy launched his into the air. I’m pretty sure that was about all there was to it. I don’t believe there was a chance for it to go any further because the lunch monitors were already bearing down on the area, but I actually didn’t see any of it. I was sitting at the table directly behind Penny and my seat was facing away from the action. Apparently the lunch monitors didn’t see much of it, either, because they came swooping down on Penny, believing her to be the main culprit— the one responsible for everything.

I turned to watch along with everyone else when the reprimanding began. Penny was beat red and too timid to say much. I heard her stammer that she hadn’t done it. That was all I needed. I had the tendency to stick my nose in places it didn’t belong.  I jumped up and launched into some ridiculous protest, stating that I’d seen the whole thing, that the lunch monitor was mistaken, and that Penny hadn’t done a single thing wrong.

Since the monitor had only actually seen Penny flick the pea and was just assuming that was the inciting incident, and since I was the usual cause of disruptions, it didn’t take much to invoke her wrath upon me instead. She quickly shifted her perspective and decided that it had in fact been me who’d thrown the other food item— the larger and higher hurled one. And so I made the trip to “The Quiet Zone” consoling a tearful Penny and telling her it really wasn’t that bad there.

How prophetic a moment. I was taking the blame for her— or at least with her— and there I was comforting her. This is how much of our friendship would play out in the end. I would protect her; I would tend to her needs. I would look to her when I needed something, and I would be left wanting.  I would support her unconditionally; she would judge me for my indiscretions. I would fall in step behind her and her boyfriend as we walked the halls to and from class. She would look condescendingly at me and the boy I dated senior year.

But for a long time, before such patterns emerged, we enjoyed the irony of the beginning of our story.

Part 3: Paint & Memory

Please note: I totally stole this heading from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Friendship is a lot of insignificant moments that you look back on and realize were not insignificant in the slightest. All the moments we sat next to each other in class, writing notes back and forth— mostly about nothing— were everyday moments that meant the world to me. Most of my notes were lengthier than hers, for she was a better behaved student and actually tried to pay attention; I often actively day-dreamed. But all the notes were packed with humor and love regardless of length. We even created a character to doodle about: Betty Bunns. Oh, Betty Bunns— you proudly showed your derriere to the world, but we never did see your face.

Part 3A: The Adventures of Betty BunnsEpisode 1

Please note: This was written in middle school. And sorry, but you’ll just have to imagine the illustrations.

Some people are afraid to be themselves in public.
they put masks on before walking out the door.
Others, however, are far more brave.
They are who they are,
and for others, the way they pave!
These stories are about a courageous girl named Betty.
She’s braver than most.
This fact she will boast,
and she lets her cheeks breathe free…
Yes, she is bold.
And though she’s been told:
Betty! You’ll get cold!
to them she is bound and determined not to fold.
So Betty continues not to care.
Good for her!
you might declare.
But listen to my advice,
because I wouldn’t dare…
When I’m around Betty,
to sniff the air!

Part 3B: An Excerpt from Class Notes

Hello my PenPen. Do you think I swear too much?
Yes. All the time.
Damn. I mean crap. Do you hate when I swear?
Sometimes. Like when we were walking into this class.
Yeah, but that’s just because I was swearing at someone
and you were embarrassed
but you would’ve still been embarrassed had I left out the curse words. 
Yeah, you’re probably right,
but then you wonder why people end up hating you and hating me.

By senior year, we had designed our schedules so that we had almost every class together. That’s a lot of notes and a lot of Adventures of Betty Bunns.

The class we most looked forward to, though, was art. We were taking a college art credit and Michelle was in there with us. We were all working on different projects at one point, and Penny was painting a color wheel with intricate, geometric designs inside each section— very mandala-like. The plan was for her to carve out the wheel in the end so the canvas would actually be round. Because of this, the white space around the wheel didn’t matter, and the three of us would periodically paint a doodle or a comment to each other in that space. Betty Bunns made an appearance on there, as did a “Hogwarts seal” we made with a glob of red paint.

It was a mess. But when all was said and done, the contrast between our chaos and the meticulously painted geometric shapes inside the circle made the piece all that more interesting. Even the teacher agreed. She had Penny seal clear wax paper over the space we had painted so randomly on to dull it a bit and make sure the color wheel stood out properly. But she believed the painted doodles and scribbles needed to be preserved and cherished, too.

That painting epitomized our friendship— a beautifully complex core that connected all our differently colored personalities, and the chaos covering what had been the white space of the canvas displaying little moments that meant everything and nothing. The painting showcased how we were allowed to be our goofy, free selves with one another.

And we were goofy. For instance, we loved contemplating spirit animals. I don’t remember exactly how or when, but Penny, Michelle and I came to the conclusion that everyone resembles an animal of some sort. How simply resembling an animal and not necessarily acting like it makes it your spirit animal is a logical question to ask, but we were in middle school when we first developed this game, so logic doesn’t have much to do with it. And without Michelle here, we certainly can’t change the rules now.

It was determined I was a deer. Penny was a peacock. Michelle was a llama— and she owned it. After we’d identified each other’s, we began trying to figure out what our fellow classmates reminded us of.

Niccolena (labeled an orca for all good reasons— probably the fittest among us, she had sleek black hair and distinctive cheekbones) joined our group towards the end of sophomore year when our other friend, Reagan (a chipmunk all the way), splintered off a bit. High school is a weird time for everyone. Michelle, Penny and I remained in tact. Nicc and Reagan orbited around us, magnetically drawn to Michelle. We were all on the track team together and we brought Nicc up to speed on the soccer team tradition of writing songs and rhymes about bodily functions and the distinct types of farts one experienced. We also taught her that when you farted, you needed to “cut it off.” In the cafeteria, if you had to fart, you would get up and act like you were throwing something out. You’d do a lap around the garbage bins, let it loose as quietly as possible, then swipe your hand behind you, cutting through the air and ensuring the fart was disconnected from you. You had to leave it behind before you came back to the table.

One of our absolute favorite pastimes was attending the Cystic Fibrosis walk. Every year in muddy May, we would gather at the start of the walk at the Parkway Rec Center, which sat at the bottom of a modest ski slope. We would get there early and before festivities officially began, we would trudge our way through the tall grass up that hill. We would turn and look out at the view and breathe in the moment. And then we would look down the long, uneven ground that we had just climbed. Someone would count to three and then we were off to the races. We sprinted down that hill as fast as the divots and unexpected bumps would let us, until— inevitably— the wetness of spring would win out, and we’d find ourselves slipping on a patch of mud and tumbling the rest of the way down— tumbling and laughing.

I hardly can remember a year we didn’t start the walk covered in dirt stains.

When it came time to vote for yearbook senior superlatives, people began campaigning for how they wanted to be remembered. Penny came to me and told me she was hoping we’d be selected as Best Friends, since Michelle was likely to be chosen as Everybody’s Buddy. I actually wanted Most Athletic, but couldn’t let Penny down. When people asked, I backed up Penny’s wish.

When the results came back, I was shocked to get informed by the faculty advisor for the yearbook that I’d received the highest amount of votes in three categories: Most Athletic, Most Outspoken, and Best Friends with Penny.  Michelle had received Everybody’s Buddy. Nicc had received the second most votes for Most Outspoken, and Penny hadn’t been chosen for anything else. I was faced with an obvious choice. Taking Best Friends would allow Penny and Nicc to be in the senior superlatives, too. The one I really wanted— Most Athletic, went to a soccer teammate instead.

If you look back at my senior yearbook, you will see a picture of Penny and I playing on the playground together. We are embedded in everyone’s memory as two of the closest friends the school’s ever had.

Part 4: The Dark Ages

After graduation, Nicc stayed local to pursue a certification in the health field, Reagan and Michelle both ended up attending schools in Rochester, and Penny and I went to college together in Buffalo.

Living together was easy. It didn’t strain our friendship the way you hear about that sort of thing happening. We were both education majors, so we had a few classes together, too, and we made friends with most of the same people. Things were good.

Until they weren’t. And I’m not sure I’ll ever entirely understand what happened.

I suppose you could say it’s a classic tale of a girl choosing a guy over her friendship, because Penny started seeing Marc towards the end of the second semester, and it was around then that she began distancing herself from me. But that’s not how it felt to me. It still doesn’t. It didn’t feel like I was her second choice— it felt like I was no choice. I felt discarded. It was as if one day she opened her eyes and realized the person who’d been standing by her side for the past decade no longer met her standards. Actually, it felt as if I had never met her standards.

I guess she just decided I wasn’t someone she wanted to be friends with anymore; I guess she decided that all the years we’d been through together were not worth that much to her.

And then she left. Halfway through sophomore year. Both of them did, actually. Penny didn’t really talk to me about her decision, but then again, she wasn’t really talking to me much at all by that point. When the semester ended, Marc followed her back to her parents’ house.

Over two years went by. We didn’t speak at all. We didn’t speak again until we had to. We were both in a wedding together right after I graduated. We set aside our issues so that we didn’t ruin our friend’s big day. And we seemed to do so relatively easily. We seemed to enjoy each other’s company during it all, sharing laughs and exchanging meaningful looks about our friend’s choice in husband. When it was over, though, we went right back to not having contact.

I found it all very confusing. I kept wondering if she’d reach out or if I should. Weeks went by. Then months.

And then Michelle died.

And suddenly I found myself sitting on Penny’s front lawn with Nicc at 1 o’clock in the morning on a brisk October night. The three of us sat together and cried. Michelle had been battling Cystic Fibrosis since she was born, and that summer we’d scrapped our Virginia Beach road trip plans when she got sent to an out-of-state hospital. She waited the remainder of the summer there and into the fall— waited for a double lung transplant that never came.

I was working at Barnes & Noble at the time. It was a Sunday night after closing when I got the call. Michelle was 22. We all were. And Nicc, Penny and I went through the experience together. Reagan, well, Reagan was there, too. But she’s the kind of person who flits in and out of your life when it works for her and then she disappears for awhile. We moved forward from that experience trying harder to stay connected. We put the past behind us— or so we thought— and revelled in our mended friendship. We didn’t talk about what had happened between us; we just referred to the times we didn’t speak as “The Dark Ages,” and sighed about how we could be so stupid.

Part 5: The Enlightenment

Time went by, as it always does, and Penny got married and two summers later so did Nicc. Penny was pregnant with her first child during Nicc’s wedding, and not too long after she had her son, Nicc announced that she was with child. I had moved back to Buffalo during all this, but frequently made the three-hour drive home to see both of them, participate in Nicc’s wedding festivities, help host baby showers, and be there when the children were born.

Eventually, though, I stopped looking forward to the visits with them. Making the three-hour trip started to feel like a major inconvenience and doubt began to creep in. Neither of them ever came to visit me and I was always the one reaching out to them. Often Penny would claim it was too hard to make plans “with the baby.” I tried to be understanding— they had marriages and kids, after all. They had lives very different from my own. But while I was back visiting one weekend, I sat there listening to Penny’s problems with formula and I started to feel like an outsider. I tried to engage in the conversation and be an active, attentive listener.

I asked a question out of earnest confusion and in an attempt to participate in the conversation. Penny does this thing with her eyes sometimes. It’s not an eye roll, but it’s her equivalent to one. She sort of flutters her eyelashes and looks haughty. That’s the response I got to my question— the only response. She didn’t even look at me. She just kept talking directly to Nicc.

I felt so small. Insignificant. I went back to Buffalo the next day and didn’t text either of them for awhile. Don’t misunderstand— it’s not that I ignored either of them or refused to respond to messages from them— I just didn’t reach out first. I started to realize I needed to let go. I don’t recall how many months went by, but eventually I moved back closer to the area and started working in a city about twenty minutes from our home town.

When our college friend was getting remarried, I swallowed my pride and messaged Penny. I asked her if she wanted to drive out to Buffalo together for one of the pre-wedding events. Her response: “I can’t go. It’s too hard with the baby.” I couldn’t resist calling her on this. We’d had this date months in advance and her son was almost 2.

“I think it would mean a lot to her if we were both there,” I said.
“I know,” she replied, “but I can’t. I wish I could.”
With an angry ferocity I typed back: “I wish I believed that were true.”

That was February 2013.

I did catch glimpses of both Penny and Nicc from time to time after that. Nicc and I would do the perfunctory small talk and obligatory catching up for two minutes when we bumped into each other. It hurt. So I was glad when I learned I no longer ran the risk of running into Penny. That hurt worse. We had both been at a few Cystic Fibrosis walks in the years following our last texts, but she wouldn’t even look at me. She’d turn her head or make obvious attempts to avoid me. I heard through the grapevine over the course of the next couple years that she popped out two more kids and then followed her husband’s job to a small suburban town about three hours away.

Six years passed. And I told myself I had closure. But I think closure is a myth. Or perhaps it’s a real thing, but because it’s something we can define for ourselves, we are able to convince ourselves we’ve got it, even if we don’t, when we really need it. I needed it and thus pretended I had it. I pretended those six years of silence were closure. But really, I was still struggling with the feeling that our friendship had been worth so much more to me— that she hadn’t cherished it as I had… that she hadn’t cherished me.

Part 6: Beginnings & Endings

You hold onto things you cherished— even if it’s cherished in the past tense. You tuck the things away and pull them out once in awhile to remind yourself of those days when the thing you are holding held more meaning. We do this even though when we pull them out, we find they hold less meaning but more weight.

When I got word that Penny’s eldest brother had unexpectedly passed away, I knew that I had to show up for her.

I’d known her brother most of my life but had never been particularly close to him. He was seven years older and a lover of the Buffalo Bills and beer; we didn’t have a lot in common. We had Penny in common, though. She had been a bit like a sister to me, after all. Her brother had a heart attack at age 39. It’s not a good story. On Christmas Eve he was home alone with his two children, ages 7 and 11. When he collapsed, the older son tried to revive him to no avail.

When I walked into the wake with Flint, I steered him straight over to the pictures they had displayed and busied myself with looking at each of them. I didn’t make eye contact with Penny or look in her direction at all. I immediately saw her out of the corner of my eye, of course, but wanted to give her the opportunity to leave the room— to take a bathroom break or something when I went through the line. I didn’t want to make the day any harder on her.

We got to the open casket and knelt together. Flint is the same age Penny’s brother was, and they knew each other in school. He knelt longer than I was comfortable. It’s not that dead bodies freak me out— at least not any more than they freak out anyone else. But viewing the body in front of everyone— having a personal moment in plain view of a room full of people— is not my cup of tea. I stood and examined the flower displays while I waited for him.

The first person in the receiving line was Penny’s dad. He’s never been particularly loquacious with me, but I’ve always appreciated that about him. He’s not a man of many words but he is a heartfelt man. I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room with him, listening for the song to chime over the PA signaling a birth. His eyes were watery as we sat side by side in silence. After we’d learned that Penny had given birth to a perfectly healthy baby boy, he grabbed my arm and squeezed it and that was enough. We didn’t need to talk. When I approached him in the line, he looked genuinely grateful in a way very few can. I knew instantly he truly appreciated me coming. I think he might have said hi to me, but all I remember is him hugging me very tightly.

Penny’s mom has always been a rock. And at hour three of this wake, she had no tears in her eyes. She smiled at me and kissed my cheek when she hugged me.

I moved down the line to Penny’s other older brother. We hugged, but when I went to step back, he didn’t let go. Shane kept his arms around my waste and said, “We saw him together on that last day.”

I was so taken aback; I didn’t know how to react. I hardly ever see this family anymore, so the strangeness of running into her two older brothers during my last minute Christmas shopping was not lost on me. It had struck me as odd that I was to see him so close to his passing, but I hadn’t been aware until this moment that he’d died that same day.

I fumbled my way through some unoriginal shocked and apologetic phrases, all the while trying to gently extract myself from his arms. I don’t know why I was so uneasy being held by him. Shane has always been a sweet person to me, and I really appreciated his gesture. The only explanation I have is that I was very aware of Penny on the other side of him.

I still hadn’t looked at her yet.

Our relationship estranged over six years ago— for a second time. What on earth would I say?? She hadn’t left the line like I was half-expecting and half-hoping she would. When I finally turned to her, what passed between us was something from another lifetime. I didn’t think; I didn’t even speak. I looked to her because that was all there was left to do. And she instantly began sobbing. I stepped right to her and pulled her into me. She cried into my shoulder long enough to draw the eyes of everyone in the room and then have them look away uncomfortably, understanding that they were witnessing something private. I was vaguely aware of their glances, but was more tuned into the watchful eyes of her brothers and parents. They were smiling as they looked on in the sorrowful way that meant: That is as it should be.

I stroked her hair and kissed her head. I began whispering, “I know… I know…” If I had to guess, I’d say it was about a half a minute later that I felt her begin to compose herself. We took a half step apart. I held her face in my hands and used my thumbs to wipe away her tears. She half smiled at me and I let go. The spell was broken. We had the short, requisite conversation in which I expressed my condolences and told her to let me know if she needed anything. She thanked me more than once for coming and I said, “Of course. Of course I came.”

And then I walked away. Our moment was over.

And then the next day I found myself sitting in the back of the church. I spent a lot of time thinking about anything other than what I was bearing witness to. I hated the service. It was too churchy, traditional, and impersonal.

But there was this moment when the 7 year old son needed a bathroom break. The recently widowed mom walked him to the back of the church to show him where the bathroom was before returning to the front. He came out a few minutes later and went to make his way back to his seat. Only it was clear he didn’t really understand what was happening; he just knew everyone was being quiet, so he tiptoed in an exaggerated way around the pews. I could feel my heart breaking for him. It wasn’t my place to cry, though, so I swallowed the tears in my throat and forced myself to tune back into the sermon— something that was so dry and meaningless it quelled any emotions welling inside me.

But stifling emotions at a funeral wrought with sadness is a long game, and distracting oneself is the only way to win. The service never held my attention for long and I found my eyes returning over and over to the back of Penny’s head so many rows away.

I began thinking about the last time I was in this very church. I thought about the sand dollar incident. And quite suddenly, I’ve no idea why, the words of a Frank Turner song floated through my head: “And I’m definitely going to hell, but I’ll have all the best stories to tell.”

Like a broken record, over and over again that line played in my head. It made me think about how Penny was always the good one, never getting in trouble, being a good student, settling down with a husband and kids as soon as she could. It made me think about how she looked down on me for not making the same life choices— for daring to smoke weed a few times in college, for getting my lip pierced, for having sex with more than one person in my life… for still not being married, and for not wanting kids. I began to get angry. I remember how close I had been to being at my own brother’s funeral a handful of years before. And I realized that Penny didn’t even know about that.

But I love that Frank Turner song lyric and I began to concentrate on the joy it brings me— on the way it makes me proud of my adventures and my desire to make the most out of this life. And I decided I definitely want that song played at my funeral. It became my life boat then, keeping my head above the water and allowing me to keep the tears at bay.

Then came the moment in the service when the attendees could walk up and receive the gifts of the church. You could wait in line for the priest to place a sand dollar on your tongue and then you could walk down the front row and once again express condolences to the family.

I stayed seated. And so I was never sure if Penny actually saw me there. I know that her brothers did, but she never looked in my direction when she and her family walked in or when they followed the coffin out the door. She was holding Marc’s hand and I was forcefully reminded of Michelle’s funeral when Penny, Nicc, Reagan and I followed the coffin out walking hand-in-hand. It wasn’t planned. We just reached for each other. And we looked stoically up at the bright day that waited to greet us outside the formidable church walls. I flashed back to stepping out into the sun as I stepped out into the frigid cold beside Flint. I looked up and didn’t see the scene in front of me, but the scene that met the four of us as we paused at the top of the stone steps and watched Michelle’s coffin being placed in the herse. The tears were silently rolling down our cheeks and we leaned on one another for support as the crowd looked up and knew our pain.

I blinked and saw the much smaller crowd waiting at the bottom of these steps. I realized Penny had already gotten into a car. We waited for five minutes or so out of respect, wanting to allow the funeral procession to head out of the church parking lot before we got into our own cars. I put my coat on, knowing it was freezing and knowing my skin was icy, but not feeling it. I was searching for Penny in the cars that were pulling out. But I didn’t find her. And I assume that’s the way she wanted it.

Part 7: The Worth of a Friending

I went home thinking about the sand dollars I had kept from the beach that day—  the dead ones I had kept stored away— stored away but cherished, because they reminded me of that day. One day in a lifetime of days. One day that captured the feeling of family, which is not one story but a million little ones. And I finally realized what I had been trying to figure out for many years. I finally figured out what my friendship with Penny was worth— one sand dollar.

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