It is a Friday night and I am just now getting ready for the school football game. It is my sophomore year of high school and things have changed somewhat. My friends and I are able to drive, life is a little bit more fun, but the bullying still exists on a frequent occasion. I yell that I am leaving to my mom and rush out the door to my waiting friends and the feeling of freedom and the lack of adult supervision for a few hours. It would be a long few hours.
I don’t remember much of the game, which is odd because I rarely went to football games or large school events as it only invited more opportunities of conflict. I recall it was a nice humid evening, in Memphis, Tennessee, as we pulled into my parents’ house. I remember the familiar double beep of the alarm as I opened the door. In front of me was the door leading to the pool area of our home and to my right was my mother crying. Wait, why was my mother crying?
“Mary is dead,” she says as she rushes to hug me. Shock… I didn’t even cry when I heard the news, possibly because I did not want to believe it. I stored that sadness for later.
Mary had been living with us for the better part of the year of 1998 while she “reorganized” her life. She was smart, witty, had a great sense of humor, and a smile that could slay a room of men. She was from Jackson, Mississippi, where I had grown up and my mother’s hometown, Mary’s mother was my mother’s good longstanding friend. The other connection was through our particular sect of church which had a close knit group of friends from both cities, many of whose parents had gone to college together. Mary was important.
For a kid that had few things going for him, the attention she showed me was amazing considering she was in college already. To a sixteen year old boy, who’s every friend both in school and church was murderously jealous of him for being able to see her every day, this was a huge deal. And now all that was gone. I have a couple special memories with her, oddly enough both involved smoking cigarettes. My always “good for bad habits at the time” brother had introduced me to the joys of nicotine, so I would sneak out and have one on the occasion. When Mary arrived the first week she offered to drive me home from church one night, she had a white Pontiac Grand AM; I will always remember that car, so we drove off and as soon as she hit the corner she had one lit. I laughed, and when she glanced at me in question I made a gesture for one to which she gave me with another surprised look.
“Yea, I thought I had caught a smell of smoke the other night, but your perfume does a good job of masking it,” I said with a grin.
“Just don’t tell your mom,” she replied with her memorable laugh.
The second memory is stronger, Mary had been dating my best friend Tim’s brother for a few weeks, but one night she rushes in my room. “I need a cigarette so bad!” she cried with a dramatized sigh. “Quitting for Michael not going so well?” I say with a chuckle as I fish mine out. “No it is not, but I don’t want to leave the house your mom might wonder.” It quickly becomes apparent that with the help of my sister our best option was to climb out one of our second story windows and smoke on the roof. It is one of my best memories of her, maybe of my past, I have. I remember feeling free from my troubles that very minute as we smoked our Marlboro Lights, and for a boy with multiple internal and external struggles going on, this was a blessing.
“They are saying they think she was hit by a drunk driver on the way to visit her mom,” my mother says with a sob. Mary had left that morning. My sister and I had come home to a handwritten note left in our shared upstairs living room telling us to be good and for me to be nice to my sister. It was the type of thoughtless gesture that still touched your heart that Mary was known for and I don’t mean that in a frivolous sense. Her smile could have brightened your day.
We are in Jackson, Mississippi at our old church, Mary’s church. It is a strange thing to know everyone at two separate churches from different cities, but my family does. My father is a Priest, an assistant pastor as he is a full-time physician, so we are forced in a sense to know everyone. I walk to the church doors and I see her coffin. I have never seen a dead body before, is her body ruined? It is my first real encounter with death and I have still not cried. This is possibly one of the two sources from which I learned the lesson of “delayed pain.”
I take a deep breath and walk in. As I approach her body I can feel eyes on me. Everyone knows that she was staying at our home, everyone knows who I am, but most don’t know how this girl, this woman, made an uncomfortable, depressive Korean kid feel like the world might be ok to live in. No one knew that her friendship was like a physical hand on my soul, comforting. As I approach her coffin and I see her face, so pale and still, I am suddenly angry. Nothing good lasts, is my thought as I turn abruptly away and stride quickly down the center aisle and out the door.
It is even more humid and hot in Jackson than it is in Memphis. I am sitting on the steps of the church as my Godfather, my best friend Tim’s dad, comes out to see if I am ok.
“You really cared for her, I know son, it is ok to grieve, ” he says while laying a comforting hand on my shoulder. I tense, for I do not normally like to be touched, but from him it is ok. From him it was a trigger.
I begin to cry.
For Mary, Memory Eternal 1998.