This is my friend Shelly. She died on Monday. We grew up together. We actually dated briefly in high school and then transitioned into friendship. We remained close during our college years and while we stayed in some contact, our adult lives did not include a lot of each other.
In adulthood, Shelly became Michelle. In fact, of all the things her obituary listed: maiden name, family, where she lived, work accomplishments, there was no mention that to many she was known and loved as Shelly.
I searched my pictures hoping to find one that speaks to who she was better than this one. Yes, she was a beauty queen, and yet, to all who knew her, she was much more. She was kind, and smart, and perceptive, and a champion for the underdog. In high school, long before I came out to myself or anyone else, she talked about how much she loved gay people, how many of her mom’s best friends had been gay men. In retrospect, I think she told me things like that to let me know that regardless of what my church or our Kansas environment was telling me, she saw me for who I was and that there was nothing wrong with me.
The last time I saw Shelly was the weekend of my 20 year reunion. She was in town visiting her mom and though I can’t remember how it happened, she came with me to our reunion. She was two years younger but of course, every person in my class was so happy to see her “crashing” our reunion. Just now, I am remembering that I had asked her to come because it was my first time seeing a lot of my classmates as an out gay adult and I wanted the buffer. I was surprised and warmed by how supportive every person was to me. And of course, Shelly being Shelly was the belle of the evening. She was radiant. Every guy still flirted, every girl still wanted to be her friend.
While we messaged each other on FB from time to time, we were never in Independence again at the same time. Years passed. I had been told by a mutual friend a few months ago that Shelly had some grave health issues. I sent her a message, not mentioning the news I had been told, but hoping to reconnect in a more personal way. She never wrote me back.
These last few months, I thought often about her. I told only one of our mutual friends because I did not want people gossiping about her. Maybe being protective is the only way I can be a good friend to her right now, I thought.
Since Monday, I have, of course, been mourning Shelly’s death, but also, there has been a current that has coursed through me in kind of lovely ways. On Tuesday, I decided to drive to Santa Barbara. Being two landlocked Kansas kids, it’s not like she and I SHARED the ocean. Our only beach trips were to Big Hill Lake. (Not as accurately named as one might deduce from its appellation.) But I went to the ocean and walked along paths with salty breezes blowing in my face and tousling my hair. A visit to the beach can make a 52 year old feel like a kid (or a teenager) again. As I drove back to LA that night, the lights of the towns flanking the freeway guiding my path, I listened to “The Ghost in You” and “Can’t Fight the Feeling” and the epilogue from Les Miserables and I mourned Shelly and I mourned our lost youths and I mourned all the people I’ve loved dearly and somehow allowed to drift out of my life.
I did make a decision on that drive. I want the people who meant a great deal to me at certain chapters in my life to know the way I’ve carried them with me in my heart for the last 30 plus years. Like how rose water always makes me think of my friend Missy or crab Rangoon makes me think of my friend Ab or Yaz makes me think of Tammy or Cheers makes me think of Tracy or a really good donut makes me think of Stacey or walking around Los Feliz always makes me think of Joel and Kate. We come into this world and we connect and sometimes we float away but I’d like to think there is always something, even if it’s just memory, that tethers us to each other forever.
On Tuesday, I sat on the patio of a restaurant on State Street in Santa Barbara. I ordered a sparkling rosé and privately toasted Shelly, this beautiful soul who has left us far too soon.
If you have a Shelly, and I’m sure you do, send her a note, share a memory, do a zoom happy hour with her if you can. And also, if for some reason you aren’t able to reconnect in any sort of finite way, close your eyes and think of her. Whisper that you care and hope the universe is able to deliver the message.
Rest easy, Michelle, you are forever loved.