RIP to an Old Friend.

Memories hide in the strangest places.

Here’s one:

Walking along the grass covered levee to meet halfway between her house and mine, we lingered in the heavy summer dew as evening fell. Reuniting in an acknowledgement that we both had a lot to learn, had a connection that neither could manage well nor manage to let go of. We talked, reconciled; just kids trying to find a best way forward. Confused, troubled, but in love. As the sun set beyond on the bluffs she smiled a big wide smile. Everything was going to be okay. After a long embrace we separated, each to make our own way home.

There is a corner of my mind that holds the events of 25+ years ago — high school and the first year in college: road trips, long talks, farm parties, wrestling meets, football games, proms, homecomings. Friends I never see anymore but who stick around in my memories as their 17, 18, 19 year-old selves.

Memories are unleashed years later by events far beyond our ken. Like the earthquake to the tsunami, events we never see can cause massive destruction. Flooding seeps until it destroys.

Old friends — Pete, Chris, Dean, Kim, Amy, Derek, Chad, Lisa. None of them are in my daily life now but many return in the personal mythology of my dreamworld every few months. Their lives are far different now than a quarter century ago. Mine no less so. I’ve been on the verge of self-destruction. Everyone has their struggles.

I’m not a religious man, but ‘There but for the grade of God go I” seems a fitting refrain.

A tsunami crashed on our shores recently. For the far flung friends and family who share memories of those adolescent times there doesn’t seem to be a polite or sensitive way to say it. My mother called late on a Friday night. She never calls late.

“Lisa was found dead today,” she said. “She was an alcoholic. She had been struggling for a long time.”

I was shocked.

Her parents hadn’t seen or heard from her in the past year. To them, my mother said, she had gone long ago. I hadn’t seen her since the early 1990s. Her mom worked with my mom. Her brother played in bands with my brother. I had no idea she was struggling against such a flood, such destruction.

How did I not know? Why hadn’t anyone said anything to me? Because those are not the kinds of problems we talk about. Those are private problems. It’s not the stuff of polite conversation. For years no one had mentioned it. Really, was it any of my business? Do we need to talk ill of others in our community? It was family business.

My friend Beth put it this way:

The stigma around issues such as substance abuse and mental illness and depression are the very things that not only prevent the sufferer from getting help, but also from being offered help. We don’t want to embarrass the person by pointing out their private problems.

Addiction is a disease. And it’s a bitch. It’s a bitch for those who embody it — as well as for everyone around that person, struggling to watch them struggle.

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation says “addiction is more than just a ‘problem’ it’s a medically proven disease, just like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.” And just as deadly if left untreated.

My Midwestern sensibilities suggest that it is impolite to say so blatantly that Lisa was an alcoholic. It is something people don’t talk about, at least not uber-polite Minnesotans. This is dirty laundry. Gossip. There had been interventions, treatment, recovery, enabling, relapse. Hopes. Failures. But maybe if we knew more we could have done more? I think we, the former friends and loves in her life all feel this way. The family tried. I’m sure her (ex-)husband tried. They tried love, tough love. In the past year, it seems, things really spiraled down. Arrests. Hard times. No one wants to talk about it.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way.

She was a person everybody liked and most people loved. Smart, articulate, beautiful, educated. In high school she wasn’t a party girl. We used to sit in the basement of my parents house on Friday nights. In the dim light we would watch Letterman and Arsenio. She cheered the wrestling team, played the saxophone in jazz band, marched with the color guard. She had spirit and was roundly admired and appreciated. She also struggled with demons even then— body image and eating disorders. She was, it turns out, a master of hiding pain behind a big wide smile.

A recent New York Times Magazine feature story discusses Ghosts in the Machine — how social media has changed how we mourn in the 21st century. I saw this bear out on Lisa’s Facebook page in the past weeks. Denial, shock, anger, explanation, blame, memories, condolences, heartbreak. It was all there and it will stay — bits and bytes of memories, sorrow and sadness. A digitized memorial

There are a lot of “if only” regrets people have when someone dies too soon. If only I had known, we could have, we should have…

Everybody has struggles — seen and unseen. As we move into a new year, strive to be kind. Find empathy for the struggling ones, not contempt or loathing. Make one part of your resolution to reach out to someone who is struggling. Offer to help make their world — in turn the whole world — a better place.

We can’t do anything for Lisa now but hold her in our memories and be grateful that she is free of the struggle. We can keep her in the light and remember that sometimes a big wide smile doesn’t mean everything is going to be okay. There but for the grace of God go I. It could have been me. So easily. It could be any of us.

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