I heard through social media a little while ago that a friend from high school days had passed away. Her name was Kim. While we had never been the textbook definition of close, we would chat from time to time through Facebook about family, parenting, and the course of our respective lives. She wasn’t someone I went out of my way to keep in contact with, and yet, when we spoke online, I was amazed at how her innate brightness would gleam through the flying bubbles of text, and how genuinely interested she was in what was happening with me, despite her really having no obligation to be. You meet way too many sorts who vibrate visibly with the itch to dispense with the perfunctory required questions about how the job’s going and how the kids are doing so they can start prattling on about the heaps of awesomeness that have fallen into their own precious laps; Kim was most definitely the opposite, remaining private about her own problems while always offering up receptive, sympathetic ears. That we were friends at all spoke to the depth of her character, in many ways a complete contradiction of what you’d expect. Someone like her could easily have been Regina from Mean Girls, blessed as she was with talent, popularity and beauty, but instead she saw people for who they were and not where in the social order it was their fate to be pecked. She cared, with an honesty that could not be faked. And she’s gone now, a too short 40 years of age, and I wish I’d made a point to talk with her more often, because a special light has gone out.
I met Kim when we were both involved in the production of our 1993 high school musical, a staging of Chicago. I was the backup drummer in the orchestra pit, hidden at the back of the stage behind a black scrim, while Kim, a year older, was bold and brassy belting out “All That Jazz” as the lead, Velma Kelly. (Ten years later, sitting in the theater watching Catherine Zeta-Jones have a go at the same part, I couldn’t help smiling and thinking that Kim had done a better job.) Our school had a reputation for the quality of its productions; we dared to mount elaborate, challenging, Broadway-level material whose raciness gave our more conservative principal his fair share of headaches. They were great social levelers too: you could come in to work on them whether you were jock, nerd, princess or bespectacled wallflower, and find yourself among fast friends. The denizens of the elevated echelons that you wouldn’t dare approach in the halls were throwing their arms around you at the frequent cast parties. Somehow the social hierarchy that mattered so much in the day-to-day got tossed in pursuit of the grand goal of creating a singular night on the stage. Kim was a big part of ensuring that happened, and some of my strongest memories of that experience are chatting and sharing jokes (and flirting a little, clumsy as I was at it back then) with her. One might logically expect the show’s diva to be dismissive of the little people in the back, but Kim didn’t go in for that sort of nonsense. Instead she made everyone want to up their collective game. You wanted to work harder and play better because that was a friend up there on the stage counting on you to have her back.
When I first joined Facebook there were quite a few people from the old high school that I made a point of looking up. I don’t recall Kim being one of them, but as degrees of separation would have it she popped into my news feed after commenting on someone else’s post, and at some point I must have sent her a friend request – or maybe she did for me. I didn’t put much stock into it other than “I kind of remember you and you’re a decent sort, let’s be Facebook friends, ignore each other’s updates and send half-hearted birthday messages every year when it reminds us to.” I was content to leave it at that until Kim started messaging me periodically to say hello and see how I was doing. She was the only one of my 131 connections to do so. I wondered why. This may come across as false modesty, but I honestly did not believe I deserved the attention, given that I hadn’t exactly made keeping in touch with her a significant or even a minor priority. It wasn’t as though we had a rich personal history to look back upon either, just a few shared experiences when we were teenagers, a few chance encounters on the street in the years that followed. But I was moved by her warmth and the sincerity of her outreach. After my wife and I adopted our son Kim would check in every few months to ask how things were going. I’d tell her a little about his history and how he came to be with us, and in her words back to me I could see and feel the opening of a tremendous heart. I would ask her how she was, and though she was guarded about the details, I could sense that that heart had been wounded many times and was battling on regardless, through illness that had landed her in hospital far more often than she deserved.
Then, after a while, the conversations stopped. She didn’t reply to the last message I sent, though I did get a note that it had been seen, months later. Kim tumbled from my consciousness. Caught up in the ins and outs of my own day-to-day as weeks slouched into months it did not occur to me to check in with her. It wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just happened, through indolence and preoccupation rather than intent. When another friend broke the news to me by the cold means of Twitter direct message, I felt my entire body sink as though someone had just doubled the gravity in the room. It was a twofold reaction: shock, obviously, coupled with a tremendous gnaw of guilt. I knew she had been sick, and as I scrolled back through our history of Facebook messages, trees of text bubbles preserved there as though set in digital amber, I could detect hints that things had been far more serious than she had let on, hints that I had let go out of respect for her privacy. Kim would pivot when I would ask about her illness, assuring me that she was strong and that she was an adult. She would rather talk about me, this blog, and how I was finding life as a father. I didn’t push. I suppose it would have made little difference if I had.
In his classic ballad “Fire and Rain,” James Taylor makes what for me is the quintessential statement about our relationships with our friends and how little time we truly have to celebrate the fortune of their presence in our lives. In writing this post and thinking about Kim, I echo his sentiment. I didn’t continue the conversations with Kim because there was always more time. I always thought that I’d see her again. That late one night, barred from sleep by lingering traces of the day’s caffeine intake I’d be scrolling through Facebook, smirking at cat videos and pictures of other people’s kids being silly and re-posted rants about the government, and the notification tab would pop and I’d see her name and “Hey Graham, how are you?” I’d been conditioned to expect that and I never believed it would stop. Now it has. There will be no more messages from Kim. “All That Jazz” will forevermore have a hint of melancholy when I reflect on one very irreplaceable Velma.
By no means do I claim a monopoly on grieving her loss. I know that I wasn’t her best friend, or a member of her family, or someone with any deep, lasting connection with her but this: Kim meant a great deal to me for the simple reason that in a world with more than its share of awful people, she was one of the good ones. I’m glad I got the chance to tell her as much during one of our late night chats. I’m sorry I couldn’t have said it more, and that I won’t get the chance to get to know her better. That she won’t get the chance to meet my son whom she enjoyed hearing about. And I’m sorry that she won’t have the long and happy life that should have been her due. It has brought into sharp focus the notion of mortality and that we cannot count on any of us being around for as long as we once thought we would be. The invulnerability with which we greeted the days back then is a fleeting wisp lost on the wind. And while we may feel as though we are more connected with our friends because of social networks like Facebook, we can’t let those algorithms diminish the value and the reality of the people on the other side of that coldly curated news feed. We need to talk more. Really talk, about our hopes and our dreams and our fears and the world we want to leave in the glow of our tail lights. We need to seek out the good ones that are already in our lives and latch onto them and laugh with them until our sides ache, and weep until we’re all utterly spent of tears.
We always think we’ll see each other again. Sometimes we won’t. So let’s see each other as much as we can, while we can, while every precious moment of this life remains available to us. I’m going to close now by offering a suggestion. Today, think of someone you haven’t spoken with in a long time and send them a message. Doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. Just say hello and let them know you’re thinking about them. See what happens next. I think you’ll find the very tiny expenditure of your time bearing positive emotional returns the extent of which you can’t even imagine yet.
Goodbye, Kim. You were one of the good ones. And all that jazz.